LOS ANGELES — Before I got my hands on The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, I got to tour Nintendo’s E3 booth, a dazzling, to-scale recreation of some of the characters and environments featured in the new action-adventure game. But as amazing as it was to see a life-size Link and walk through the castle halls of Hyrule, the whole setup was simply there to prepare me for the even more awe-inspiring game I was about to play.
Breath of the Wild (launching for Wii U and NX sometime next year) drops Link into a massive living and breathing open world, which was mine to roam freely for about 15 minutes. I was overwhelmed with options — I saw shrines, mountains and lakes in the distance, and there was nothing stopping me from exploring any of them. The game’s new map system lets you mark multiple areas in the game world, so I set a few waypoints and began my adventure.
A Zelda for Modern Gamers
I started by getting used to the game’s basic new mechanics, which add a refreshingly modern twist to the familiar gameplay of a 3D Zelda game. The game’s lock-on sword combat is back, though it feels tighter and encourages well-timed dodges in a way that brings the Dark Souls series to mind. Link’s trusty bow-and-arrow also makes a return, and you can aim it using either the right analog stick or the Wii U gamepad’s built-in gyroscope. Even better, you can pick up any arrows you’ve shot to conserve ammo.
All weapons in the game now have an attack rating, and the game’s inventory system clearly indicates when you’ve picked up something more powerful than what you’re currently using. I’m used to these types of systems in action-RPGs like Destiny and The Division, but I never knew they could be useful in a Zelda game. Speaking of inventory, you can now restore health by scrounging for ingredients and cooking — no more picking up hearts.
The massive slice of Hyrule I played was just a fraction of the full game world, and a Nintendo rep told me that you can play the demo for dozens of hours and still not see all of it. So here’s what I did in my short time with Zelda: I climbed a mountain; swam a lake; fought a bunch of enemies using a sword, spear, bow, axe and even a skeleton arm; used Link’s new magnet tool to pull metal objects out of the water; and tapped in an amiibo toy to summon an adorable Wolf Link that fought by my side. You can also ride your shield like a snowboard, a feature I didn't use nearly enough.
I also spent a good chunk of that 15 minutes simply staring. Breath of the Wild is gorgeous, touting a watercolor-like art style that feels like a more mature take on beloved Gamecube classic The Wind Waker. The game’s lighting effects are stunning, as I got to witness while Hyrule morphed from day to night. If Nintendo managed to squeeze this much beauty out of the Wii U, I’m eager to see what the NX version is going to look like.
Link’s New Story
Later, I got to experience a slice of the game’s story, which, in classic Zelda fashion, is as minimal as it is intriguing. Link has apparently woken up from a hundred-year slumber, with a mysterious voice telling him he needs to save Hyrule from some sort of darkness. Turns out that darkness is the Calamity Ganon, a ghastly dragon-shaped figure that seems to be haunting the game’s otherwise beautiful world. Virtually every Zelda game stars some version of Ganon as its main villain, but I’ve never seen him look like this.
It was during this story mission that I noticed yet another modern upgrade to the Zelda formula: dialogue choices. While talking to a friendly old man on my way to an abandoned shrine, I had a few options for how I wanted to react to what he was saying. It’s unclear how much Breath of the Wild’s branching dialogue will affect the story, but it’s cool to see Nintendo playing around with something that’s more common to newer role-playing games.
Early on in my mission, I acquired a Shiekah Tablet, some kind of mysterious slate that looks suspiciously like the Wii U gamepad. (The tablet also provides Link with his map and several of his abilities.) I eventually used the tablet to activate a series of towers throughout Hyrule, which seemed to give that mysterious voice hope that I was capable of bringing the bad guys down. Based on how my demo ended, it looked like Link was headed straight toward the Calamity Ganon.
I never thought that I’d find pieces of Dark Souls, Destiny and Mass Effect in a Zelda game, but that’s exactly how I felt after playing Breath of the Wild. This is exactly how a Zelda game in 2016 should feel — the series’ iconic art style and story themes are still there, but it’s amplified by an open world that’s a joy to explore bolstered by a ton of smart upgrades to combat and inventory. I’m already looking forward to losing dozens of hours exploring every inch of the final game when it arrives sometime in 2017.