In 2009, Rocksteady Studios' Batman: Arkham Asylum received praise as the best Batman game and arguably the best comic-book-inspired game created to date. Such specific accolades never sat well with me.
While there's no denying that the Batman license made the game's characters, gadgets, and locations instantly recognizable, Arkham Asylum was a fantastic game independent of those elements. It was a compulsively playable "Metroid-vania" title, full of lore to uncover and nooks and crannies to plunder. Moreover, its Freeflow Combat system was so simple to pick up yet difficult to master that it became—and continues to be—as pervasive in action games as Resident Evil 4's and God of War's quicktime events years earlier.
In the same vein, many reviews of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild hailed it as the best Legend of Zelda game. While that may be true, that compliment sells short Breath of the Wild's confluence of visual flair, perfectly understated audio, purposeful world design, wildly malleable game systems, and player-driven storytelling sure to leave as indelible a mark on game design as 1998's Ocarina of Time, as well as the franchise's 1986 debut, before it.
Breath of the Wild makes a strong case for handcrafted content. Many developers turn to procedural content generation to populate their worlds with things to do and see. That's understandable. Algorithmically generated content is much more affordable to produce, and makes for experiences guaranteed to turn out differently every time. Nintendo shunned convention, opting to place every mountain, sand dune, expansive plains, village, lake, river, stream, and shrine by hand. The result is a world that feels both purposeful and excitingly uncharted, waiting for you to discover it.
These shrine skips are starting to get a little too ridiculous. pic.twitter.com/mWBBD4abzT— Adri (@Adrylek) April 11, 2017
"By hand" is exactly how millions of players have come to prefer exploring open-world games. The simple act of making every surface scalable adds a new dimension to interaction with terrain. When a mountain or derelict temple stands in your path, you need not go around it. Just latch on to it and climb it. At the top, you'll usually find something worthwhile, but the act of climbing is quick, smooth, and freeing—a reward in and of itself, one that has rendered conventional modalities of travel cumbersome.
Exploring Breath of the Wild's massive world is satisfying not only because it's a delight to navigate, but because of what you can find or do on a moment-to-moment basis. Every time I set a goal—find and conquer a shrine, win over a Divine Beast, stock up on cooking ingredients—two or three other things competed for my attention. Everywhere I look there's a new place to explore, a new enemy type or mob of enemies to fight, or flora of fauna to add to my bag of cooking ingredients.
Much like Link tossing a mix of this, that, and the other into a cookpot, Breath of the Wild's combat borrows ideas from previous 3D Zelda titles, while stirring in new ingredients. Dark Souls fans will find the game's parry system a welcome addition, but the timing required to flip over an enemy attack and then land a flurry of strikes feels immensely gratifying to pull off.
Yet sword-and-board combat is only one way to approach monsters. Runes such as bombs and Stasis give players an edge. Or shoot a fire arrow into the tall grass at your feet, setting off a blazing fire and creating an updraft that you can ride up into the air to rain down arrows. Or toss a Lizal Forked Boomerang then catch it with Magnesis: It will rotate in place, giving you a makeshift buzz saw to grind through enemies. During one thunderstorm, the giant metal sword began to spark, indicating an imminent lightning blast. I tossed the sword on the ground near an advancing Moblin and then ran. The lightning struck the sword just as the Moblin stepped into the blast radius, chewing through the last of its health.
Freedom of expression extends far beyond combat. Players have traversed Hyrule's expansive map using Magnesis to push metallic weapons against rafts to create speedboats, jerry-rigged airships, cut down trees to use as bridges, and fallen back on the simple act of leaping from a precipice and gliding through the air.
Opening Breath of the Wild's map presents an interface that I hope to see adopted by other open-world developers. In other open-world titles, open-world maps tend to be so cluttered with icons as to be overwhelming. Their side quests are fun at first, until players realize that there are only half a dozen or so varieties. In Breath of the Wild, completed shrines act as waypoints, but every other marker is placed by you. No counter pops up when you collect another grasshopper. No objective herds you toward another tower that must be scaled to progress. Even the simplest actions such as stalking rare fireflies is satisfying because you are in control of what you're doing, and when and how often you decide you need to do it.
Hyrule lives and breathes independent of the player's actions. NPCs roam villages and the countryside, throw their arms over their heads and run for shelter when rain begins to fall, rise and turn in on their own schedules, and go meta by scolding you for coming behind sales counters or talking to them while standing on those same counters. Monsters can be seen hunting wild game in the fields. These and other actors can interact with you, but they don't need you. They're doing their own thing. Just like you.
Breath of the Wild is by no means perfect, but its flaws are mitigated largely by virtue of offering so many ways around them. Weapons degrade, but exploring will turn up more than you'll be able to carry. Even toothless starting weapons such as such as branches can be enhanced by cooking strength tonics. Rain makes surfaces slippery, but you can always find another way up, go do something else, or combine climbing gear and stamina elixirs to bound your way to the top. Stumped by a shrine puzzle? The harmony of the game's physics and chemistry systems means that unlike in Zelda games of the past, there's always more than one solution, and the solution you come up with could be totally unique.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a reinvention of Zelda, but it's so much more. It is a systems-driven masterpiece, the ideal sandbox where every step you take and every decision you make becomes uniquely your own, and the bar to which all other open-world and action titles will have to measure up for the foreseeable future.
Be sure to keep up with the rest of The Shacknews Awards as we celebrate the Year of the Games: 2017 and check out Shacknews Top 10 Games of the Year 2017.