However carefully open-world video games are designed, whatever delights they lay out for you like a buffet of fun-morsels, they can never account for the unpredictably dumb actions of their players. I have been invited to Nintendo’s European headquarters to spend a couple of hours with The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, probably this year’s most-anticipated video game, and so with the whole of Hyrule stretched out before me and a tantalising fort full of grimacing Bokoblin monsters to fight just down the hill, I choose to instead spend 20 minutes constructing a flame-throwing fortress on wheels.
Using storied adventurer Link’s telekinetic powers to pick stuff up and smoosh it together, I painstakingly line up wheels on wooden bars that I’m using for axels, throw together wooden boards to create a boxy chassis, and take it for a couple of troubleshooting test drives before I attach flamethrowing gargoyle heads to the front. Unfortunately, the flamethrowers unbalance it, and as I careen down the road my self-made vehicle flips over and sets itself on fire. Link falls off and I watch as my hard work turns to literal ashes, its few non-flammable components tumbling unspectacularly to the ground. It turns out you should not try to make a flame-throwing go-kart out of wood.
I laughed so hard when this happened that there were tears in my eyes. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Tears of the Kingdom is that it does, in fact, account beautifully for the unpredictably dumb actions of its players. Every time I asked “what if I …?”, the game rewarded me with a fun answer. I stuck a rocket to a minecart, lit it, climbed in, and propelled myself down a rail with such force that I accidentally yeeted myself out of the cart at the other end, sending me right off the floating island I was on and into freefall above Hyrule. I glued a rocket to my shield, pressed the button to see what would happen, and shot 100ft vertically into the air. I tried to create a flying machine, but I didn’t have enough fans to power it, so I pushed it off the edge of a mountain to see if it would function as a glider instead. (It didn’t.)
I even created the famous speculative meat arrows that eagle-eyed Zelda fans spotted in the game’s latest trailer, because I came across a giant toothy Like Like monster blocking my way through a cave, and thought that maybe if I attached a steak to an arrow and shot it into its gaping mouth, that would keep it busy so that I could run past. I’m not sure if this actually worked, because the next thing I tried was a bomb arrow, and I got too close to the explosion and died. Not everything I tried worked, but even when it didn’t, it was usually very funny.
I should probably explain how all this works, because crafting and building in video games is usually laborious and annoying, and in Tears of the Kingdom it is certainly less so. Link has two new abilities that open the doors to nonsense: you can combine basically any given thing with your sword or shield to create a hybrid weapon, like a pitchfork on the end of a very long pole, or a shield with a fan on it to blow enemies away from you, or a hammer from a rock and a stick. You can also pick stuff up and move it around and fuse it together freely; a puzzle that I found on a series of floating islands had me hanging a hook-shaped metal strut from a broken minecart track, sticking the card to its underside, then using a fan to propel myself along the single unbroken rail.
Link can use random materials that are just lying around, like everything that I used to build my ill-fated flamethrowing go-kart, or special powered parts that he gets from what look like giant ancient Gashapon machines, such as steering wheels, flame emitters and fans. Usually you’ll need at least one powered component to make your experimental creation work, whether it’s a car or a flying drone or a hot air balloon. Moving components around and rotating them to get them exactly where you want them to be is still mildly annoying, but you can fudge it a bit and the game will be generous. It wants you to think of things and then immediately be able to try them out without worrying too much about the logistics, removing all the friction between idea and result.
There are ways to streamline this process; later in the game you’ll unlock time-saving building features so you don’t have to start from scratch every time. And crucially, it seems to me that you can essentially ignore the whole process, if building things isn’t exciting for you. You can still play Tears of the Kingdom pretty much like you played Breath of the Wild, dancing around enemies with swords and spears, climbing up mountains rather than rocketing to their summits on some deranged vehicle. Everything that was here in Breath of the Wild is still here, minus some of Link’s old powers; but there’s this entire new side of the game to explore.
Given that I’ve been playing Breath of the Wild for going on six years now, on and off – it is one of those rare games whose appeal feels bottomless – I didn’t expect to be able to get a feel for its sequel in a couple of hours. But I have played enough to be certain that its creative potential is enormous. Within a few days of its release on 12 May, players will be posting videos of eccentric creations and elaborate puzzle solutions that even its developers will never have seen before.