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December 5, 2016

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild VS Horizon: Zero Dawn: Hell in a Cell (Part 2)

This post is probably going to oust me as a hypocrite (well, more so than usual).  I can see it now.  I mean, even though The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild isn’t officially being called an open-world game, it shares a good number of traits with the subgenre.  Plus, being called “open-world” carries a lot of baggage with it these days.  Ubisoft and its AAA contemporaries have run what was once a good thing -- if not a symbol of progress for the medium -- into the ground, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the mere concept is enough to make someone’s eyes roll so fast that they could break the sound barrier.

I’m pretty sure I’ve taken shots at open-world games as well, so the fact that I’m excited for Breath of the Wild means that I’m a dirty liar in need of a bath filled with holy water.  More to the point, I’m a hypocrite because this game appeals to me, but I’m about ready to write off the superficially-similar Horizon: Zero Dawn for what may come off as arbitrary reasons.  In my defense, it’s not as if I love one and hate the other; it’s just that I feel like BotW appeals to me more.  And while I’m pretty confident that Horizon will eventually be a solid game, it feels redundant -- and significantly less special -- in the face of BotW.

I guess now I’ll have to explain why.  So let’s go ahead and step back into the ring for another smackdown.

Ha.  Again.

Like I said last time, neither game is exactly ready to be grabbed from your local GameStop or Best Buy.  There are plenty of details missing, and there’s no guarantee of either game’s quality just yet.  We only have trailers and articles to go by (minus the odd demo or preview), so plenty could change between now and release.  Promises can be upheld or broken on a moment’s notice.  And of course, maybe a wrongheaded decision made on Day 1 will cripple the whole experience.  That can happen.

And yes, it can happen with BotW.  It’s an open-world(ish) take on the franchise, which opens up plenty of opportunities.  Unfortunately, that also means it could fall into the same traps that have plagued other games or otherwise hamstrung them.  Will the game have focus?  Will the game’s myriad activities have entertainment value, or simply mistake the quantity of things to do with quality?  What about the story?  On top of all that, there’s the question of how well the devs will adapt to the new genre.  Once upon a time, Resident Evil 6 abandoned its roots to try to appeal to a wider audience (and the west) with a sharp lean towards action.  It didn’t end well for anyone.

Time will tell how the games pan out, BotW especially.  In the meantime, let’s have another look at some of the footage released a while back.  Once again, here’s footage for Horizon: Zero Dawn.

And once again, here’s footage for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

There are articles out there that are excited about BotW because it stands as proof that Zelda is evolving, or becoming more modern, or something like it.  Fair point, I suppose, but I wonder just how big of a step forward it’s taking.  It’s doing things that Zelda games don’t usually do, of course; you can apparently get your hands on classic items and weapons by putzing around in the world, not earning them from beating dungeon minibosses.  Still, it’s already been confirmed that dungeons will return, so maybe the classic formula will only see an expansion -- i.e. a bigger time investment -- instead of a total overhaul. 

Whatever the case, let’s not pretend that the Zelda formula can solely be pared down to how many dungeons you explore.  Also, let’s not act like BotW is the only game across the series’ history that’s ever bothered to innovate.  Ocarina of Time brought the franchise into the 3D space, with both cinematic flair and a dedicated targeting system to smooth out the experience.  Majora’s Mask revolved around a time loop mechanic in a smaller but denser world, featuring a story that’s still terrifyingly powerful to this day (and a villain that’s powerfully terrifying).  Wind Waker broke the limits on the scope of the world, necessitating travel from one corner of the ocean to the other.  Twilight Princess tasked players with managing two different forms while putting in work to create one of the most beloved sidekick characters to date.  Skyward Sword turned the space between dungeons into dungeons in their own right, alongside a narrative that did its damnedest to give weight and meaning to the typical “everyman becomes the hero and saves the girl” plotline.  And all of that is ignoring the nuances from one game to the next.

So while Zelda games may have a formula to them, the formula is absolutely NOT all there is to them.  Anyone who thinks otherwise hasn’t been paying attention, might be crazy, or is an idiot.  That’s my hardline stance.

I still have my concerns about the game, of course, and they won’t be quelled until there’s enough substantial information.  As unlikely as it is, we have to be prepared for the possibility that a Zelda game can go off the rails -- and deciding to go open-world might be a hell of a good way to make that happen.  Does Nintendo have the chops to deliver a sprawling experience, given that they usually specialize in structured, focused titles?  You can’t help but wonder, especially since they pulled in guys who worked on Xenoblade Chronicles X to lend a hand.  On the other hand, the same company (albeit not every member of the same team) also put out a wildly-popular multiplayer shooter on their first try, so they’re not exactly locked into a niche.

The usual Nintendo polish is probably going to be in full effect, which means we won’t have to worry about a buggy release that needs patches out the gate (or weeks into its lifespan).  Likewise, we can safely assume that the game will function as intended; Skyward Sword took heat for its motion controls, but with the GamePad -- and the Switch, in combination with arcane magicks -- in players’ hands, the impact of and demand for extra player effort will likely be minimized.  So at the very least, we’re in for a game that works.  The question then becomes “What makes this game special?”  And really, there’s already proof of that in the footage released so far.

Back when Final Fantasy 13 held the promise of being good had its pre-release information make the rounds, one of the major talking points was that there would be no conventional towns.  You still kind of visit a couple in the game, though they’re in states of disarray; still, it represented a break in the long-since accepted cycle of JRPGs.  Was it even possible to have one without a town between dungeons and fields?  Yes, but it’s not always a good idea.

Between the confirmation that there would be towns and voice acting, we can expect BotW to have at least a few cast members so that Link won’t be exploring the brave new world completely alone.  Granted we still need to see the towns and characters in question, since it’s implied that the game takes place in a post-apocalypse/after some cataclysmic event.  Still, think about the footage shown off so far.  Think about the trailer.  What did the devs show off, and why?  What message did they want to impart upon viewers across the globe?  What did they reveal as a way to prove why the game is special, not just functional or passable?

I’ve drawn my own conclusion.  The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is special because it’s a rare game that knows how to shut the hell up.

As someone who can be positively ruined by just the implied presence of a bug, I’ve never been what you’d call the outdoorsy type.  Still, I can imagine what it’s like.  This may be an educated guess, but I’d imagine that nine times out of ten, there’s no sweeping soundtrack that matches a common hike through the woods.  It’s a silent, peaceful, meditative affair, and one that’s captured by this new Link as well as his upcoming game.  Obviously this game is going to have a ton of top-notch music upon release -- it’d be a hate crime if it didn’t -- but the minimalist approach (for lack of a better phrase) makes for a game with a sterling tone.

You can get a sense of it in the early goings.  I mean, remember the main theme for Skyward Sword?  It was bombastic as all get out -- a booming, triumphant orchestral track that practically bellowed “Yeah!  Let’s go on an adventure!”  That was to its benefit, of course (I’m of the opinion that Twilight Princess had good music, but the timbre of it did the OST a disservice).  But BotW proves that you can have multiple styles and affects and still win people over.  The early showings prove that the game doesn’t need bombast, and instead revels in something much stronger.  If it follows through on what’s been implied, then we’re in for a game that thrives on subtlety.  On simplicity.  On softness.  On solitude.

A defined narrative and dialogue are practically givens in the game (the latter more than the former, probably).  Still, what Nintendo has shown off has been about a quiet, thoughtful experience.  Inevitably, it’s going to reach a fever pitch once you start dealing with dungeons, bosses, and Ganon; even if that’s true, a huge swath of the experience is about letting the player interact with and explore a sprawling world.  “One with nature”, and such.  Like I said, I’m not the outdoorsy type -- but in the few instances where I’ve actually gotten out there and had a little adventure, I was justly rewarded.  I didn’t get to do much besides walk through a woodsy area -- to a decent-sized river -- in the midst of a wintry coating, but damned if it wasn’t a treat for my soul.  BotW is primed to capitalize on that refreshing feeling, and soothe the soul with its reverence of nature.  No frills, no excess, no tricks.  Just a raw experience.

And because it’s a raw experience, BotW’s world feels like one that matters.  Even if it’s been experienced so far almost exclusively in video format (at least by a bunch of mere plebeians like the common gamer), it’s not hard to get the sense of a living, breathing world.  It’s not something done purely with high-end graphics or engines; in fact, concerns have cropped up over performance dips in early builds of the game.  No, it’s the impression that the world is more than just cheap window dressing.  It actually matters.  It has an impact on you, Link, and the gameplay at large.

You can set grass ablaze.  You can chop down trees.  You can put on warmer clothes to avoid taking damage in cold environments.  You can glide through the air with a Sailcoth.  You can push rafts across water with gusts of wind.  You can cook with whatever ingredients you find along the way.  And perhaps most crucially of all: you can surf on your shield like you’re playing SSX.  There’s likely more to it than that, what with the inventory that’ll no doubt expand your traversal abilities even further.  (Maybe you’ll be able to burrow underground again?)  But what’s been shown so far has already made a pretty strong case; the fact that you can push boulders to hassle enemies means that thought has legitimately been put into the integration of setting and gameplay.

How much of that is a bunch of smoke and mirrors?  Maybe a bigger chunk than I’d like to admit; after all, the amount of integration featured could end up being trivial or annoying, or just a gimmick to say “LOOK AT HOW MUCH WE’RE INNOVATING!”  It’s absolutely possible.  But with a playthrough of Xenoblade Chronicles X behind me, I feel like there’s definitely been an evolution.  XCX had a gigantic, beautiful world to explore, one where you could see incredible sights and the local fauna running through their daily routines.  With that said, there was (and still is) a static nature to it.  You can run across fields, jump off stuff, find hidden attractions, salvage resources, plant probes, and eventually fly through the skies, but I feel as if more could’ve been done.  In a sense, of course; the Wii U nearly dies trying to contain all of XCX’s content, so we’re lucky we got what we got.

So here comes BotW to remedy all that.  It pretty much has to.  If there’s a de-emphasis on interaction with other characters and a re-emphasis on the stark yet soothing solitude of nature, then the setting ABSOLUTELY has to be a character in its own right -- and a good one, no less.  It can’t be static, it can’t be window dressing, and it can’t be shallow.  If BotW doesn’t go all in, then it fails.  Fortunately, I get the feeling that we won’t be forced onto the darkest timeline where a Zelda game is bad…well, not again, at least.  The E3 content has let Nintendo and crew show off more than just the game; they’ve tried to sell you on the feeling of the game.  The affect.  It goes beyond just being the “experience” that gets tossed around as a buzzword.  It’s a comprehensive mission statement.

I do have lingering concerns about how good the finished product will be, of course.  The game seems like it’s co-opting elements from Bayonetta and Dark Souls for its combat -- which to be fair aren’t bad games to pull from -- but I wonder if the fighting element is going to be refined as well as properly integrated.  Even if Zelda games have always had combat with varying nuances, I still don’t know if it’s going to be properly used in BotW -- or rather, how it’ll be used.  Is it emphasized?  De-emphasized?  Is it crucial?  Is it an afterthought?  Is it deep?  Is it shallow?  A careful balance needs to be struck, and I wonder how they’ll accomplish that in a sprawling, quasi-open-world game.  Would there even be that many enemy encounters to begin with?  Who knows?

There are a lot of unknowns with BotW right now.  It’ll be that way for a good while; videos and previews have started popping up in the time since its full reveal, sure, but until it’s in the hands of gamers -- and we’ve all had time to digest it -- there’s no telling where it’ll stand in the Zelda legacy.  Maybe it’ll be as revered as Ocarina of Time.  Or maybe it’ll be as controversial as Skyward Sword.  I hope it’s the former, because I feel as if Nintendo could really use a win after the bad luck it suffered with the Wii U.

Even so, I want them to succeed because they make a high-quality game, not just because of the name attached (the company or the franchise, take your pick).  It’s not enough to just make this game open-world, because some of the stuff that’s got me salivating here is just as applicable as the stuff in Skyrim -- which, as a reminder, is just over five years old.  There needs to be something special here, especially in the face of countless open-world games on the market.  A strong story can go a long way toward that, but even then it’s not necessarily that simple.

The elements are definitely there for BotW, no question.  At the same time, you can think of them as building blocks -- pieces that’ll form a foundation, not necessarily build a world wonder in the making.  So the question then is simple: what’s the game going to do to guarantee, to prove that it’s elevated above the common fare?  The affect it’s pushing is strong, without a doubt.  But will that appeal to everyone?  Will that be strong enough to appeal to anyone?  Can they truly pull everything together and make a game worth playing for 40 hours?  30 hours?  20, 10, or even 1?

I don’t know.  But I want to believe -- because I can feel the potential overflowing.  BotW, at the very least, feels like a unique experience, and something that fills a niche in the gaming world.  Countless devs have proven that they can handle bombast and spectacle, especially in the AAA space where money is tossed around like a beach ball.  Now it’s time to try something different.  It’s time to use the money, attention, branding, and prestige to swing in the opposite direction: to be quiet instead of loud, to be thoughtful instead of obtuse, to be modest instead of hubristic.  If BotW can capitalize on that -- which it already might have -- then it’s going to be a hell of a game.  And the fact that Nintendo decided to show off that mission statement means that they understand.  They know what needs to be done, and now they’re doing it. 

That’s why I have to praise it more than Horizon: Zero Dawn.  To be clear, it’s not as if the upcoming PS4 game is destined to be bad or disappointing.  On the contrary, it looks pretty good.  It’ll probably be a solid entry.  But at this stage, being “solid” isn’t enough for me.  Not in this case.  Even if Horizon is primed to offer up something new and exciting, and even though it’s clearly taken steps toward offering a mission statement of its own, I wonder -- if not outright doubt -- how successful it is.  What does it have to offer that BotW doesn’t?

Both games are taking the same approach, more or less.  They’re out to use nature to enhance the gamers’ experience, and that’s absolutely praiseworthy in a medium that’s suffered from dingy, brown environments for what feels like an eternity.  With that in mind, I feel as if one of them is more successful than the other.  One of them comes closer to following through on its mission statement -- its thesis, so to speak -- and stands primed to win the hearts of fans all over the world.  The other, to reiterate, is still probably going to be a good game.  It’s just that it’s going to be overshadowed by a game that, by saying less, ends up saying -- and being -- much, much more.

And you know the name of that game.



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