It’s been a shockingly packed year for great new video games. Over the course of the last 12 months, it seemed like there was never really a pause, or a moment when there wasn’t something interesting to play. To celebrate, this week Verge staff will be publishing essays on their favorite releases of the year, the games that spoke to us personally. Expect to see a new one each morning, culminating in a list of our collective 15 favorite games of 2017 on Friday. You can keep up with it all right here.
What more is there to say about Breath of the Wild? The latest Legend of Zelda title is the most acclaimed game to come out in a year of extremely acclaimed games. It will surprise absolutely no one reading this that it’s my personal favorite game of 2017 — no one, that is, except me.
I’ve liked rather than loved most recent Zelda games, and the prospect of the series dipping its toes into open-world design wasn’t all that enticing. Few of those games hit the mark for me personally. But I didn’t count on the extent to which Nintendo would assault the conventions of both with Breath of the Wild. This is a game that simultaneously revamps its series and turns an entire genre on its head, and the result is beyond sublime.
Breath of the Wild’s design is simply exquisite. Everything is laid out in front of the player like the components of a mechanical watch, and every element of the game’s structure has a clear effect on another. Nintendo designed a beautiful and expansive world, yes, but Breath of the Wild’s true achievement is the elegant synchronicity that the world shares with the design of the game itself.
In the center of the map, there is a great evil. In the four corners, there are four giant beasts that can help weaken the evil. Near the beasts, there are cities where you can solve quests to help you turn them to your side and acquire associated abilities. Scattered across the landscape, there are over a hundred shrines containing puzzles that unlock orbs to upgrade your strength and stamina, in turn making it easier to access and escape more shrines. And hidden around the world, there are nearly a thousand collectible seeds, each providing little reward beyond the joy of discovery.
The natural flow of these elements, where the importance of a task increases as the player’s focus narrows, is immediately apparent; the game is designed like a wedding cake, with ultimate target Ganon on the top layer and Korok seeds decorating the base. And the reason that this clear, minimalist structure is so important is that it gives the player license to ignore it completely whenever they want. Breath of the Wild’s purity of design reminds me of the original Crackdown, a wonderful game ostensibly about fighting crime, but really about searching and traversing the city for incremental agility upgrades, so that you can find more upgrades, so that you can take down targets whenever you damn well feel like it.
The vast majority of open-world games are actually very linear in terms of their core progression, with a series of primary story beats that have to be played through in order. Prior Zelda games were much the same, with a rote approach to acquiring items to solve dungeons to move onto the next. Not so with Breath of the Wild; in fact, most of its story is entirely optional. There’s so much to do in the world, and so much of it is delightful, that it’s easy to forget about saving the world from Ganon and get wrapped up in your own adventure. But you’ll always know how to get back on track, and the holistic design means that what you’ve been doing will rarely feel irrelevant or frivolous.
I’m playing Assassin’s Creed: Origins right now, for example, and I’m mostly enjoying it, but hell if I know or care what the dozens of icons littering my map represent. Breath of the Wild steps away from that conventional AAA idea of open-world design, content to let the player figure things out for themselves. It’s incredibly liberating.
None of this would matter if the game itself didn’t have a solid core. Combat in Breath of the Wild is better than it’s ever been in The Legend of Zelda, with even the most mundane enemies posing genuine risk right from the start. The weapon durability system is controversial, but constantly engages you in combat by promoting a dynamic attitude and forcing you to think about situational solutions. And the world’s logic plays into this with a brilliant system of physics: if you think something should be achievable with the power of fire, gravity, or magnetism, it probably is.
Calling it the best game of the year feels like insufficient praise
The single most important decision Nintendo made with Breath of the Wild, however, is how it lets you navigate the world. Nowhere is off limits if you have the stamina, which encourages you to climb ever-higher places, and once you do you’re able to effortlessly sail down from the summit with your paraglider, which continues to be thrilling over 100 hours in. The unparalleled liberty this gives you to explore makes the so-called open worlds of other games feel like smoke and mirrors. And I have to mention Breath of the Wild’s gorgeous art style, which squares the circle of The Wind Waker’s cartoonish flat shading and Skyward Sword’s pastel fantasia to create the most visually appealing Legend of Zelda yet. It’s an expressive approach that supports emotional levity while leaving space for lighter moments, and is at the heart of what’ll drive you to see as much of the world as you can.
Although 2017 has been one of the best years for games in memory, calling Breath of the Wild the best game of the year feels like insufficient praise. It’s Nintendo’s best game in decades — perhaps since 2002’s similarly transformative Metroid Prime — and I have no doubt that it will eventually be viewed as one of the greatest games ever made. Its systems and structures will be pored over in the future not only as a shining example of game design, but as what can be achieved when you’re willing to throw everything behind.
I came to it a skeptic, but fell utterly in love.