Open-world games. There certainly are quite a few of them, and with the ever-advancing technology in developing these games, many developers have decided to try their hand at in recent years. While admittedly a trifling “problem” to have, many feel that there are simply too many open-world titles, leading some to even use the phrase “open-world fatigue” to describe the feeling of simply being exhausted by having too much to do. Of course, free roaming games are nothing new. Many titles over several decades have had some iteration on the structure of an open world. Many faded into obscurity, but some like Grand Theft Auto III made such a powerful impact on the structure that developers felt the need to copy the open-ended gameplay aspects. Series like Saints Row and Infamous would likely be very different without the influence of Rockstar’s first foray into expanding their world.

But now it seems like there might be a new pillar to emulate in the Switch’s killer title, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I’ll start by saying that not everything here is new. There have been numerous games with common elements: a central point to get local information (e.g. Witcher 3’s bulletin boards or Far Cry’s towers), a plethora of side-quests, resources to harvest for crafting/cooking, collectibles, etc. Zelda has all of these, but it’s the unique way certain things are implemented that I feel we’ll be seeing more and more in the years to come.

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Just set it and forget it!

COOKING

Resource gathering and crafting is a staple seen in almost any game with a survival element to it, whether that be the simulated survival of Far Cry or a more real need to survive such as in Fallout’s extreme modes. Sometimes it involves cooking, other times creating bags and items, or perhaps both. In most games of this type, players are tasked with collecting items X and Y before smacking them together until they make yummy snack Z. Everything requires a set recipe, meaning that if you’re short on ingredients, you’re out of luck.

Link, however, is capable of taking any 5 ingredients out of his pouch and simply tossing them into the pot. There are no set recipes here, allowing players to freely experiment with their dishes. Combining raw meat with an armored carp creates a surf and turf dish that boosts defense. Add another fish and the effect lasts longer. Don’t have another fish? The ironshroom does the exact same thing. Some experiments don’t work out, but nearly everything provides some benefit. Even if there’s not a pot available, items can be tossed onto an open flame to create a cooked item which restores more hearts. The freedom is great, though it comes with the caveat that the UI is simply awful.

All that you survey is yours to explore.

All that you survey is yours to explore.

SELF-MOTIVATED EXPLORATION

It’s a familiar experience to anyone who has played almost any Ubisoft game – a massive tower juts out of the ground, begging to be climbed. Get to the very top, do something special, and suddenly a veritable shotgun blast of icons bursts all over the local area of the map. Resources over here! Enemies over there! Collectibles here, here, and here! From that point, it’s a simple matter of going to each spot, point-by-point, checking off each box in the scavenger hunt. It seems a bit empty when you suddenly realize the only reason you’re scaling non-descript building #33 is because the map told you to. While there are a few exceptions, even games like Skyrim will simply tell players when there’s a point of interest by adding it to the compass, rather than letting them discover it all on their own.

Towers are still a major part of Breath of the Wild. Link must travel around the world, finding glowing spires of orange and activating them so they become glowing spires of blue. But they function quite differently. The map doesn’t simply tell players where the goodies are. Activating a tower merely reveals the topography. After that, it’s up to you to pull out a scope and have a good look around. Pins can be placed on points of actual interest, be they shrines, enemy encampments, or simply a funny-looking pile of rocks.

There’s quite a bit of empty space in Zelda once the world truly opens up, and that means a lot of running around through open fields, but there’s almost always something in sight that’s worth visiting. And this means the developers had to craft a world where things were visually appealing, rather than hiding everything in mountains and simply making it a waypoint to visit. Exploring in Zelda feels like actual exploration, with the rewards that much more meaningful as a result. I only hope we can see more of this.

Just a bit of rain.

Just a bit of rain.

WEATHER

Again, we have something that’s not entirely new. Day/night cycles with dynamic weather have been around for ages, but where Zelda really excels in this is that the weather has an actual effect on gameplay. While trying to climb a massive volcano, the extreme heat can actually set Link on fire. Find a way around that (see cooking above) and go hunting on the slopes? Any raw meat from the kill begins to cook instantly, or even burn to ashes. The desert region is both too hot during the day and too cold at night to go without changing clothes or using appropriate items. Metal equipment will attract lightning in a storm, forcing Link to switch to wooden items. While some of this would be a bit cartoonish to implement in other games, it would be interesting to see how developers could handle it.

A game where the answer to "Can I ...?" is usually "Of course!"

A game where the answer to “Can I …?” is usually “Of course!”

FREEDOM

Sure, some of this is going to tie in to the other things mentioned before, but the very idea of an open-world game is meant to convey the idea that the player can go anywhere and do anything right from the start. That doesn’t really pan out in most cases. Some games will have physical walls to prevent you from accessing certain areas, or simply create fields of death via powerful enemies or natural hazards that are impossible to get around without glitches or otherwise breaking the system. Others prevent progress by locking away various abilities behind leveling or story quests.

There’s very, very little of that here. Sure, strong weapons must be found to take out stronger creatures, but they are available. Once the plateau is cleared, Link is capable of going anywhere and accomplishing any task, and that includes marching to the final boss and killing it. Completing other tasks such as the shrines or dungeons is not necessary, but doing them adds context to the game and also makes the final challenge a bit easier by offering rewards like new skills, weapons, and heart containers.

Another element of freedom comes in doing these things. There are numerous examples of interesting things that can be done to accomplish certain tasks in a roundabout way. Enemies will pick up any weapon on the ground, so sometimes it’s worth tossing out a few metallic swords in a thunder storm when being assaulted, then running around until the enemies are struck. Shrine challenges can sometimes seem difficult, like one that asks you to cross a narrow ledge while swinging spiked balls threaten to knock you off, but using the magnetic power allows you to wrap the balls around the beams from which they hang, making them unable to reach. The sheer amount of creative solutions available to problems is enormous, and that would be amazing to see in other games.

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