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E3 2016: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a breath of fresh air

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild begins with a simple declarative sentence: "Open your eyes."

Except those words don't appear on the screen for you to read. They're spoken. Aloud. In a Zelda game.

Everything's the same in Breath of the Wild, yet everything's different. Director and producer Eiji Aonuma got his start designing dungeons for 1998's Ocarina of Time, a game considered not only the pinnacle of the Zelda series, but one of the greatest and most influential games of all time. That pedigree sharpened into a double-edged sword. Thirteen years and four console installments later, Nintendo has clung to Ocarina's award-winning formula with a grip so tight it had the series in a stranglehold. Find dungeon. Collect item. Defeat boss. Find dungeon. Rinse and repeat.

Now along comes Breath of the Wild and voiceover work. In a Zelda game!

In the 40-odd minutes I spent playing Breath of the Wild, it became apparent that Aonuma has been freed from Ocarina's gold-plated shackles, yet he's exercising restraint to balance old and new. Link does as he's bidden and awakens following 100 years of slumber in a glowing pod, evincing the presence of technology in Hyrule. He pads across the room and retrieves the Sheikah Slate, a tablet-esque device you scan to open doors and access new areas. Pressing B causes Link to jump. (Manual jumping! In a Zelda game!)

Link receives further instructions--spoken aloud!--and then steps out of his resuscitation site and into Hyrule Field, a sprawling wilderness 12 times the size of Zelda: Twilight Princess's capacious overworld, according to Nintendo of America's Rob Watters, one of several staffers on hand as I played. Taking a moment to gaze around, I beheld mountains behind screens of mist, bridges over sparkling waters, enemy encampments, and horses grazing in tall grass.

"You have to hop on top of them and train them," Watters says.

Breath of the Wild is more than a subtitle. It's a creed that typifies the beating heart of the game itself, pumping blood through every region and its flora and fauna. Apples grow from trees; you retrieve them by climbing up or chopping down the trunks that let them dangle out of easy reach. Branches can be wielded as weapons. So can rusty swords, clubs, axes, and any other implements you find on your meandering journey across Hyrule Field. But these weapons degrade, so you'll need to keep spares on hand when the time comes to do what Heroes of Time do best.

That realism flows through every artery of Breath of the Wild. When I jumped off a cliff, expecting to be able to hit the ground in a roll and negate damage, Link landed with a meaty thud, and the game-over screen faded in. "There's a lot more physics-based things in the game," Watters says. "You come across boulders and you can push them [down hills] to defeat enemies. That sense of realism definitely carries over to how you solve puzzles and go about surviving certain combat situations. There is a paraglider that if you were to jump off a ledge, you could use it to fall safely down to the ground. So there are other ways to go about exploration."

Following a skull marker on my map, I came to an enemy encampment where two goblin-like Bokoblins were lounging on a rickety platform. A boar wandered by, and the Bokoblins sprang to their feet, snatched up bows, and opened fire, startling the animal and sending it scampering into underbrush.

"They were hunting," Watters explains. "They were hanging out, chilling. That's exactly what they do. They've actually set up settlements, unlike in other Zelda games."

I equip a fallen branch and beat the Bokoblins into submission. They nick me a few times, enough to drain half a heart from my meter. Out of habit, I saunter over to grass and begin slashing. It's a time-honored Zelda pact: players mow lawns, and those lawns bequeath health. No hearts drifted out, and they never will. You restore Link's health by noshing on apples or steak found in crates or treasure chests (some video game conventions are too hilarious to go quietly into the night), or by hunting wild game and cooking it over a bonfire that you must prepare by striking firewood and flint with a steel weapon.

Link could give Gordon Ramsay a run for his money. Open your inventory, select several perishables like weeds, mushrooms, and steak, prepare a fire, and Link will whip up a tasty concoction to soothe wounds or provide other benefits. "A truffle is an item with a special property once cooked. It gives you a yellow heart, which is a temporary heart for your life meter," Watters tells me. "So [if made at the outset of the game] you'd have four heart containers. Once that yellow heart is lost, you lose it forever, but it's a nice little buffer."

You'll find ingredients organically, as well as by defeating enemies. Slain monsters drop appendages, organs, and other icky parts that can be cooked into elixirs, which grant stealth booths such as increased stealth while crouching-walking in tall grass, and an extended stamina gauge so Link can sprint for longer without growing fatigued.

Your minimap helps focus your exploration: wander hither and thither, or scope out stamps like skulls denoting enemy camps and glowing icons signifying shrines, a sort of mini dungeon replete with puzzles and special prizes. "Each and every shrine in the demo has a different rune that you obtain. The magnesis rune allows you to move metallic objects is one of them. The stasis rune allows you to free objects in time and then manipulate them. Another allows you to create ice platforms, which you can't do any other way."

Watters says there are over 100 shrines in the full game, not to mention more traditional dungeons that promise longer crucibles predicated on both puzzle-solving and combat.

At first blush, Breath of the Wild may seem like any other open-world epic fantasy game, only set in Nintendo's land of Hyrule. My brief demonstration revealed something more: a massive world that, unlike so many of its contemporaries, felt alive with new ideas thoughtfully melded with old ones.

Everything's different… yet familiar, too. "I've talked about breaking the conventions of Zelda, but Link does start by waking up," Aonuma said during the world premiere of the game, laughing.

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