by Goran Damnjanovic, Gaming Columnist
Published in Gaming on 17th September, 2019
The Witcher 3, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Red Dead Redemption 2, and Spider-Man are all amazing open-world games but when it comes to the world design The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild trumps them all.
While a couple of older Zelda games, such as Ocarina of Time and the first The Legend of Zelda game from 1986, can be considered open-world the first fully open-world Zelda game is Breath of the Wild.
And Nintendo achieved something remarkable when it comes to the design of the said open world - the company designed the best game world found in this generation of consoles. Here's why the Hyrule from Breath of the Wild trumps every other game world found in every other modern open-world game.
This is the first thing I've noticed after I played about 10 hours of Breath of the Wild. The only icons you can possibly have on the screen are either those of one main or side quest, those that mark discovered shrines and towers, and icons you place yourself in order to mark an interesting point on the map.
And the best thing is that the game's many side quests only mark the quest giver. You won't find quest destination marked on the map. Instead you get just a few hints that give enough information to let you explore the game's world and discover where the quest will take you.
This was so refreshing after spending more than 100 hours inside AC: Odyssey, an excellent game that sadly features the classic Ubisoft "busywork galore" open-world design with tons of icons making sure that you don't have to search for anything except for an occasional Ainigmata Ostraka location.
Yes, you could turn on quest hints but that didn't take away thousands of icons from the map and those hints only worked during the first stage of a quest.
And it's not only Assassin's Creed. Every other open-world game works similarly. You get a handy icon marking the location you have to reach or explore and in most cases quest givers are clearly visible on the map, usually marked with noticeable icons.
But the beauty of Breath of the Wild's fantastic sandbox design is letting players explore and discover quest givers on their own as well as exploring the world in order to solve quests, not getting those locations on a silver platter in the form of a destination icon.
On the other hand, players can populate the game's map with as many icons as they want. You can mark potential Korok Seed locations, put stamps marking the shrines you saw in the distance but are too far away to visit right now, mark interesting places that hide powerful enemies or potential treasure chests.
Leave icons showing locations where you saw a dragon riding the sky or marking a distant light that looks like a fairy fountain. This is brilliant because Breath of the Wild allows players to populate the map with their own icons, making them have a constant sense of accomplishment because every single location they discovered, they discovered on their own. The game had nothing to do with it.
A quality open-world game is nothing if the world itself isn't brilliantly designed and that's definitely the case in Breath of the Wild. For starters, you begin the game on an island of sorts, with developers elegantly placing players inside a limited area for them to learn how to play the game and to taste most gameplay mechanics before setting them free to explore Hyrule on their own.
And after they receive the awesome glider, they are guided towards Kakariko but in reality, they can go wherever they want. You are placed in the middle of the map and this is done with the intent of showing players that any part of the map is near you, any part of the map is inviting and open for exploration.
Yes, some parts have nasty monsters but here you can avoid most of the combat and explore at your own pace. You can go around the map and arrive at Kakariko village after 40 hours or you can go there right after you receive the glider. It's up to you how you want to explore the beautiful world of Hyrule.
And each area of the world is naturally flowing into other areas but at the same time, each area has notable features that make it stand out from other locations. You can explore the world without noticing you've entered a new area right away but after a while, you will perceive that something's different.
Either the monsters became tougher (or weaker), or the area you're exploring at the moment has a different weather pattern. Maybe different plants are laying around that can be collected and cooked, or different critters you find in the wild.
Of course, some areas such as Death Mountain, Great Hyrule Forest, Damel Forest, or Gerudo looks noticeably different but in most cases your exploration is uninterrupted. You usually don't have thoughts like "oh, I've gone too far from my quest location," or "I explored too much of the map," or "This looks like an area I'm not supposed to be right now."
Nope, in Breath of the Wild the entirety of the map is open for exploration from the start and the only location you shouldn't visit unless you want to finish the game is the Hyrule Castle.
The brilliant world design that lures players to explore it and to play Breath of the Wild like they play a Minecraft sandbox experience wouldn't reach its potential without giving players means to reach every single point located inside the world.
And freedom of movement is staggering here. Link, for starters, is an excellent climber and he can reach any peak he wants as long as he has enough stamina and there's no rain. Literally any cliff and virtually any horizontal surface can be climbed and after a while, you simply stop following roads because you know that, like in AC: Odyssey, you can simply scramble over any obstacle you face.
And then you have the glider. That amazing piece of gear allows you to reach any island and any other point on the map that looks unapproachable, as long as it has relatively low elevation. Just climb on top of a nearby high point and glide your way to your goal. It's so fun using the glider it's insane.
Of course, there are boats in the game and they can also be used to reach otherwise unreachable places, just be ready to learn a bit about using giant leaves as the source of wind. When compared to any other game that doesn't feature flying vehicles (like Grand Theft Auto), Breath of the Wild offers unmatched freedom of movement.
And that astounding freedom of movement is there because in Breath of the Wild the most rewarding thing you can do is explore the map through and through.
The main upgrade system in the game are shrines and every single one of those (well, not every single one but like 98 percent of them) has to be located by the player.
They all glow bright red and are visible from great distances, making them easy to spot but without exploring the map you won't find many of them who lay hidden, below some cliff or inside a giant crater on the ground or masked by a forest, or hidden behind a destructible wall.
In Breath of the Wild exploration is always rewarded. Maybe you'll discover a hidden shrine or maybe you'll stumble upon an area mentioned by a person hundred miles away back when they gave you a side quest.
Perhaps you will discover a powerful monster hiding a valuable treasure or maybe you'll simply find a treasure chest laying inside a building or a cave. In some cases, you will ascend a nearby hilltop and there will be a powerful weapon waiting for you, or a Korok Seed puzzle, or some other reward. And this constant stream of rewards awaits everyone willing to explore and to wander off the beaten path.
Hyrule is teeming with treasures and powerful gear but only those ready to look under every nook and cranny will reap the best prizes hidden across the world.
This also creates a perfect gameplay loop only the best open-world games are capable of creating. The perfect loop of exploration, stumbling upon an interesting thing, spending some time on it (like beating a shrine puzzle, or defeating a powerful enemy, or solving an environmental puzzle that hides a Korok Seed or a chest, or something else, etc.) then returning to exploration and stumbling upon the next interesting thing after just a couple of minutes.
Setting a destination (like the far away tower) and then taking a two dozen stops before reaching the said destination is one of the signature features of Breath of the Wild and it reminds me of the best moments I had with the Witcher 3, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Red Dead Redemption 2, and the famous Skyrim. This rewarding exploration loop is a huge part of the game's brilliant open-world design.
If you had the whole world to explore but the gameplay was boring exploring the world would also end up tedious and boring. But that's definitely not the case in Breath of the Wild.
The gameplay in this game is brilliant and the game nailed the holy grail of open-world video game design, emergent gameplay. Emergent gameplay can be described as an open-ended gameplay system that allows players to combine gameplay mechanics in creative ways to create new and original solutions to problems found inside a game.
And Breath of the Wild is a prime example of emergent gameplay systems done right. Each problem found in the game has so many solutions.
Take a simple fight against a group of Bokoblins. You can simply arm yourself with a sword and take them on the classic way. You can take a spear and keep your distance while poking at them without getting hit. There's always a bow and arrow strategy. Or maybe you can take a stealth potion and one-hit-kill a couple before they notice you.
There's also the option to burn them with fire if their camp is surrounded by grass, or to blow up explosive barrels in case you have a fire arrow. Another strategy is using one of the runes to defeat them, each rune allowing for a couple of unique strategies. Or maybe you can combine different runes. If you are above them, try throwing rocks or pushing boulders on them.
Maybe you're able to glide above them, set their camp on fire with a fire arrow, and then glide away, land and finish them with arrows. I just listed more than a dozen ways to clear a simple Bokoblin camp and that is just the start!
The game is filled with scenarios where you can solve a problem with a dozen different solutions, even create new solutions no one thought of before.
For instance, each shrine features a unique environmental puzzle. And while some of them work with only one solution most can be solved in original ways, with strategies that are completely different than the ones you've seen in guides and walkthrough videos. And many problems that may seem like unsolvable with your current equipment are indeed solvable, maybe you just didn't think of the right solution.
In this regard Breath of the Wild is a true open-ended sandbox because it allows players to come up with creative solutions to every single situation found in the game and most of those solutions are extremely fun to come up with and apply.
This insane number of gameplay variations is what drives the game forward, what creates good times, what makes the game so damn fun to play. And it all works so well because the world of Breath of the Wild is governed by a plethora of systems that work so well together.
Breath of the Wild features so many complex systems that work together surprisingly well. Rain, for instance, will stop you from climbing but that's far from being its only way of affecting the world. Different critters will appear when it's raining, and in case there's a thunderstorm being wet will be really bad in case you get hit by lightning.
But you don't have to worry about being electrocuted as long as you don't carry any metallic piece of gear. And this great system can be used to solve puzzles or to defeat enemies. You can simply throw a metal sword next to an enemy and they will soon be electrocuted.
Then you have the excellent physics that works so well. Most runes depend on realistic physics in order for them to be used to the fullest. Time stopping rune wouldn't be so interesting if objects weren't able to fly away when hit while frozen. Magnetic rune is so fun because it allows for fun and creative object manipulation, usually inside shrines but there're also many ways to use the rune to solve problems while roaming Hyrule.
Then you have cooking, which is super fun because there are literally hundreds of different ingredients you can cook with, many of them granting special bonuses. You also have special spices that, once combined with ingredients, make bonuses more potent and give food better healing power.
And you can pick up almost anything in the world. There are ingredients, critters, flowers to pick, animals to hunt, you can even chop down trees either with a metal sword or with bombs.
There's the fire mechanic that can light up grass or even your own wooden weapons, making them much more powerful but also damaging their durability. There's also stamina bar that affects so many gameplay mechanics.
Climbing, swimming, gliding, sprinting, they're all affected by stamina and in case you create stamina boosting food and potions you can theoretically swim across largest lakes and reach any island found in the game, or glide your way across Hyrule after climbing the top of Death Mountain.
And there are many more systems driving the game that I didn't talk about like excellent desctructability or various elemental weapons capable of one-hitting specific enemies. There's the limited durability of weapons that can be annoying but is important design choice because it drives players forward, to always look for more weapons.
These complex systems combined with emergent gameplay, rewarding exploration, freedom of movement, subtle quest design, map that relies on players populating it with icons, and the brilliant world design create the best open-world design seen in this generation.