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I’ve done tons of previews of big single-player games, and they’re typically a quiet affair in which you’re walked through a narrow slice of action that plays out the same for everyone in attendance. But when I got my hands on the hotly anticipated The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom at a recent Nintendo event, I felt like I was at a party. The entire room quickly filled with raucous, joyful laughter as everyone found their own creative ways to ascend the skies of Hyrule — or failed in hilarious fashion.

Tears of the Kingdom is the long-awaited follow up to Breath of the Wild, the definitive Nintendo Switch game that launched alongside the system in 2017. It became an instant hit, not just for its gorgeous open world and compelling story, but because of the sheer freedom it gave players to tackle every encounter and challenge exactly how they saw fit. And if my two hours with Tears of the Kingdom are any indication, the new sequel is set to take that sense of freedom to new heights (quite literally) with some of the most creative and fun action gameplay I’ve ever experienced.

Where to order The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is out now, and is available to buy from just about every big retailer.

If you want to go all-out, there’s also a $130 Collector’s Edition that gets you the game, a fancy steelbook case, poster, an artwork and a set of pins (just note that it may be harder to find in stock). And for the real hardcore fans — or folks who simply need a Switch — there’s a special Tears-themed Switch OLED up for purchase that features unique artwork inspired by Link’s latest adventure.

CNN Exclusive Deal

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom looks to build on the expansive open-world action of its beloved predecessor with exciting new abilities and a focus on vertical exploration. You can currently get the game for $10 off at Super Shop (the lowest discount we've seen yet) with the code CNNZELDA.

For the Zelda superfans out these, this Collector's Edition adds in a special steelbook case, a steel poster, a set of four pin badges and a 204-page Tears of the Kingdom art book.

Getting creative with ultrahand

If you’ve played Breath of the Wild (or have watched the many ridiculous highlight clips out there), you know that the game offers no shortage of inventive ways to traverse the environment and take out enemies as series star Link on his quest to free Hyrule from the evil grip of Ganon. Tears of the Kingdom builds on that foundation with four key new abilities: Ultrahand, Ascend, Fuse and Recall. I spent much of my two-hour session learning how to use these four new tools across the expanses of Hyrule, and left buzzing with ideas on how I could take advantage of them in the final game.

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My demo started simple, throwing me into an area where I had to reunite a villager with their friend who was stuck on a faraway floating platform connected only by a set of rails. There was a broken-down minecart lying around nearby, but nothing to power it. This is where Ultrahand — essentially your building tool — came in.

With Ultrahand active, you can combine just about anything from the environment (from a chopped-down tree to a set of rocks) with the game’s various “Zonai” objects, which are basically special gizmos that give them supercharged abilities. In this case, I was able to affix a fan to the back of the minecart, place it on the track and, just for good measure, make a little sidecar for my minute companion using a plank of wood. Once we were all strapped in, I gave the fan a good whack with my sword, and we were cruising from one island to the next.

Of course, as with any Zelda game, solving puzzles isn’t always going to be that easy. The next area had yet another rail section, except one part of the track was broken. My first instinct was to affix a pair of rockets to either side of my minecart to shoot over the gap — which would have worked, if I attached them correctly. Instead, I put them on backwards, leading my cart to violently reverse into a wall as the Nintendo reps and I all enjoyed a hearty laugh together. Sandbox games like this are all about trial and error after all, and failing is part of the fun. After watching me futz around to no avail for a while, a rep gently hinted that the unsuspecting giant hook lying in the grass would help me achieve my goal. I then figured out that I could combine the hook and the minecart, creating a zipline trolley-esque vehicle that allowed me to slide up the side of the railing that wasn’t broken.

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Ultrahand took a bit of getting used to — you’ll have to be careful about how and where you put all of your pieces together, as I learned the hard way — but throughout the course of my demo, I got comfortable rotating all sorts of gizmos and gadgets into place. It helps that you can use your Joy-Con or Pro Controller’s motion controls to move stuff around, which added a nice freehand level of precision to the experience.

Traversing the skies

After spending 20 or so minutes building minecarts to mixed results, it was time to take on a much more open segment of Hyrule that would challenge me to use all of the game’s new abilities — in tandem with some classic Zelda combat — to make my way from the ground to a series of faraway platforms way high in the sky.

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Before I even got to the fancy new stuff, it felt good to be reacquainted with Breath of the Wild’s core combat and traversal, which have remained largely untouched for the sequel. Locking on to enemies, dodging attacks, hacking and slashing and landing a perfect bow-and-arrow headshot all feel as satisfying as ever — there are just even more ways to do it all now.

One of my favorite new abilities is Fuse, which lets you combine environmental objects with your weapons. For example, I was able to fuse a rock with a sword to make a comical-looking mallet of sorts, as well as fuse a bunch of enemy remains together to make an especially damaging blade. You can even infuse your arrows with special items to make some creatively powerful projectiles — including one that hunts down enemies homing-missile style.

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Since part of my goal was to travel upwards, the new Ascend ability was key. It’s exactly what it sounds like: go up to pretty much any ceiling in the game, and you can warp through it to get to the top of a structure. It’s a satisfying way to travel far distances vertically, and saved me a lot of time that I would have otherwise spent tediously climbing large buildings.

Of all of the new abilities, Recall is the one I see players causing the most chaos with. This move essentially lets you rewind the trajectory of an object, allowing you to, say, retrieve a vehicle you launched over the ocean, or get back a weapon you flung at an enemy. When a group of enemies sent a giant spiked ball my way, I used Recall to dramatic (and amusing) effect to send it right back, toppling a bunch of bokoblins in the process. Again, creativity is key.

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My ascent into the skies of Hyrule forced me to get more inventive with Ultrahand, building custom gliders that allowed me to soar from one floating island to the next. Fortunately, you’ll be able to save and recall any Ultrahand builds you come up with (as long as you have the required parts), which really came in handy when I had to use said glider multiple times.

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The grand finale of my demo challenged me to move a gemstone from one floating island to the next, which I overthought to a hilarious degree. (Sensing a theme here?) I tried just about everything — strapping rockets to its sides, setting off bombs next to it, affixing a steering wheel and trying to turn the stone to a full-on glider — and all of them failed spectacularly (again, there were lots of laughs from all over the room). It turned out the solution was much simpler than I realized, as a nearby switch allowed me to solve a puzzle and create a bridge of sorts between the islands. But I stand by the fact that my failed rocket launches came dangerously close, and I know that with a bit more time, I could have probably found an alternative way to the finish line.

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From a visual standpoint, Tears of the Kingdom looks a lot like Breath of the Wild, which is to say that it’s gorgeous. The series’ vibrant, pastel-like art style still looks as good now as it did in 2017, only this time with a more autumnal color palette and a grander sense of verticality. I had some concerns about the game’s performance heading into the demo — after all, titles like Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are starting to push the aging Switch to its limits — but it maintained a steady frame rate even as I free-fell from one giant floating island to the next. I was constantly in awe any time I looked out to the vast sea of floating islands in the distance. What the game lacks in sheer fidelity, it makes up for with beautiful colors and an incredible sense of scale.

The takeaway

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After my two hours with Tears of the Kingdom wrapped up, I chatted with fellow journalists and Nintendo reps alike about all of the wacky different methods we used to ascend Hyrule. Those unique player anecdotes were a big part of what made Breath of the Wild one of the best Nintendo Switch games, and are the kind of experience that you don’t often get in a big single-player game.

With even more tools for playing creatively and a new focus on vertical exploration, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is shaping up to be one of the most expansive action games ever made — one that builds on Breath of the Wild’s already excellent foundation while somehow one-upping its predecessor’s already massive sense of scale. I already can’t wait to spend more time zipping around Hyrule in my custom-made, rocket-powered aberrations, and I’m just as excited to see how differently all of my friends did it.