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Initial thoughts on 'Zelda: Breath of the Wild'

I died 14 times already.
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Unlike my New York-based colleagues, I didn't get a Nintendo Switch early enough to give some thoughts on the hardware. Mine arrived yesterday, along with Just Dance 2017 and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. For obvious reasons, the former is still in its plastic wrapping, and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. I've since put five hours or so into Zelda, though, and I'm really enjoying it... when I can stay alive.

Five hours isn't long enough to really make a substantial call on a game of this size's merits, but I can say a few things with certainty.

'Breath of the Wild' doesn't hold your hand

Perhaps my fondest video game memory is playing through The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening. I was eight years old at the time, and the Game Boy was my first console. Sure, my elder brothers had a NES and a Genesis, so I'd played games before, but this was my console, and Link's Awakening was the first game to truly absorb me.

I got stuck in the Mysterious Woods for hours. I worked tirelessly to solve the game's riddles and dungeon puzzles. In a pre-internet world, I worked out every one of its secrets alone, and was spirited away by its storytelling.

In the 24 years since, though, something has happened to the franchise: It's gotten easy. Majora's Mask was probably the last (home console) Zelda that offered any real difficulty. Since then, linearity and simplicity has been a hallmark of a series that once offered challenge at every corner; a series that once treated you like you were intelligent, rather than holding your hand. The Wind Waker, Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword are all fantastic games, but I can probably count on one hand the times I died or was confounded in each. And I'll be the first to admit that, despite playing more than most people, I'm pretty terrible at video games.

I've already run out of fingers to count the number of deaths that have been inflicted on me in Breath of the Wild. I'll probably soon run out of toes, too. I've played through the game's first area, and have just made it to a safe location where the main story looks set to kick off.

The first quest you're tasked with involves finding Shrines (a kind of mini-dungeon) to retrieve some items within. Rather than giving you a waypoint, you're told to discover these structures by heading to a good vantage point and surveying the land. Only a couple of these were easy to find -- the others required some exploration and problem solving.

I expected the journey to these buildings to be fairly simple. It wasn't. The path to each took me past numerous groups of enemies, some of which were easy to deal with, and others that totally wiped me out, even one-hit-killing me on some occasions. You can't really approach any encounter head-on. You need to use stealth, and powers granted to you as you progress, to have a chance of succeeding. You'll occasionally come across an enemy that you simply don't have the right equipment to defeat, and need to find a path around them.

The game also uses its environment to guide you. Several times I came across obstacles I couldn't get past, whether they be weather conditions or giant rivers. Each time, I looked around, hoping to see a building or something of interest to explore. And each time, my exploration uncovered an item or a skill that allowed me to progress.

As I said, I've only really played what you could call the game's prologue (or, if you're feeling unkind, tutorial). But this short section of the game already perfectly encapsulates what made the Zelda series so beloved: that sense of a solitary adventure. The sense that, while there is a safe path forward, you will have to use logic (and a fair amount of trial and error) to find it.

Nintendo has learned from its rivals

Perhaps making a comparison to Skyrim is unfair, but I'm going to do so anyway. The very first Zelda game put you in a lovely open world, and implored you to explore, and in a way Breath of the Wild is an extension of that philosophy. But as I stood atop a mountain in the game's first area, scanning the horizon, I saw my future unfolding. Rich canyons, lands covered in shadow, dense forests, volcanoes, rivers, lakes -- a whole world laid before me, and a sense that everything I could see, I would one day visit. That feeling of impending adventure was so memorable in Skyrim, and it's got me truly excited to throw myself into this game.

The links between Zelda and other games are easier to draw. There's a big focus on food. Ingredients are everywhere, and you can combine them in various ways to create cooked meals that will not only heal you, but also increase your stamina or make you impervious to extreme temperatures. This mechanic feels totally at place in Zelda, and it's one Nintendo learned from other series like Monster Hunter.

Speaking of action-RPGs, Nintendo borrows from Dark Souls when it comes to managing your gear. Weapons and shields degrade with use, and you'll constantly be on the lookout for new ones. Saving your best weapons for the toughest enemies, and switching between them on the fly, is vital.

Performance isn't perfect

This is a truly beautiful game, but with less than a week to go till launch, it still has problems. First, the good: Load times are very fast. From the Switch's home screen to the main menu is almost instant, while loading up your save typically takes less than 10 seconds. Certain areas like Shrines require a couple of seconds to load in, but typically the experience is a breath of fresh air compared to hard-drive or disc-based gaming. It's worth noting that I'm playing Zelda with a Game Card, rather than loaded onto a microSD. If you plan on downloading the game, load times will vary massively, dependant on how fast the card is.

Playing in tablet mode, performance was solid. I don't have the frame-rate measuring magic of Digital Foundry to give firm figures, but after playing for a few hours it seems there's a near-perfect 30 frames-per-second lock. Plugged into my TV, things weren't quite as smooth. The vast majority of gameplay was at 30FPS, but I definitely noticed some frames dropping in forested areas, and a couple of times during busy combat. It's no deal-breaker -- I'd go so far as to say this is even fairly common for modern console titles -- but Nintendo is a company almost unrivalled in polish, and the drops surprised me. Of course, there's a chance we'll get a patch to paper over these issues before long.

The Switch's screenshot capture tool is junk

This doesn't have much to do with the game, but if you were looking forward to sharing beautiful images of your gameplay anytime soon, curb your enthusiasm. The Switch's built-in screenshot tool outputs full-resolution images (1080p when you're docked, 720p in tablet mode) but for some reason they just suck. They're being saved as very lossy JPGs, typically weighing in at between 150KB and 300KB, making them soft and generally nowhere near as pretty as the game itself.

This is a system-seller

There can be no doubt that the Switch's initial lineup is weak. But this is a challenging, engrossing and truly beautiful game. Five hours in, it feels like a contender for the strongest game Nintendo has launched a console with since Super Mario 64. If you weren't thinking about playing it before now, I implore you to reconsider that thought.

I'm now going to spend the 160 hours or so before March 3rd attempting to avoid non-essential tasks like sleep and work in favor of more Breath of the Wild time. I'll hopefully have some more detailed thoughts for you in time for the game's launch.

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