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Hands-on: Nintendo makes Zelda: Breath of the Wild the most ambitious, experimental title of the series

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is easily Nintendo's most ambitious take on its well-established formula. Though it definitely feels familiar in a lot of ways, it also employs several new gameplay mechanics. If you're a Zelda fan, you're going to instantly feel at home with Link's movement and the basic combat. But it looks like Nintendo was ready to create a new console Zelda that's not exactly like its predecessors.

I ventured into the Japanese publisher's lovely, amusement park-style booth to play Zelda: Breath of the Wild at E3 2016. I was one of the unfortunate souls to wait in line for several hours, which begs the question: Was it worth it?

You're damn right it was!

'Wake Up, Link'

By now, you've probably watched the Zelda: Breath of the Wild trailer a bunch of times, so there's no need for me to waste time explaining it. What I will discuss in terms of story, though, are the more interesting aspects I discovered while playing. For starters, Link awakens in a stone tomb after what the mysterious female voice we heard in the trailers claims is a 100-year slumber. Whether Link is asleep Ocarina-style or is being brought back to life — the tomb is called the Shrine of Resurrection — is unknown at this point but is something to think about.

Early on in the playable demo, I ran into a helpful old man wearing a hooded robe. He had a striking resemblance to the King of Hyrule from Wind Waker, which is yet another curious detail. In addition, it looks like Ganon's spirit is manifesting itself as a fiery demon known as Calamity Ganon. The people of Hyrule trapped the evil force inside Hyrule Castle after it caused a whole mess of devastation 100 years prior, but Calamity Ganon is looking to break out and rain terror onto the land once more.

Everything we know about Zelda: Breath of the Wild in terms of story is still relatively vague, but that's to be expected this early on. Still, for as beautiful as the landscape looks, it's hard to shake the feeling that this may be some post-apocalyptic setting — it certainly feels somber and almost otherworldly. This is not the Hyrule we've come to know.

Explore the Wild

True to its name, Zelda: Breath of the Wild drops you in the middle of the wilderness. I barely scratched the surface of the map, but I still came away from the game feeling like it was already a large portion of what could end up being a massive world.

I was left to my own devices during the timed E3 demo, but while playing, I got to experiment with a few of the game’s new mechanics. Armed with a bow, I found an area with wild boar-like creatures. I fired a single arrow at one of them, which sent it running and caused the surrounding wildlife to flee.

While roaming around the game world I also found an apple tree, which I chopped down with my axe — which also doubles as a weapon — and picked up the apples. This is an especially interesting thing to note as Nintendo is apparently ditching the find-hearts-in-the-grass thing that's been present in past games. Instead, Zelda: Breath of the Wild will allow you to scavenge for loot and materials. So rather than grabbing a bunch of hearts for health, you'll find food and — in some cases — prepare meals over a campfire.

Combat Options Mean Something

I came across enemies during various parts of the game, so I took these opportunities to experiment with some of the game’s combat systems. The basics are pretty much what you'd expect from the series. You can lock onto baddies and slash away at them, but you have more options at your disposal.

During my travels, I picked up weak wooden sticks that broke after a few strikes. I also used my axe to take down some enemies. I even found a large sword that didn't allow me to simultaneously use it and my shield. But while the sword was powerful and did a number on enemies, it was also overly sluggish. However, if you fancy yourself a fan of heavy weapons that deal crazy damage — I was reminded of Dark Souls just a bit — you'll dig the availability of large weapons such as this.

Once again, Link can dodge enemy attacks by jumping to the side or performing backflips. However, this time around you can also unleash a flurry attack immediately after dodging if your timing is right. The maneuver is exactly what it sounds like: Link avoids enemy damage, and an on-screen prompt instructs you to hit the Y button repeatedly to hack and slash your foe.

Link Can Jump! Wait, What?

Maybe it's due to years and years of auto-jumping — and in the case of the NES and SNES installments, not jumping — but I was a bit surprised by Link's ability to jump on command. But I don't mean that in a negative way. In fact, it was so nice to see Link jump that I did it a few times for no reason other than to watch him jump on command via the X button.

Speaking of which, dash is mapped to the B button. That would be fine, but it's a bit awkward holding down B and then trying to jump with X, which is placed higher on the GamePad. I wouldn't necessarily call it problematic, but it was a bit odd. Maybe Nintendo will address this or maybe not.

While you can jump to your heart's content, dashing — and climbing — drains a stamina meter. I don't know if you'll be able to increase the stamina meter, but as it is, dashing seemed to drain it rapidly. And though I didn't do too much climbing — which is intuitively triggered by running toward a wall — it looks like the stamina meter could hinder attempts at reaching great vertical heights without stopping to rest.

Still, even though the stamina meter may not have been my favorite thing in the game, I loved that Link could climb tall structures. It's a welcome addition to a series that has mostly stayed horizontal in terms of its level design. Verticality seems to be an important part of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and it's exciting to think of how it'll be utilized in the open world and in dungeons.

Sci-Fi, Fantasy, or both?

Zelda has always been rooted in fantasy design, which has usually used ancient-looking art, architecture, and items. But Zelda: Breath of the Wild has a slight sci-fi vibe because of the GamePad-esque Sheikah Slate, which opens doors and triggers events. For example, it raised a structure to a great height when I placed it in on a special pedestal.

The look of the Sheikah Slate is techy, for sure, but its animations go one step further — they’re almost Tron-like. Coupled with the aforementioned post-apocalyptic feel of the game, the Sheikah Slate legitimately helps make Zelda: Breath of the Wild feel like a new Zelda — in addition to all of the game’s snazzy new mechanics, of course.

It's an Exciting Time to Be a Zelda Fan

I've talked a lot about the gameplay in Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but the art style also deserves a mention. The look seems to be based on the graphical direction of Skyward Sword, though it's much more detailed. There are still some low-res textures and art — specifically on walls and other structures — but from an aesthetic standpoint this may be the best-looking Zelda game to date. And I say that having spent around 30 minutes playing it.

The world design showed off a lot of greenery and some earthy spaces, all of which looked good. But the more high-tech-looking spots were the most refreshing to witness, and I can't wait to see how the game's art showcases more of that style.

There are some truly noteworthy changes coming to the Zelda series. Judging from the E3 demo, this upcoming entry could walk a fine line between familiarity and evolution, while also throwing in a bit of novelty. As a fan who was burnt out on the formula by the time Skyward Sword came around, I can honestly say I haven't been this excited for a new Zelda game in a long time. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild could be the boldest of Link's adventures yet when it drops on the NX and Wii U next year.

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