Amid the predictable excitement of the Nintendo Switch launch and the tantalising prospect of getting to play a brand new Legend of Zelda outing on day one, it's easy to forget that Breath of the Wild was first announced for the Wii U way back in 2013.
Since then the game has been delayed twice and has shed its Wii U exclusivity, becoming a vital asset in the Nintendo Switch's small-but-formidable launch lineup.
This prolonged production period may well have annoyed those Wii U owners who were holding out for an original Zelda adventure on their much-maligned console, but the upside for Switch players is that we have a launch release which has benefitted from the kind of development period few first-generation titles are lucky enough to receive; Breath of the Wild refreshingly lacks the rough edges which usually plague early software and instead delivers a polished and mature experience which comes close to being worth purchasing a Switch for alone.
A new direction for the series
Nintendo has always been quite forthright in pitching Breath of the Wild as a new dawn for a series which last year celebrated its 30th anniversary. While previous Zelda outings have arguably veered towards the worryingly formulaic and linear, the amount of freedom this new latest release affords the player is at times overwhelming; Hyrule is bigger, bolder and denser than ever before, with mountain ranges which appear to stretch on for miles, hidden secrets around every bend and plenty of wildlife – both friendly and hostile.
The area in which you begin your quest feels intimidating in its size, but when you realise this is in fact just a fraction of what's on offer, the impact is staggering. The kingdom feels like it goes on forever in all directions, making this the meatiest Zelda yet by an almost embarrassing margin.
Nintendo has matched this expansive environment with an equally diverse set of game mechanics and features.
Gone are the days when you simply had to grab hearts to replenish Link's health; instead, you now have to consume fruit or – better still – cook tasty dishes using a wide range of ingredients.
Some of these recipes not only restore your vitality but also offer time-limited status buffs such as increased speed, stealth and strength.
The reach for realism continues with the stamina gauge which limits strenuous activities; running for too long causes Link to stop and catch his breath, while climbing and swimming are similarly demanding, but the consequences of running out of puff during either of these are often fatal.
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Despite this, Link feels like he's taken a few pages out of the Assassin's Creed rulebook; he will automatically climb any object in his path (wet surfaces are harder to scale) and is surprisingly agile when it comes to dashing across rooftops and other structures.
He's by no means superhuman, however; sharp changes in temperature have a detrimental effect on his health. When traversing the chilly mountain peaks you are forced to seek ingredients to cook dishes which warm you temporarily, or source clothing which shields you from the biting cold.
It's dangerous to go alone
Combat in Breath of the Wild will feel a little more familiar to series veterans; we've got the traditional handy lock-on system which allows you to circle your opponent, as well as button presses and stick movements to trigger side-steps and evasive leaps – time these correctly and they open up opportunities to counter with a powerful flurry of strikes.
Weapons in the game are destructible, which means they often break during the melee. This aspect is perhaps the only part of Breath of the Wild which feels like an unnecessarily jarring disconnect from the past; some weapons break much faster than they should, and even though the process of switching to another is relatively painless, it breaks the otherwise silky flow of combat.
Thankfully there are more than enough arms to be find around Hyrule (quite literally – one weapon is an enemy's severed limb) and you have space in your inventory to carry a few spares at all times.
You can also rely on a bow for ranged attacks, and it's possible to use the Switch's motion controls for aiming – a welcome nod to one of the few things the Wii U most definitely got right.
While there's a surprisingly strong story at the heart of Breath of the Wild – it wouldn't be a Zelda game if there wasn't – the temptation to explore is ever-present and Nintendo feeds this desire with a host of optional side-quests, interesting characters and bonus items placed off the beaten track.
You can quick-travel between key locations as well as tame horses for faster movement, but it's often more enjoyable to take the scenic route from A to B, soaking up the stunning vistas and collecting items which can either be used for cooking, crafting or simply bartering as-is at the next settlement.
To fully expose portions of the map you'll need to locate special towers and activate them – another example of Nintendo borrowing from the Assassin's Creed series, but one which works well and gives your exploratory thrusts into new areas a sense of purpose.
Dated graphics, great art-style
Given its status as a Wii U title upgraded to Switch launch release, it's perhaps forgivable to have some reservations about how Breath of the Wild looks – especially when it's entering an open-world genre which can boast such graphical masterpieces as The Witcher 3 and Horizon: Zero Dawn. As you can see from the screenshots, Breath of the Wild looks utterly fantastic; granted, it lacks the incredible level of detail seen in the latest PlayStation 4 and Xbox One titles, but the cel-shaded art style really shines and the draw-distance is remarkable.
The game maintains a steady 30fps throughout, although there are moments when that drops – usually when you're playing on a TV and there's a lot of on-screen action. Whether you choose to play on the TV or on the Switch's glorious 720p screen, the experience is identical – another stunning achievement that is well worth commending. Horizon: Zero Dawn is undisputedly a better looking game, but can you take it with you on the bus?
Verdict: Play it Now
While Breath of the Wild's narrative has a definite beginning and end, you won't want to rush it – soaking in all the secrets and exploring every forest and mountain top become addictive pastimes, giving the game a longevity which few other open-world titles can muster.
This isn't just the most accomplished Zelda adventure yet, it also ranks as one of the most impressive launch titles for any console, period. If you harbour any thoughts of picking up Nintendo's new console, then make no mistake – under no circumstances should you make a purchase without also buying this game.
Breath of the Wild is a must-have release, and represents a new high watermark not only for Nintendo as a developer of AAA content, but for the genre as a whole.