It’s been three long years since Nintendo’s next Legend of Zelda was first announced, but we’ve finally got our first look at the game at this year’s E3. And boy is it beautiful.

Although the much-anticipated Nintendo Wii U and NX title isn’t out until sometime in 2017, we’ve now got a good idea of how this gorgeous adventure will work. An open world adventure that’s said to be the biggest Zelda yet, both in terms of scale and the variety of techniques you can use to tackle dungeons and challenges, Breath of the Wild is a truly mouthwatering prospect.

Can it do enough to make up for Nintendo’s haphazard handling of the Wii U over the past year? Probably not. Still, at least the NX seems to have quite the launch title on its hands.

Nintendo's best-looking game ever?

Looks aren’t everything, at least that’s what our mother told us, but the best thing about Breath of the Wild seems set to be its cel-shaded aesthetic. A more adult take on Wind Waker’s cartoon vibes, this is the first Zelda to be designed in HD and seems to be the most stunning title Nintendo has made since Super Mario Galaxy - at least in terms of sheer wow factor.

Link has a roguish, wind-swept vibe (and a ponytail!), while the vast expanse of Hyrule surrounding him takes in volcanos, abandoned temples and plenty of old friends from previous games. You want to leap out into it right from the off.

Truly Breathtaking

I had a chance to go hands-on with Breath of the Wild in Nintendo's impressive Zelda mega-booth at E3, and I took on two separate chunks of the game totaling about 40 minutes' worth.

The first was pretty freeform: any story or missions formalities were out the window as Nintendo wanted me simply to learn the ropes and get a hang of the controls. With the second demo, I then had objectives to complete, a new character to chat with (a paragliding grandpa - fantastic), and a bit of tantalising story dangling over my head.

What struck me first about Breath of the Wild was, unsurprisingly, how gobsmackingly gorgeous the game is. It's a Hayao Miyazaki homage – particularly Princess Mononoke – if you ever saw one, particularly in its expressions of nature, animals and plantlife alike.

It's seriously stunning, and thankfully, it seems to run pretty smoothly on the Wii U. That said, it looks a little crispy up close: the jagged edges on the swaying blades of grass, for example, look a bit rough.

That said, the game still looks darn good, but I can't help but think the NX is going to make the difference here. Smoothed out and running at a higher resolution, you probably won't find a prettier game on the market next year.

And honestly, that's a tiny, tiny nitpick against the Wii U version, which really is very beautiful overall. The art direction makes a big difference here, especially with the callbacks to the classic artwork seen in the manuals of the original Legend of Zelda.

Between that and the Japanese logo, there's a very conscious decision to recall the 1986 debut, and that is incredibly smart. Also, it tugs the nostalgia strings like crazy.

Hyrule is huge and ripe for exploration

You’ll have to travel plenty far to see everything around you, though. Central to Breath of the Wild is the idea of exploration, with Nintendo claiming there are potentially hundreds of ways to play the game. Along your travels you’ll find camps of blood-thirsty goblins, ChuChus and even the cutesy Koroks from Wind Waker, but you won’t be guided along a specific path to find them.

There’s significantly less hand-holding than in previous Zeldas. Cut the grass in front of you, for example, and a swell of hearts and rupees won’t pop into existence. Instead, you’re tasked with feeding yourself with foraged goods and defending yourself with any weaponry you might pick up.

Basically, we’d wither and perish in this new imagining of Hyrule - until getting our hands on a Master Sword, of course.

Survive and Prosper

What's also really interesting – and surprising – about Breath of the Wild is that it feels like a response to the success of survival games like Minecraft and Don't Starve. You have to change clothes with the weather, amass resources through hunting, gathering, and chopping down trees, and cook and eat food to stay alive.

You can even build a little bit, tinker with food recipes, and have a bit of silly fun as you build explosive traps and hop on your shield to surf down a mountain side. I loved the sheer amount of options I had in battle, or in wandering the world and seeing how best to traverse or even simply enjoy it.

No, The Legend of Zelda isn't changing its heart and soul to follow trends; rather, it sees how those survival elements build attachment with open-ended games and it blends those into the classic formula.

One initial caveat, however: there's a lot going on with the Wii U GamePad, and I still didn't have a hang of the controls after both demo sessions. The layout may not be finalized – for example, the touchscreen wasn't being used for any game commands yet – and hopefully we see the scheme streamlined a bit, but it's not coming easily in the current incarnation.

Then again, it might be better suited for the Nintendo NX controller – whatever that ends up resembling – and less so the Wii U GamePad. Time will tell on that one.

You've got a tablet to find your way about

Thankfully, you’re handed the ability to jump and climb your way around Hyrule right from the start of the game. That means you can grab any apples hanging off a tree or scramble up a cliff face to get a better view of the awesome expanse in front of you.

Naturally Link’s trusty horse Epona is along for the ride, but there are also few new items to get to grips with. One of them is a kite for paragliding off mountains with, while your shield can also be used to surf down them as well.

By far the most important tool you’ll get your hands on though, is the Sheikah Slate, a new age iPad that’s a map/periscope/key that you receive right at the start of the game’s mysterious opening.

Flurry Rush combat seems immensely fun

In terms of dossing around the main game world, it’s a great tool for planning your attacks on unsuspecting foes. Breath of the Wild’s combat is almost as varied as its exploration, with a slew of weapons (including swords, axes and the rather less useful tree branches) available for your beastie slaying needs.

The hack and slash strategy of previous Zeldas has been tweaked to serve up bullet time moments called ‘flurry rushes’. Unlike Neo or Max Payne, it won’t be bullets your enemies your enemies will be riddled with, but the sweet taste of cold steel.

Need to replenish your health mid-battle? You’ll be able to select food to chomp down on from the inventory section, but that’s far from all the inventory is good for. From what we’ve seen so far, it’s the key for managing your exploration with different items and types of clothing which are required for later areas.

It's a new Zelda

All of what we’ve seen so far points to a complete reinvention of the classic Zelda formula. As with A Link Between Worlds, the rigid old ‘eight dungeons and a final boss’ rulebook has been ripped up in favour of freeform play and exploration.

Given it’s been five years since Skyward Sword, we were already plenty excited about the prospect of returning to Hyrule on a home console. With so much innovation seemingly packed into Breath of the Wild, we now can’t wait until 2017 rolls around.

Wildly Great?

The Breath of the Wild demo is pretty dazzling: the graphics and music are entrancing, the mysterious story hooks are already compelling, and the open-area design enables a much larger and more flexible adventure than we've ever seen from the series.

Die-hards might bristle at structural change after three decades, but it's essential after all this time to keep the formula from growing stale.

Barring some dramatic mishap along the way, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild will be the game that finally justifies that Wii U console purchase for so many frustrated owners – or makes you spring for the NX next year. In either case, it ought to be something special.