Nintendo’s latest Zelda game is not what you’d expect. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild features weapon degradation, fire propagation, a minimalist map design, respawning enemy checkpoints–and deja vu, I experienced all these mechanics before in one of my all-time favorite games: Far Cry 2.
Ubisoft Montreal’s 2008 shooter Far Cry 2 is a divisive title because of many of these mechanics. Breath of the Wild leverages many of the same mechanics to great effect. And both games craft worlds that are often indifferent to the player’s existence. Why is one considered divisive and the other considered possibly one of the best games ever made?
The biggest one might be intention. With Far Cry 2, these design choices all serve to create a hostile space that constantly keeps the player on edge while Breath of the Wild uses it to give the game space a sense of always having something dynamic and unexpected happening. One game wants to horrify and disempower, the other to amaze and empower.
When something unexpected happens in Far Cry 2, it’s often frustrating or irritating and puts the player on the backfoot. It’s a world built to punish the player. In Breath of the Wild it’s often amusing and opens up new avenues to tinker with systems and mechanics in ways that you didn’t anticipate before. It can still result in death, but it feels more like tinkering in a sandbox and less like crawling through desert cliffs seeking shelter from the heat.
The difference in mechanic implementations also make a big difference. Weapon degradation is one of the most hated aspects of Far Cry 2 and, to be fair, a lot of people hated it in Breath of the Wild. But one way in which Breath of the Wild makes it less frustrating is by giving the player space to have an arsenal of weapons. In Far Cry 2, you can only carry a handful of guns. In Breath of the Wild, you can expand your weapon carrying capacity to a healthy size.
Breath of the Wild also has a lot more weapon variety. There are swords, claymores, clubs, hammers, axes, spears, halberds, magic rods and more. Breaking a weapon is less of a setback when you’ve got an array of new and interesting weapons to try. Suddenly you can try that two-handed club or whip out that flaming sword. It’s an opportunity to keep gameplay fresh and interesting. It keeps players on their toes but generally makes it where you always have a viable backup strategy at hand.
Respawning checkpoints were another major annoyance with Far Cry 2. Here, Breath of the Wild is more generous in that it has a set time where all enemies across the entire world will respawn after a cutscene, clearly signaling when previous areas will become dangerous again. It’s less frequent and forecasts it to the player, making the system more transparent and less irritating.
The other elements Breath of the Wild cribbs from Far Cry 2 are the more beloved features: minimalist map design and fire propagation. In an era where open world games cover the map with a cornucopia of colored icons, there’s a refreshing lack of icons on Zelda’s map. It’s rendered as an actual map where topography, roads and regions exist but no icons of what handy features are where. (Granted, you do have to climb a tower to reveal part of the map, but the towers are few and the view also gives you the chance to mark interesting sights manually.)
This requires players to mark on the map and make waypoints themselves and then chart their own path to any given point on the map. It emphasizes exploration instead of following the defined route that tends to make up the majority of open world games. The journey becomes the adventure, not whatever is at the destination.
Therefore, the map becomes a document of what you’ve done and found and not what you need to do or find. Quests to have map markers, but since you can only mark one at a time and there’s no suggested route pathing, it leaves the player with a lot of space to explore and venture as desired.
Coupled with this is the Sheikah Sensor, a device that beeps and glows as one gets closer to a set desired object. It defaults to shrines which serve as puzzle areas or battle arenas for the player where the player earns orbs which can be traded for another heart or more staminy. The Sheikah Sensor also can be set to anything you can photograph and store in the Hyrule Compendium.
It’s similar to Far Cry’s 2 GPS sensor which goes off when one is near a case of diamonds. This system encourages exploration and going off the beaten path to find new things but also gives the player a bit of direction to the most desired items.
The final similarity further demonstrates the difference between these two games: fire propagation. Touted as one of the big technical feats of Far Cry 2, fire propagation was this double-edged swords where you could use tactically placed flames to flush out enemies, but a change of wind could have the flames flushing you out of cover instead.
Breath of the Wild’s fire propagation enables players to get out of sticky situations. Flames create an updraft in the air, allowing the player to pull out his/her glider at any moment and riding the updraft out of danger and using the gain mobility to attack from above or flee.
Far Cry 2 and Breath of the Wild contrast how the same systems can be used to different ends. Both are open worlds, but Far Cry 2 presents its mechanics as a means to make the player feel underpowered and adrift in a hostile world. In contrast, Breath of the Wild is this expressive sandbox of interesting and unexpected adventures that has you running around the corner looking for the next adventure.
Both games create for surprising moments where systems come together and drastically change the situation. But in one game this often leaves the player going “oh crap,” while the other makes the player go “oh wow.” Each effectively evokes an emotion and both are valid and have their place. Both demonstrate the strength of presenting players with a world to explore and inhabit instead of constantly presenting systems as rigid and predictable.
It’s hard to imagine a world in which Breath of the Wild uses these systems to such an effect without Far Cry 2. Ubisoft’s shooter generated stories and talks that fostered a return to a style of game that the AAA space seemed to have abandoned in 2008. And for Nintendo of all companies to look for such a design ethos in the year 2017 is as exciting and surprising as the best moments in either game.
© James Blake Ewing 2017