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Hands-on with Animal Crossing: New Horizons – Reassuringly familiar, but that's exactly what you want

(Image credit: Nintendo)

Animal Crossing has always thrived on our obsession with the truly mundane. The series has succeeded and grown a loyal audience because it can offer players a getaway from the often grim, harsh truths of reality. It somehow makes performing menial tasks fun, and gamifies getting – and slowly paying off – an ever-increasing mortgage, and we applaud it for that. But that's exactly why Animal Crossing: New Horizons is so exciting. At this point in time, we're looking for a little slice of paradise, a moment away from having to think about what's for dinner, or whether we've got enough money to put it there. Tom Nook is here to save us. 

Yes, really. 

You might be wondering whether I've gone totally mad from spending an hour on a deserted island with the family of Nooks, but I haven't. I promise. Even from the smallest sample of island life, it's clear that Animal Crossing: New Horizons iterates on everything that we know and love about the series as a whole. Taking the mechanics that made Animal Crossing: New Leaf so utterly brilliant, New Horizons adds shine and polish, making tweaks where necessary to ensure that there's enough in here to keep it feeling fresh. New Horizons isn't an overhaul in any sense of the word, this is more of the Animal Crossing you know and love – and it is bliss. 

Pack your bags

(Image credit: Nintendo)

My preview session covers the first hour of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, as the adventure begins on a deserted island to call my own, all courtesy of Nook Inc.  But before you can sink your toes into the glistening sands, you're going to have to design your character. For me, this is huge. I cannot tell you how many times I emerged from the giant hairdryer thing in New Leaf's Shampoodle with a haircut I hated, having played the awful guessing game wrong, only to have to wait until the next day to try and get it right. New Horizons is doing it right, and the character customisation is there from the outset. You can pick your gender, hairstyle (although there are only eight to start with), and your eye, nose, and mouth shape. There are also options to change your hair and eye colour, and a few more options. I played as a girl, but the game informs you several times that you can change your appearance and gender whenever you want to. Heck, as soon as you arrive on the island, you can take all your clothes off and run around in your underwear if you feel inclined to do so.

And then it's down to your island. You can pick whether to live on an island in the northern or southern hemisphere (I went north to mirror my own location) and then you're offered four different island templates to pick from. They are pretty limited, mostly shifting the initial placement of rivers, but you shouldn't get too hung up on what the map looks like to begin with; the ultimate aim in Animal Crossing: New Horizons is to create your own island, editing the terrain and the water features according to your own designs as you progress through the game.

(Image credit: Nintendo)

When you're done with the initial outlay of the island, you're straight into the game. Your freshly customised character hops on a little Nook Inc plane and is taken straight to the Airport situated on your new homeland. This will be a familiar location following your first 24 hours on the island, as it's here that you'll be able to use the internet or local wireless to invite people to visit – or to head over to other islands yourself – as well as access the in-island postal service. For now though, it's little more than a portal to your getaway, and Timmy and Tommy Nook don't waste any time whisking you away for island orientation with two other fresh-faced islanders – although for me they were a pair of familiar faces, Genji and Flo. 

After a brief introduction, the Nooks finally let you loose on the island. Armed only with a map and a tent, you are tasked with placing your pop-up home and helping your new neighbours find spots for theirs too. It's here that you actually get a full sense of just how beautiful New Horizons is. Keeping the same style as previous Animal Crossing games, this new instalment offers an extra level of detail that makes a real difference. The islanders look fuzzy: Flo's a penguin so she's got that kind of fuzzy finish you'd find in the old Fuzzy Felt activity books, while Genji's bunny hair has more of a furry effect – as you'd hope. And don't even get me started on the tiny toe beans. Your hair, on the other hand, shines as you move around the map, with my islander's pigtails bobbing with each step. It feels reminiscent of the graphical effects in the recent Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening remake, adding that kind of toy-like charm and glisten to the visuals. 

Setting up camp

(Image credit: Nintendo)

As you move up the map, using the same barrel-style camera effect of New Leaf, it's clear that some other inhabitants of the Animal Crossing world have had a facelift too. Bugs loom as they lurk on tree trunks with increased realism, a snowflake drifts across the screen in my wintery northern hemisphere with a faint audible tinkling as it goes, and the snow glistens with that kind of sparkle only fresh snow has. It's seriously gorgeous. 

It's worth noting that a lot of my island is off-limits to me right now. I don't yet have the ability to leap across the river – I'll need to craft a vault pole for that later – and there's not a bridge in sight. It makes starting my island and laying out my islanders' homes a little more limited. The little island in the centre of the map surrounded by rivers is, for now, totally inaccessible, so I have to pitch my tent on the mainland for now. Of course, this is only the beginning, and once I place all three tents in suitable spots, I'm tasked with gathering supplies for an island warming party. 

I can then start picking up the items I've seen lying around the island. Tree branches can be found just on the ground or can be shaken loose from trees. These later become the basis for crafting a flimsy fishing rod, and no doubt the basis for a lot of other rudimentary tools too. You'll be pleasantly annoyed to hear one of the things I start collecting are weeds. And oh boy, there's a lot of them. I get to 60 before stopping, overjoyed to see a bundle of them all stacked in one inventory slot, which is such a welcome addition, and later I exchange them for bells at the Resident Services, which acts as Nook's base of operations, and as a replacement for Re-Tail from New Leaf – at least until more shops start arriving later in the game.

(Image credit: Nintendo)

Later, you wake up, and the clock resets to the actual time, signalling the start of the game proper. It's then that you'll start really getting into the new way of life in New Horizons. The NookPhone is an innovative way to track all your progress, letting you know how best to spend your time, especially if you want to earn NookMiles, the new currency. Although Bells are still a part of the game, it's NookMiles you'll have to earn to pay off your bills with the nefarious Nook. Thankfully, his bill turns from a whopping 49,800 Bells for his part in relocating you to the island, to a reasonably sensible 5,000 NookMiles. 

What's more, you can earn NookMiles by literally just playing the game. You get 500 just for moving to the island, another 300 for taking a photo, and more still for just chatting with residents, fishing, catching bugs, planting flowers, selling fruit or seashells, placing furniture in your home… and so on. Tracking all the various objectives in your NookPhone makes it easier to see what's quickly achievable, and the more you do, the more you earn, and the more rewards you get. It already feels like a much more satisfying way of rewarding and respecting your time than any of the progression systems seen in previous Animal Crossing games.

(Image credit: Nintendo)

My brief time with Animal Crossing: New Horizons comes to an end as soon as I start to explore the new crafting system, which is a huge part of the game this time. The demo only let me craft a flimsy fishing rod, but doing this (by using five tree branches and a blueprint Tom Nook gives you) will let you install a new app on your NookPhone for DIY. Residents will start giving you recipes to craft too, and anything you create you can also customise later on down the line too.

It's hard to build a real picture of exactly what the fullest picture of Animal Crossing: New Horizons after just an hour with the game. This is a series that's never been afraid of taking its time, drip-feeding new features, areas, and more as the weeks, nay months and probably years progress – this is still a game that follows the real-world movement of time after all. But to me, it has more of the sense of slow progression that got me so hooked to Stardew Valley. Animal Crossing: New Horizons isn't going to offer you everything on a plate. You're going to have to start small, pushing out the edges of your habitable area, tweaking, learning, and tweaking some more until you start to discover everything the game has to offer. And, thankfully, there's not long to wait until we can all start exploring.

I'm the lady in charge of GamesRadar, but also getting all the reviews up on the website, so you can thank me for all those shining stars – or blame me for a lack of them. I also spend my time working my SEO magic to try and coax the Google Juice to flow in our favour.