Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Not amazed but satisfied

My my, where does the time go? I need to post reactions to my new toy.

Scratch that, the Switch is not a toy. The hardware in no way feels cheap or flimsy. Out of the box the tablet portion has a surprising heft to it, a satisfying weightiness that helps alleviate the sting of having spent $300 on something so small. The joycons themselves are tiny but not necessarily difficult to use. My experience is limited to the Snipper Clips demo (a game that everyone in the world is in love with but me) but a shorter member of my household has taken to setting the tablet flat on a couch and playing with a joycon in each hand.

The hardware is designed to be flexible, to provide a, if not identical, at least similar experience to the player regardless of how it is played. It is not the system's fault that the way I play games is not the best way it performs. The Switch is, at the moment at least, a handheld system that can be connected to a television, not the other way around. The only game I have at the moment is Breath of the Wild and it looks and performs noticeably better on the small screen than a large one. Even the  user interface looks fuzzy on a 4K set. There are probably reasons for this, something about upscaling that I do not understand, but the end result is that the system performs best in a way that I will never use.

I knew this going in. To be frank, the Switch was little more than a way to play a Zelda game, something that I have not done since Wind Waker on the Gamecube. I am in no way a Zelda connoisseur, in fact most of its titles I have either not played at all or never completed. Yes, this means that I did not finish Ocarina of Time and never played Majora's Mask, Twilight Princess or Skyward Sword to say nothing of the many handheld, and reportedly excellent, hand held releases. It had been fifteen years and I was ready for a Zelda game.

This is not the game I expected. It is absolutely not just an updated version of Link to the Past. Breath of the Wild is, and this is a cheap way of describing it, what a Japanese developer came up with after playing a modern Elder Scrolls games and attempting to slap their own license on it. It is still a Zelda game: the story is a simple as it has always been, Link is there, he doesn't say anything and he explores a world before fighting Ganon. But it is also very much not a Zelda game: all weapons will break with use, cooking and crafting are important to survival, all all abilities are handed out in the first area of the game. Even the flow of the game is much for Skyrim than Skyward Sword. And the voice acting is equally bad.

Mild spoilers incoming.

There are no traditional dungeons in Breath of the Wild, at least not that I have come across yet. Instead there are small temples scattered liberally around the map, each of which is based on a puzzle or two. Short, sweet things to do but also very similar to one another. Contrast that with random caves in Skyrim or Oblivion that are all different and can lead to bigger, better and often more dangerous things. Yes, the landscape is filled with things to do but as soon as Link leaves the overworld it all begins to look the same. Finishing the temples rewards you with one hero medal, four of which can be traded in for a heart or stamina upgrade.

No more blowing open a boulder and finding a piece of a heart. The sense of discovery and accomplishment is still there, it's just not as random. A sensible change but not quite equal to what it was emulating.

On the other hand, solutions to puzzles and even more generic problems feels much more real, less 'video gamey,' than in Bethesda games. This natural approach is so at odds with other games that its very simplicity can prove difficult to grasp. For example: early in the first area Link comes across a lit fire with a pan on top of it in which he can cook with materials he has found in the wilderness. Later he comes across another cooking station but the fire is not lit and he probably doesn't have fire arrows yet.

'What the hell do I do?' comes the cry of the player who expects a button press or quick time even to solve the problem. The solution is to do exactly what one would do in real life: take a torch to a nearby fire and light it (by attacking the fire) and then light the wood under the pan (again, by attacking it). Raining? Drop a piece of flint next to the pile of wood and hit it with a metal weapon. Cold and need a fire? Attack a tree to chop up some wood. Or cook a meal with spicy peppers in it - if only that worked in real life.

None of these are over explained or thrust upon the player with oversize button prompts. They work because they should work. It took me a while to come around to this way of thinking but once I did everything became much simpler. No if only it would stop raining all of the time. Raining kills the framerate.

Breath of the Wild was originally a Wii-U title and it shows. I believe that the Switch can and will do more once titles specifically designed for it start coming out (which could be years from now). As it sits the game runs pretty good most of the time when docked. Last night I finished the Zora's domain and it was raining the entire fucking time. Not a slideshow but on one of the big boy systems I would, and have, bitched much louder.

The Switch is never going to compete graphically with the other traditional consoles. Breath of the Wild coming out opposite Horizon Zero Dawn both proves this to be true and proves that, when a game is made well, it doesn't matter. Breath of the Wild is not a masterpiece. I am not yet convinced that it is any better than 'pretty good' but it is the right game at the right time on a new piece of hardware. There is a reason that it outsold every other launch title in Nintendo's history and it is not just that there is almost nothing else available.

Breath of the Wild is the game people wanted to play, with a modern twist, on a system that allows them to play it where that want to. Just like lighting a fire with a torch, it feels right.

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