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Review: Minecraft

Minecraft 1.0.jpg

It feels odd to write that title as it seems as though Minecraft has been out for...well, for forever. But as it's progressed over the past couple of years, the game has really been moving through Alpha and Beta revisions - and the progression of the game in that time has been enormous.

Until now. Minecraft is finally, definitively upon us. Mojang has released 1.0, and from now on updates will be just that: Updates. Fun add-ons and bug patches. No more revising the core mechanics of the game. In a very real sense, it's all here now.

Certainly, without the fervour and riches piled upon Mojang since the game went public, it may never have reached the point it has today. In more ways than one, Minecraft has blown open more space for indie games to make it big, and without a doubt, Minecraft is a must-play for lovers of video games the world around.

Full review after the jump.

Story

The premise is as simple and delicious as the greatest of NES classics: You are an unnamed character suddenly and without explanation dropped into a vast and unmapped world.

It's hard to relate how simultaneously overwhelming and exciting this is. As the sun marches across the sky on your first day, and as you explore the game's terrain and mechanics, the possibilities multiply as the pressure mounts. Night is coming. Darkness is falling, and while you may be all on your own, you're not alone.

Minecraft's core is built around the concept of a freewheeling Lego paradise where the whole world is at your disposal, but the story is one of survival. It's you versus the elements, and mastery of the game comes with a sense of great accomplishment.


Gameplay

Minecraft comes in two basic flavours: Survival and Creative. Creative really is that freewheeling Lego paradise. You have absolute control over the game, and can do or make whatever you please. Youtube is rife with videos of the sometimes stunning, sometimes bizarre (and sometimes both) creations which players around the world have made. This review will focus on the Survival side, however, as that is the element that puts the "game" in Minecraft.

The core gameplay is really quite simple. You move around in surroundings made of an unlimited array of blocks made out of a tightly circumscribed number of elements (water, earth, air, sand, stone, lava, redstone, diamond, and so on), and you can do with most of those blocks as you please. Mine them, burn them, punch them, or turn them into other things - and that's where the game's simple mechanics spiral outward into a dizzying array of possibilities. Almost all of the blocks in the game can be combined or refined into useful objects or substances. Wood becomes planks, planks become sticks, sticks and stone can be turned into tools. Sand, when fired in a simple stone oven, becomes glass. Stone, wood, and sand can be turned into just about any structure you have the patience to create.

Minecraft 1.0_2.jpg
Thanks to the game's physics, the geography in Minecraft can be pretty fantastical. (Picture from an older version of the game.)


The game's physics are a bit unique - for example, some blocks will hang in the air seemingly against the laws of physics, while others will drop - but they quickly begin to make sense and can be leveraged in interesting ways. The behaviour of water has been a consistent sticking point for some players in that it doesn't really behave like water...and that, in fact, it doesn't like to behave very well at all. Steps have been taken over the course of the game's development to improve water's physics, but building water features remains one of the more finnicky (sometimes downright maddening) parts. The other elements in the game, however, are quite easy to handle, or (in the case of redstone and lava) are meant to be a bit harder to use. Perhaps it is only because we humans are used to handling water that Minecraft's water feels a bit cantankerous.

The controls themselves are quite simple. The directional arrows and mouse do their usual FPS thing, while a few other buttons are mapped for your inventory, jumping, taking screenshots, and so on. The shift button, which allows you to crouch and not run willy-nilly off some precipitous drop, quickly becomes an acrobatic builder's best friend. The game's controls, video, and sound options are highly customizable. Texture packs and character skins add another layer to the game, with hundreds of fan-made options available out there that range the gamut from painting the game with obviously first-try eyesores to fantastic, often high-resolution tableaux. Which leads us to perhaps the greatest thing about the game:

Minecraft really is only as good as the effort you put into it; in fact, it is so on a level deeper than a great many "sandbox" games that have come before it. As I've said (and heard other people say) before: Minecraft is a game made by people who thought "Wouldn't it be great if there were a game where you can interact with everything and do whatever you want with it" - and then those people went and did it. And this time, it really, really works. Starting with simple wood and stone houses, the gameplay options available to players quickly unfold as you mine deeper and deeper, discovering metal and mineral ores: The stuff of stronger and more durable tools, electric circuits, pistons, and much more. (In fact, reviewing everything this game has to offer, despite its relatively simple premise, would have me typing for weeks)

But in the dark and deep crevasses of the world you'll meet zombies, spiders, ghasts, endermen, and the infamous creepers - green and soulless monsters with hearts so full of hate that they will happily destroy themselves to destroy you - and everything you've been hoarding. I remember creepers didn't sound that bad before I actually met them. There's a special pain known to Minecraft players who have mined and mined and mined to get what they need for a special project, only to have a creeper blow that all to Hell - or worse, into a field of lava - from which nothing but the player's agonized weeping can return. Other NPCs are less horrendous - cows, pigs, chickens, mooshrooms, and more, all of which are useful for fashioning food, weapons, armour, and other helpful items. Of course, players are able to defend themselves with weapons made the same way one makes any other tool in the game. As you explore, you can replace your wooden sword with a stone or diamond one; you kill cows to fashion leather armour, but at some point may replace it with iron, or better. Killing enough spiders gets you the silk string you need for a bow - truly one of the most helpful tools in the game. But, if you're caught unawares you can always use a shovel or a pick axe to defend yourself. Combat isn't the highlight of the game, but Minecraft isn't meant to be Soul Calibur, either. Targeting can be a bit awkward, but you'll quickly learn the different techniques required to effectively dispatch different enemies.

In recent revisions, a few elements have been added to make Minecraft feel more "gamey." These include hidden dungeons, vastly improved biomes (ranging from snow to swamp to desert), the Nether underworld, and the End overworld. In fact, in making the difficult journey to the End and beating the Ender Dragon that lives there, one can actually "finish" Minecraft, but I won't tarnish this review with the only "spoiler" one can drop about this game. Still, Minecraft retains its form as a staggeringly free-form open world with deceptively simple mechanics that can quickly overwhelm new players with the variety of avenues laid at their feet.

Graphics and Sound

I hesitate to include this heading, because if there were ever a game to put a period at the end of the oft-cited truth that "gameplay is more important than graphics," this is that game. That being said, the blocky graphics are entirely appropriate to the gameplay. It would be hard to imagine how this game would work without everything coming in blocks. Other shapes or free-form chunks would be much less intuitive. Mojang has stuck to the six-sided idea for the same good reason that Lego has lo all these years, as well: It works. Why mess with it?

Minecraft 1.0_3.jpg
Moody lighting is used to help make the game more interesting - not just to look fancier.

In a further indication that Mojang has tailored the graphics to the game (as opposed to making it pretty for the sake of making it pretty), Minecraft's lighting engine has seen a few serious overhauls. The visuals are bright and airy under the sun, muted and moody during a storm, and downright claustrophobic under darkness and underground. While players have access to a slider to adjust the intensity of the darkness in the game, you may be losing some of the thrill if you brighten things up. While lighting may not seem like a key component of the game at first blush, as soon as the moon starts to rise on your first night you'll understand how it's an essential element of what puts the "survival" in Survival Mode.

Most of the sound in the game, meanwhile, amounts to environmental sound effects like running water, crackling fire, thunder, and so on. Enemy and animal sound effects are all distinct - you'll never forget the creeper "hiss" after the first time you've heard it - and often clever. The soundtrack, sparse though it is, is done by C418 and features some rather lovely and unexpected arrangements. It sets the mood quite well for a surprisingly intimate game. So no thundering Basil Poledouris Conan the Barbarian-style, fully orchestrated music is to be heard here, but that's okay. That's not Minecraft.

Multiplayer

And this is where the game truly shines. Single player is fun...a lot of fun. Multiplayer, to borrow a phrase from my British brethren, is bloody brilliant. Servers are player-run, so the quality varies wildly from one to the other, but once you find a comfortable place to put down roots, the things you can do cooperatively, or even on your own, are fantastic; and the competition and innovation among players can create a positive feedback loop that'll have you posting about it online for months on end. Well...I did, anyway.

The options and rules in Survival Multiplayer are as simultaneously simple and complex as in the game itself, so all of what's written above still applies, but the social aspect of playing with others adds layers of fun to the game that are hard to quantify. Seeing a world built before your eyes really is quite something, virtual or no. Quite simply, Minecraft, like real life, is more fun with friends around.

In closing...

Minecraft is, without a doubt, the one of the most brilliant marriages of open-world god games like the Sims or Sim City and on-the-ground sandbox games like GTA or Zelda that's out there. After having access to the game for so long, it's hard to take a step back and remember how very different Minecraft is, and it has certainly left many a major game studio wondering "How the hell did we not come up with that first?" It's hard to explain, but while there are other games like it...there's nothing like it. It's a game so simple, so fun, so challenging, and so obvious, that it'll leave you feeling like you have (and wondering how you haven't) been playing it since the early days of 3-D gaming.

In an industry rife with sequelitis, castrated colour palettes, an obsession with b-rate plots (or much worse), and a paraphilia for massive polygon counts, Minecraft refreshingly strips that all away and stands as proof that you can still make a great game that feels new, and that makes a lot of money, by never losing sight of the fact that "game" is the beating heart of video games.

You can get Minecraft here. It works for Mac, Linux, and Windows, and comes with my highest recommendation.

6 Comments

Reech said:

It's strange going back to the core of 'what Minecraft is' - but it's still worthwhile pointing out that it is *exactly* what you put into it; whether a fight for survival, a way to create - or a place to play with friends, wander around, explore and chat.

I've managed to start, restart and enjoy the game whenever and wherever - and whether I'm on multiplayer or singleplayer, when I'm digging underground and I hear a zombie noise, I still twitch!

Gamescook said:

I'm really looking forward to the 360 version. A comfortable pad to play with alongside on-screen recipes and schematics!

Mitch said:

It does feel weird that the game has only just been officially released, but it's been with us (well, a fair number of us) for months or years.

Minecraft is a call to other potential indie game developers, I think. It's an indication that anyone can make a game that has a fantastic premise, employs amazing mechanics, and becomes a huge commercial success. It's almost like we've come round full-circle, with basement coders being largely overshadowed by much larger games companies, and we're beginning to feel the impact of a new wave of indie developers: that in itself is a real inspiration, but when you consider all the ephemera that occured during development - Notch's reaction to the "leaked" game and his ideas behind what should constitute an "achievement" in game, the idea of community built around a beta release, a convention and a launch party in one - you realise that not only is the market turning back round, it's evolving. Exciting times ahead, methinks!

Are you able to host a minecraft server on two different computers? So when one person isunable to host it the other can?.

What are the requirements for running minecraft on far render distance wiht fancy graphics and have no issues?

Minecraft is definitely a unique game. I have already been playing it for a little bit now and I'm not certain if I enjoy it. The gameplay differs, would you guys have any recommendations to spice it up? How about recommending every other servers to play multiplayer? Thank you for your help!

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