How The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild Will Refresh The Open World Genre

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Nintendo is simplifying the open world experience, and in doing so we are receiving one of the most exciting looking games from the company in decades

What are we but pilgrims looking for adventure? Disciples that have devoted themselves to crawling across sprawling open worlds in search of hidden artefacts, inspiration and stories. But somewhere along the way we all became lost; disconnected from the raw, intrepid ambitions that once drove us in pursuit of exhilarating discovery and thrilling adventure. That isn’t necessarily on our shoulders alone or our apparent determination to cling desperately to the road well travelled, but because developers have largely removed our ability to veer from it in the ways we want to.

The modern interpretation of open-world design is largely host to the very worst of gaming’s oldest, most tiresome constructs. Every path leads to a recycled objective, to an item of perceived interest or a planted secret laying out for all to see. Open-world games have become linear adventures that set about checking invisible boxes, guiding you around the sights via map icons and the promise of an eventual reward for clearing every loot box, enemy foothold and collectible in the game world. The challenge has dissipated, the thrill of discovery is diluted. Be it due to spiralling development costs, time investment or mounting publisher pressure, open-world games very rarely trust the player to get truly lost – instead they’re overwhelmed within these impressively sterile constructs.

Of course, this wasn’t always the case. 30 years ago we were introduced to the archetypal open-world experience in The Legend Of Zelda. “It’s dangerous to go alone” an old man will mutter as you enter a cave too easily avoided. “Take this” he will say, giving you the option of improving your offensive capabilities should you choose to do so. From there you are free to explore, to forge your own adventure in the dangerous, mysterious wildlands of Hyrule. Three decades later, Nintendo is once again entrusting you to choose your very own adventure; to rescue a land in peril, you will be guided by instinct and intuition alone.

The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild feels like a much needed breath of fresh air. Never has Link enjoyed such a large, sprawling and ultimately open overworld to venture through. It affords you the opportunity to forge your own path, to approach the settling of an ancient score with Ganon and the litany of shadowy forces that have taken up residence in Hyrule in any fashion you deem fit. It’s your world to tame, cutting through genre conventions with any kind of weapon that you can lay your hands on. This is all in an attempt to make you feel caught up in a quest that is truly larger than anything you’ve attempted to conquer before.

Should you know the way, you can make a bee-line for the Master Sword and attempt to tackle Calamity Ganon and his hold over Hyrule Castle; an impossible battle that is sure to stump speed runners for months to come. For the rest of us mere mortals, Breath Of The Wild will be an opportunity to get truly lost in a land that simply has no road well travelled. The land is overgrown with gorgeous foliage – it’s familiar, a place you might recognise from older games like Ocarina Of Time or A Link To The Past, albeit a place now warped by the cruel grasp of nature. In a sense, you are discovering it anew just as Link is as he awakens from a hundred-year slumber in stasis.

It’s a land littered with optional quest lines, dungeons to explore and items to seek out to aid you in your mission – how you choose to discover them is ultimately up to you. The traditional pacing of The Legend Of Zelda is being subverted ,then, but the world will still contain series-staples (such as the Master Sword and Triforce). And yet, their application will only be obvious to those that go out of their way to uncover more of the map’s secrets. Fortune favours the bold in Breath Of The Wild.

Scattered between the silhouettes of landmarks such as Death Mountain and that cathedral, now dilapidated and weathered by time, are towns teeming with NPCs, traditional dungeons, environmental puzzles, plenty of treasures and quests to complete. But then there’s also 100-plus optional subterranean shrines to venture into; they are puzzles in and of themselves, offering a prize – a new heart container, Sheikah rune piece or perhaps a brand new upgrade – to those that are able to navigate the spaces to their inevitable conclusion. The introduction of a jump button, paraglider and stamina bar mean that Link now has full control over his interactions with the environment, mantling up sheer stone cliffs and traversing bokoblin-infested areas with deft precision. This is The Legend Of Zelda not as you’ve seen it before, but as you have always dreamed it.

The area that we’ve had the opportunity to spend time in is called The Plateau, although it is said to only represent one per cent of the total game map– a baffling concept considering its size and scope. We were never far from a treasure chest, an enemy encampment to challenge or an interesting item to distract us from our quest to locate Princess Zelda. And all of this is important, too, not filler to distract or fill an otherwise empty space. Weapons and armour now wear out after extended use, though replacements are never that difficult to come across.

Resources such as fruit and meat are necessary to keep Link in the fight – there’s no more slicing grass to gather hearts – as you need to forage for ingredients and cook up hearty meals that replenish health, stamina and provide other stat-specific boosts. A day and night cycle (24 minutes equaling 24 hours) also provides a different set of challenges, with scarier monsters coming out at night to help justify the fact that many of the regular foes found out in the world use nightfall as an opportunity to sleep – giving you the opportunity to use stealth to creep into camps and pick off enemies unawares.

Much of this may sound familiar if you’ve stepped foot into an open-world RPG in the last decade, but most of it is mechanically new for The Legend Of Zelda. Nintendo has seen the innovations that have occurred in this space and simplified them, tying all of these ideas together through exploration, new systems and ingenious world design. Breath Of The Wild is the huge, sprawling Zelda many have been desperate to play since Twilight Princess teased a vibrant overworld and Skyward Sword later reigned in any hope of expansion. Breath Of The Wild isn’t as empty as the former, or as limited as the latter.

It’s a return to the themes and foundations that the franchise was convincingly built on 30 years ago, letting you venture in any direction, head into any dungeon in any order and explore areas that you aren’t supposed to be in – even if that does mean you might get your ass kicked occasionally along the way. Breath Of The Wild is freedom; it’s a sharp turn away from open-world game design convention, where exploration isn’t rewarded with a percentage increase in the menu but with a personal sense of accomplishment.

In this world you need to fight for your rewards and your progression, the world isn’t massive for the sake of it and designed to bleed time out of you, but because Nintendo wants you to get truly lost and have fun finding the path to completion on your own merit. Breath Of The Wild is one of the most expansive and ambitious games we have ever seen from Nintendo and it has the potential to bring change to a genre that can always do with a new, refreshing approach. 

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