Minecraft is a tool/toybox/video game about building things with blocks, built lovingly from blocks itself by creator Markus “Notch” Persson. Since the early days of alpha testing, millions of gamers, builders, and dreamers have flocked to Minecraft‘s simulated worlds in search of fame, fortune, and adventure.
And now they’re officially allowed to find all that and more, as the game gets its wish and finally becomes a real boy, and where there are real boys, there are video game reviewers.
That didn’t sound right.
I realise that this is stupid, by the way; there’s little point in reviewing a game for which ‘release’ is just an arbitrarily placed flag in the ground. Minecraft has already sold four million copies, has been in a widely playable and constantly updated beta for more than a year and has been the topic of more memes, videos, explorations and music videos than any other indie game we could mention.
In other words, the fact that the version number has just ticked over to v1.0 means nothing other than that you’re probably only going to read this review if you’ve already bought the game. Don’t worry, though; if all you’re looking for is a bit of purchase justification then you’ve come to the right place. Minecraft is great, isn’t it?
If you’re the exception that proves the rule though, then it’s best to start at the top and say that Minecraft is a building game that consists of two modes – Creative and Survival. The first is most easily described as ‘digital Lego’ and involves nothing more than a huge sandbox of bricks that can be destroyed and reassembled into incredibly complex constructions, from simple castles to working computers.
To some people that sounds boring, but to others it’s the most exciting thing since man first decided to run slices of sharpened steel through baked yeast-flour mixtures. Make up your own mind which you think it is and then don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise.
Minecraft allows you to shape worlds, but first it constructs one for you: a procedurally generated landscape of mountains and dales, deserts and strongholds, that nobody else will ever have seen before. It’s an astonishing start to each adventure, and it’s critical when it comes to explaining why this seemingly primitive indie project has become a cultural phenomenon while other, far more lavish building games remain curios. The trick is that Minecraft doesn’t just give you tools allowing you to create things; it also provides a context that ensures you will.
There’s no room for blank-page syndrome when you’ve already got a whole biosphere in front of you, then, while the need to mine even basic materials will see you carving your first sculptures just by hesitantly digging a few holes in the dirt. Mojang’s insistence on manufacturing your playground in advance of your arrival also adds a crucial element of stage management to a game where the designers otherwise keep a respectful distance. Yes, Minecraft can take you anywhere, but it will always start the same way: you dial in fresh terrain and then you step on to it. Even now, when it’s finally out of beta and the Adventure update has introduced levelling, enchantments and dungeons, you begin every campaign as a block-headed Robinson Crusoe, lost, lonely, and aware that all the tools and landmarks you need you will first have to construct.
Interacting with the world takes two fundamental forms: removing and placing blocks, and combining materials to make new tools/blocks/decorations/weapons/etc. When you start out in a fresh world, you’ll likely build a rudimentary shelter with a single torch lighting the interior to hide in during the monster-filled nighttime. A few dozen hours later, a skilled builder could have a mountaintop castle (built block by block with quarried stone) with a redstone-powered automatic farm (carved into the land by hand, with harvesting machines built from rare deep ores). Persistence leads to dungeons with traps set to kill the monsters that spawn within (including controlled flooding to deposit all the drops in a central location), and even a high-speed rail system to quickly travel through expansive mines.
Alternatively, you could build whatever you can imagine. The interactions between your character, machines, plants, animals, and monsters can be combined to bring just about anything to life. However, if you’re more of an adventurer than a builder, getting the materials in the first place is more than half the fun.
Essentially, Minecraft is an incredibly powerful sandbox toolset that comes with griefers built into the system. The real challenge to the game isn’t building-that much is fairly simple-the challenge is gathering the required resources and keeping your creations safe from the exploding Creepers or the Endermen who can pick up blocks and rearrange them at will. Of course, if you just want to build without all these distractions, the game also has a Creative mode that gives you infinite numbers of every type of block to work with, as well as a “Peaceful” difficulty setting that prevents monsters from spawning. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s a brand new Hardcore mode that gives you only a single life, with death being completely permanent.
New-ish to Minecraft, but front and centre in the release version, are an experience system and an endgame. Killing things gets you experience, and experience is, in a roundabout way, spent on an overcomplicated buff/enchantment system. This latter-day element of the game is frankly not its strongest, and encourages grinding more than it does imagination, but it’s due to be expanded further still in time and will hopefully become something more than a MMO-style layer of stat-chasing.
Similarly undercooked, if clearly ambitious, is the pursuit of a climactic boss battle by attaining the rarest substances and building portals to the game’s two additional dimensions: an underground hell realm and its ethereal inversion, The End. Harder fights, yet more uncommon materials and, eventually, a bloody great dragon await you here.
This final fight is ridiculously and intentionally tough, its reward is an arguably too-big-for-its-boots ‘poem’ and, well, it just doesn’t quite feel in the spirit of Minecraft proper. But it is a concrete goal to aim for, and for some people that may well be necessary: both the kind of player who finds it hard to drag themselves away from the main quest in Skyrim, and the kind who absolutely has to achieve everything.
Admittedly, critiquing Minecraft‘s ready-made dungeons and NPC villages is a bit like complaining about the beans served alongside an immaculate five-star steak. Sure, the side-servings might be mediocre, but at its core Minecraft is one of the most forward-thinking games ever created. It spits in the face of the conventional games industry, and it’s raked in millions of dollars while doing so. Decades from now it will be viewed as one of the key benchmarks that defined the still-burgeoning art form we call video games.
Protip: It’s worth $US27.
I’m still not sure.