Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a much more structured take on the series
Everything we learnt from playing its first hour.
I think it was Sam Beckett - the playwright, not the body-hopping scientist - who once said you can learn just as much about a city from your first day there as you can your first three months. I'm not sure how much you can say about an all-new Animal Crossing from just an hour spent in its company - these are games for life - but between that and everything from today's Direct I can certainly try. This is a gentle upgrade for Nintendo's life-sim series, but one that brings more structure to your life while streamlining many other elements.
You start at a check-in for Nook Inc's travel company - that company logo deliciously using Nintendo's own logotype - with Timmy and Tommy Nook manning the desk as you set out on your package holiday. There you're presented with the question - hypothetical, it must be said - of, if limited to the essentials, you'd rather have food, a lamp or something to kill time with, before you're presented with more material matters such as choosing whether you want to play in the northern hemisphere or southern hemisphere - which determines what seasons bring what weather - and the initial layout of your island.
The options when it comes to your own avatar are still fairly limited, and while features are now no longer locked to gender it seems the bulk of the customisation will come later in the game. Having picked an avatar you're then off to the island itself, with two other villagers in tow (this seems to be randomly generated - in my particular session I was paired up with Mira, a superhero rabbit, and Biff, a bodybuilding hippo).
When you get to the island itself, New Horizon's own particular flavour becomes much stronger. You start your life in the wilds, essentially, the island home to only untamed flora and fauna as you and the other holiday-goers gallivant around amongst the weeds. You then choose where to pitch your tent - and, perhaps more importantly, advise those other holiday-goers where they pitch theirs. It's an important new kink of New Horizons, as you can now determine where other animals live in your world - and what animals get to join you on the island, as they drift through as guests awaiting your invite for them to become full residents.
Once they've pitched their tents, another aspect of New Horizons comes into focus. Here, everyone starts out from scratch and in primitive tents that are slowly upgraded over time. You're no longer an mayoral impostor in an already-established village that you imprint your will and creativity on - here, you're crafting that space very much from scratch in tandem with those other animals. It's tempting to say you're in control, but of course we know that's never the case in Animal Crossing as there's someone else everyone must answer to.
Maybe Tom Nook has mellowed over the years, or maybe he hasn't, but he's very much a presence in New Horizons. At the start of every day he grabs a microphone and lets you know what lies in wait. If New Horizons' holiday adventure is Hi-de-Hi, and the more I think about it the more it is, then he's camp leader Ted Bovis, with Isabelle popping along later to do her Su Pollard bit. Alongside his apprentices Timmy and Tommy, Nook sets up the resident services that's one of the first facilities available. It's a 24-hour joint - helpfully! - where you can purchase tools and saplings as well as access the crafting table that forms another new facet for New Horizons.
The other facility you can access from the off is the airport, manned by the affable if dozy dodo Orville. It's also open 24 hours a day, and from here you can visit other islands or invite others to come and visit yours. It's from here you can also visit far-off mystery islands that seem to serve the same purpose as the tropical islands of old, where you can discover and acquire more exotic bugs and plants to bring back with you for a pocketful of Bells or just to spruce up your own neighbourhood. The airport is also a focal point for multiplayer - as well as a place to send and receive mail - and it's where you can invite up to eight other players to be on your island at any time.
The security of your island is ensured by visitors being unable to use axes or shovels or anything potentially destructive. If you'd rather people could use such tools for more constructive methods you can register players as best friends who are able to do as they please on your island. Four player local co-op is also an option, with one player being designated as the leader and all items collected being available for retrieval later in a recycle box.
This being Nintendo there is of course some fuzziness to it all. You access other islands by using a Dodo Code (which at least seems less unwieldy than the codes used in previous Animal Crossing games), though of course voice chat is only an option if you're using the Nintendo Online mobile app. For that particular app there's an associated feature called NookLink launching soon after New Horizon that will help facilitate all this - and it's where you'll also be able to import designs from the 3DS' New Leaf and Happy Home Designer by scanning in QR codes.
Further blurring the lines between the game and reality - an Animal Crossing speciality, as ever - your in-game character has their own phone with its own apps that facilitate many of the fresh features in New Horizons. It's handed to you by Nook himself as you wake up to your first full day on the island - and in a moment of self-awareness that'd be cute if it wasn't so accurate he then jokes the phone is simpler than most as they've simply removed most of the features. Nintendo!
That phone is super useful, though, and it's where you'll keep track of your Nook Miles, the in-game achievement system that provides a new spine for your Animal Crossing experience. There's a long page of them, most of them mysteriously blank while your first day pottering about will see you tick off a fair few such as simply talking to a villager, collecting a certain amount of weeds (oh yes, weeds can be collected now) or catching 10 fish. Tick off an achievement and you'll be rewarded with Nook Miles, a new currency system that seems super useful - 5000 will settle your first payment and allow you to upgrade your abode, something which would otherwise cost you a cool 50,000 Bells.
It's a neat idea and lends the series some welcome structure, though of course the aimlessness that's also so much of the charm of Animal Crossing looks to be perfectly intact. Indeed, the real surprises seem to be ferreted away further into the experience - like the terraforming, enabled by the Island Designer, that lets you carry out intense construction work and pave new paths or even modify cliffs and rivers. It's where the new tools - the ladders that help you scale heights, or the pole-vault that lets you leap over rivers - will reveal themselves, and it's where your responsibilities as resident representative - an analogue, I presume, to your role as mayor in New Leaf - will become apparent. So too will the changes to the museum space, the Abel Sisters' shop and all the other facilities that will make their way to your island. But this is Animal Crossing, and these things take time. I'm just grateful there's not much time left until we can find all this out for ourselves.