WARNING: THERE ARE SPOILERS
Spoiler alert: the following article contains information on the gameplay and storyline in the first few hours of Twilight Princess.
Playing a new Zelda adventure for the first time is one of those rare, special moments in gaming; and they don't come any more special than The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.
Since it was revealed at E3 2004, fans have been clamouring to get their hands on Twilight Princess; savouring every titbit of info. Today, you've found yourself a feast!
Below you'll find the first part of our Twilight Princess hands-on impressions, based on the Wii version which hits shops on December 8. While we've yet to complete the game, we've seen enough to know that this Zelda will fulfil all your expectations - and then some!
Twilight Princess begins, appropriately, at dusk. As the day's light fades, the view pans down on a pond in a woodland glade. There sits Link listening to an older man explain how Link will be entrusted with delivering an important package tomorrow to Hyrule Castle.
The scene fades to the next day and we see Link's treehouse home in Ordon Village. A villager arrives and gives Link an urgent mission: round up the goats! Link isn't a hero yet; he's merely a farmhand.
We're now in control of Link for the first time. You move him around with the Nunchuk's Control Stick and press A and B on the Wii Remote to perform actions. Pressing C on the Nunchuk switches to first-person view and you can simply point the Wii Remote where you want to look. Locking onto items and enemies is handled by holding the Nunchuk's Z button.
We have no weapons yet, so all we can do is talk to people. As we walk through the village and chat to the locals we hear stories about mischievous monkeys causing trouble in the area. A young girl tells Link that his fishing rod is almost ready, so we make a mental note to come back later.
We find our horse Epona (you can change the name if you wish) being washed by a pretty girl about Link's age named Ilia. Growing nearby are reeds that you can pick; blow into them and you'll hear a familiar melody (Epona's Song from Ocarina of Time) which calls your horse to you.
The goat-herding minigame is a nice introduction to controlling Epona. You must round up the beasts by coaxing them into their pen and you can even make a cowboy-style 'Whoop!' by hitting A. After each goat is returned, 'Goat in!' humorously flashes on the screen.
When we're finished, we're in such a cowboy mood that we giddy-up Epona and make a daring leap over the fence, heading back to town. There we meet Ilia again but she spots an injury on Epona's leg and she chastises us for hurting the horse with our showjumping stunt. Link doesn't speak but from the look on his face, especially his emotive eyes, you can tell how foolish he's feeling at this moment. If you thought the cel-shaded Link from Wind Waker had lots of character, his new realistic look is even more expressive.
Lost and found
We head back to the village and pay a visit to the shop, where we see a nice Slingshot for sale. Problem is, the shopkeeper is too worried about her lost cat to sell anything today. We won't spoil how we found the missing moggy but we can tell you it involved a crazed monkey, a baby's basket, an eagle and a fish.
With the cat safely returned we can buy the Slingshot. Back at our treehouse we also find a wooden sword has been delivered by one of the villagers, so we try out both of our new weapons on a scarecrow outside. A group of local kids looks on, awestruck, and we already begin to feel a little bit more like a hero, even if our clothes are still those of a farmhand.
No sooner have we finished practising sword-slashing and Slingshot-aiming with the Wii Remote (which feels fast and very intuitive) than we're called into action. Some of the hero-wannabe kids have become lost in a cave after chasing another wild monkey inside, so we set off - picking up a lantern and some oil on the way from a friendly man with birds in his hair. How odd.
Inside the cave are Deku Babas (the man-eating plants seen in previous Zelda games). They look much more menacing than ever; their sharp fangs dripping with green goo. We creep through the tunnel, our lantern cutting through the shadows with its golden light.
Beyond the cave, past a poisonous swamp covered in a dark shadowy fog, we find the kids and bring them home. But we have little time to celebrate, as suddenly a horde of monsters crashes into the village and snatches Link's friend Ilia, leaving Link unconscious.
When we awake, the village is surrounded by a wall of darkness that looks almost alive. As we walk over to investigate, a huge hand reaches out of the blackness and pulls us in.
The dark side
In a dramatic cutscene Link struggles in the grip of the shadowy creature until suddenly a Triforce symbol glows on the hero's hand and the monster flees in fear. Link falls to his knees, apparently in pain, and he cries out before morphing into a wolf. Unconscious, he is dragged away and thrown in prison. Meanwhile a mysterious figure looks on.
Link wakes up still in wolf form and chained to the floor of a small cell. Already we have a visitor: Midna. Immediately we don't trust her, even though she offers to help Link escape. Maybe it's her imp-like appearance or the way one sharp tooth protrudes from her lip when she grins (which she does a lot). But for now, we have no choice but to go along with her escape plan.
Once we're free of the chains and out of the cell (clue: what do dogs like to do with bones?) we're off, running through a waterlogged labyrinth with Midna on our back, battling impressive liquid-like enemies that shimmer on the surface of the water before leaping out and attacking us.
Controlling the wolf feels great. It's fast, nimble and reacts to the same controls as when you're a human but with different results. Flick forward with the Wii Remote and wolf Link makes a powerful dash attack. Sometimes you will grab onto enemies with your teeth, when you can repeatedly hit A to gnash and thrash them around. Very cool.
As we go, Midna helps us get used to our new furry form by offering advice. By pressing left or right on the +Control Pad we can activate our Sense ability that allows us to see (or, in some cases, smell) things that humans can't.
Midna is a creature from the dark world so she has special powers in this place, such as a magical hand that extends from her head - useful for reaching far-off objects and to pull herself and Link upwards.
As we head out of the cell blocks we realise we're in the basement of a ruined castle. Midna leads us to the rooftops and we get a great view of the twilight-infested land, as shadowy creatures swoop overhead. Eventually we reach a tower where we see our first human-looking figure since we arrived in the dark world. As the hooded person turns, we suddenly realise where we are.
As the figure removes its hood we see the familiar pointed ears and blonde hair of Princess Zelda herself; meaning this desolate place is Hyrule Castle or, rather, what's left of it. Zelda is about the same age as Link but her face bears the burden of a kingdom in ruin. The cheeky, tomboyish Zelda of Wind Waker she is not.
Via an impressive cutscene Zelda tells us how the castle fell into the hands of a heavily armoured, cloaked figure she calls 'the King that rules the twilight' who covered the land in darkness, trapping the people in a state of limbo. In the flashback scene we don't see the evil King's face but we have an inkling that an old enemy has returned.
But Zelda's story is cut short. Guards are approaching and Link and Midna must flee…