If the entirety of Breath of the Wild maintains the beauty and variety seen in its opening hours, it will be a strong contender for the best Zelda game of all time. I say this fully aware that any new Zelda game comes with a hefty dose of hype and anticipation. Throw in a console launch on top of that, and you wouldn't be blamed for sounding the hyperbole alarm.
However, my enjoyment isn't tied to holding a shiny new piece of plastic or simply swinging a sword as Link. Breath of the Wild is an exciting game for its incredible landscapes and how, with minimum instruction, you're allowed to find your footing as you go. Rather than wade through prolonged tutorials like you did at the start of Wii's Skyward Sword, you pick up new tricks and take to heart new lessons by way of action and exploration.
You have to contend with a dense ruleset, in which nearly every decision you make must take your surroundings into consideration. And because of this demanding yet satisfying setup, you feel like you are constantly learning, often through failure and death. Survival, let alone progress, is a major concern.
Though you won't need to worry about hunger or thirst, you have to understand your physical limitations; wander too far up a snowy mountain without the proper gear and you will freeze to death in short order. If you dive into a lake, you better pray you have enough stamina to make it to the other side, and prepare for the reality that you may drown before you get there if you don't. You can also scale cliffs, but you may find yourself stuck mid-climb if the weather takes a sudden turn for the worse as your ability to get a foothold is drastically reduced in the rain.
Enemies, of course, are another chief concern. Rushing into battle is a non-option against anything other than fledgling gelatinous Chuchus or a single Bokoblin warrior. However, small encampments lure you with treasure chests that only open once you've cleared out the camp, so you won't want to avoid mobs for long. You will have to make the most of your surroundings to clear a squad of five enemies and not die--you can only sustain a few hits early on. If you see a red barrel, find a way to set it ablaze. Perhaps wait for nightfall so you can sneak up on enemies and kill a few while they sleep.
Experimenting and learning new tactics will get you far, but you also need to be active and aware when clashing swords or spears. Link is capable of parrying incoming attacks if you press a button within a brief window of time, forcing you to pay attention to every move your enemy makes. You can also dodge and backflip away from an attack, which will leave an enemy vulnerable if they whif. Enemies with polearms or spears present a different challenge: how do you get in close with a considerably shorter weapon in hand? By jumping over their weapon and attacking from overhead (another maneuver you have to learn on your own). Though battles are a tough nut to crack at first, you quickly learn how to overcome these obstacles through necessity and experimentation, a process that's consistently rewarding despite the number of deaths you incur along the way.
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Every weapon in the game, thus far, is acquired by defeating enemies. You therefore come across a lot of potential weapons, both in number and variety. You need to be mindful of their durability, which is only detailed in words; the ambiguity this creates is the one shortcoming of Breath of the Wild that stands out early on. Most of the swords, spears, clubs, and shields found in the early hours of the game break after just a few fights. It isn't always easy to reconcile preserving a cool weapon with equipping something that's more common yet weak, but you don't always have a choice. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the long term. The hope is that you will eventually find more durable weapons that can hold a permanent spot in your inventory, but that remains to be seen.
Whenever you take down a monster, they are likely to drop body parts in addition to their weapon. These are but a few of the resources available to you in the field. You can also gather fruit from trees, meat from hunting animals, and valuable minerals by exploring mountains, to name a few. All of these ingredients can be combined in various ways to produce hearty meals at camp fires spread across the world. These will sometimes grant you buffs; hot peppers, for example, will infuse a recipe with freeze resistance, allowing you a window of time to trek through snowy areas.
At the moment, beyond satisfying your curiosity, exploration is driven by shrines--puzzle-driven dungeons littered throughout the map. They are bite-sized, lasting only a few minutes a piece, but they deliver a completely different tone compared to the outside world. At the start of some shrines, you will be granted a new power--known as a rune--and the puzzles you face within that shrine serve as a practical tutorial for your new abilities. Early runes include bombs that can be generated resource-free under a cooldown timer, but you also gain the ability to summon pillars of ice from bodies of water and move metallic objects by controlling a magic, magnetic orb tethered to your body.
Each shrine is guaranteed to net you a spirit orb, which act as a currency of sorts that you trade in by praying at a statue to upgrade your health or stamina meters. So far, picking one upgrade over the other has been the hardest decision to make in Breath of the Wild. Don't hesitate to explore and test your mettle, but be sure you know what you're getting yourself into when you pick increased health over stamina, or vice versa. Shrines are common, but not so common that you can expect to quickly maintain a balance between stats.
This all sounds like a lot to manage, and it is, but damn if it doesn't feel good to play a Zelda game with so many variables and opportunities from the start. All of this is to say nothing of the lighthearted events that populate the world, and how they brighten up a dreary trip through rain and fog after a hard fought battle. People are affable and cheeky, and animals prove to be a soothing and beneficial distraction: Nuzzle a dog with your face and become instant friends, tame a wild horse and make it your own, and swipe at a chicken to make it drop an egg that you can put into your next meal.
Breath of the Wild is, five hours in, an enthralling and surprising experience, and the stories being shared among those playing it at GameSpot are all vastly different. Even though we are all playing the same game, we are envious of each other's unique experiences. Breath of the Wild embodies the freedom and danger that made the first Zelda game so enthralling, and captures the feeling of awe that came when Ocarina of Time hit the scene, in this case by layering unspoken variables into seemingly every facet of the game. Based on our early impressions, it's safe to say that Breath of the Wild will forever change what people expect from the series.