Friday, 30 Oct 2020

Animal Crossing: New Horizons hands-on preview – island living

GameCentral gets an advanced preview of the new Animal Crossing for Nintendo Switch, including a glimpse at some late game additions.

Usually whenever we write a preview and we’re told about avoiding spoilers we don’t really think too much about it. It’s obvious nobody wants a game’s story spoiled before it’s even out and we’re always happy to go along with whatever specific revelations a publisher wants to keep secret. But with the new Animal Crossing we were genuinely worried about spoiling ourselves, since the preview earlier this week offered a chance to see elements from very late in the game. Some of those things we can’t tell you about right now but what we can assure you is that it all looks exactly as charming and fun as you’d expect.

Ignoring things like Wii Fit, Animal Crossing is probably Nintendo’s least hardcore franchise. It’s a game without any specific end goal, no real action, and little of anything that would be considered traditional gameplay. That has not, however, stopped it from being hugely successful and something that even gamers who usually take themselves very seriously happily enjoy. However, the series has been going since the N64 era and each new game has featured only very small advancements on the basic formula. But New Horizons is, at last, different.

The central premise of New Horizons is the same as always; although instead of moving in to live in a random patch of land you’re now taking up residence on a deserted island with no permanent buildings and just a tent to sleep in. You might not be trying to save the world or defeat a boss character (well, except Tom Nook) but while New Horizons is not a game you can ‘win’ the implied goal is that you’re trying to improve the state of the island with new amenities (museums, shops, town halls, etc.) and upgrade your own home to be larger and more extravagantly furnished.

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What we got to play at the preview was three separate save files created by Nintendo themselves, the first of which was set early on in the game, when there were only a few shops up and running and your house is still modestly sized. At this stage everything still looks and works much like the previous entries, as you trundle around town talking to your neighbours and shaking trees to collect fruit (and risk being attacked by angry wasps).

But one of the major new features of New Horizons is crafting. Instead of just buying everything you want from the shops you can now make a lot of it yourself, if you collect the right ingredients. From what we saw this seems to be primarily different types of wood and iron ore, but there are others such as stone and clay. Plus, sometimes you need to create a more simplistic version and upgrade it, like upgrading a flimsy axe to a more robust one.

This immediately adds a greater sense of purpose as you wander around the island trying to beautify it (we were horrified to find whoever had made the save hadn’t pulled up all the weeds yet) but what also helps greatly with the structure and short term goals is a lengthy set of what are essentially achievements. At the start these are just simple things like crafting a set number of items or selling some fruit but all of them give you something called Nook Miles when you complete them.

That means there are now two in-game currencies, with the traditional bells used to pay for your home upgrades and Nook Miles to used to buy more unique in-game items and upgrades – such as a tool selection wheel. This seems a great way to encourage you to experiment, while also rewarding you for just about everything you do.

In the first save we were stuck in one corner of the island, with no way to cross the rivers that cut through it, but moving on to the second save everything is much more built up, with more neighbours, more amenities (including Isabelle at the town hall) and bridges that someone must’ve built – although you can also use a pole volt to jump across wherever you want.

A number of things struck us about the second save but the most obvious is just good New Horizons looks in terms of its graphics. The previous games didn’t just recycle old ideas but also textures, and yet everything in New Horizons looks brand new and high resolution, even when they’re similar or identical to objects from earlier games. The animals look especially great, as if they’re little felt dolls, and as the trees shake in the wind and the sun sets moodily behind the clouds this becomes the first Animal Crossing where the graphics are a real part of the appeal.

The other noticeable difference is that you can now lay out objects and furniture anywhere you want on the island, from the rocks on its very edge to the grass outside your house. This also helps to make everything look a lot more visually interesting and will make visiting other people’s islands in multiplayer even more exciting. Even just visiting the museum was great, with some rooms basically the same as before but others brand new, such as a room dominated by a fountain and filled with butterflies, including multiple instances of the same species.

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Nintendo wouldn’t say how long it would take to get to a similar level of progression, playing on your own, but going by previous games we’d imagine the second save was probably a little under a month and the third one presumably significantly more than that. We’re not allowed to talk about most of what we saw in the third save, except for the new terraforming feature which allows you to lay pathways anywhere you want and in fairly complex patterns (someone had set up a Japanese rock garden, complete with furniture).

But in what we assume to be one of the last abilities granted to you, you can also create rivers and ponds and even raise up and lower the ground to completely change the layout of the island. The interface for all this was no more complex than pressing a button to raise or lower the area in front of you, so we’re sure it’s going to be a firm favourite once people get that far.

Even if New Horizons was exactly the same as usual it’d still be a perfectly entertaining experience, that we’d end up playing long after the review was written. But since this does seem to be a concerted effort to move the franchise forward, without losing anything that people already enjoy about it, we imagine it’s going to be another big hit for Nintendo and another franchise the Switch can claim to have the best entry in.

For many fans the big question at the moment is what Nintendo has scheduled for after New Horizons, since they haven’t announced any major games for the rest of the year, but suddenly, after playing the new Animal Crossing, that seems much less of an issue than the prospect of getting to create our own island paradise.

Formats: Nintendo Switch
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Nintendo EPD
Release Date: 20th March 2020

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