Minecraft: The Kotaku Review

For all that's been written about Minecraft over the past few years, you'd think it was one of the greatest video games ever created, a liberating experience that's showing big-budget game developers what the public really wants and helping revolutionise the way games are developed and sold.

In some ways, it totally is. In others? Eh...

Minecraft is a lot of things, but one thing it's not is just a game. It never was when it launched and it's still not now that it's...launched. It's always been about more than the thing you click on and click on and click on again. It's been about the way it encourages community, gets people talking, sharing and co-operating.

Minecraft has also long been about the scene around the game as much, if not more, than the game itself. About identifying yourself as a Minecraft fan. There are millions of gamers left cold by the increasing trend of publishers to "dumb down" their offerings, to drive them at light speed towards the lowest common denominator. Many of those cling to Minecraft like a drowning man to a plank. And they hang on tight.

I mean, how many single games or franchises get their own conventions? Call of Duty, the world's biggest video game franchise, has one. And Minecraft has one. And...that's about it. How many games have I ever had fans call me at my home to complain I'd used a YouTube video for a story that didn't show the game in the best possible light? There's Minecraft, and Minecraft alone.

Killing things sucks. Jumping sucks. Swimming, something people in the real world do for fun, is particularly laborious.

All of this makes separating the game from the culture somewhat difficult. Especially since the game is still so crude and so poorly presented it requires you to be part of both.

If I was playing Minecraft by myself, no friends and no help, I'd hate it. For all sorts of reasons. Let's start with how it's almost hostile to the new player. There are no tutorials, no in-game help messages, no prompts offering advice, nothing. You're dropped into the one of the most immense games ever made with absolutely no assistance whatsoever. Where do I start? What do I do? What can I do? I've got no idea, because the game's not telling me.

I don't like how it plays, either. I get that concessions must be made to both keep the game flexible and maintain its simplistic style, but the handling, combat and movement of Minecraft all feel either too floaty, too slippery or both at once. Killing things sucks. Jumping sucks. Swimming, something people in the real world do for fun, is particularly laborious.

Finally, I loathe the new "game" structure that's been added to Minecraft. I know it's optional, but it's partly why the game is so much more expensive now than it used to be, so it's got to be taken into account. Where once the game was about little but wandering around exploring and building stuff - or wandering around with other people building stuff - in recent months updates have added more of a traditional game to Minecraft, including a final "boss".

The amount of work it takes to get to this stage - literally breaking rocks for days, something normally reserved for those who have committed crimes - is mind-boggling, and the payoff negligent. It's totally at odds with the world Minecraft built for itself over its initial, more "open" phase, and it's something that it could have done without.

If all Minecraft involved was downloading a game, booting it up and playing solo, it would be a mind-crushingly empty waste of time. A crude game that did little but spit in your face and laugh at you for not understanding its arcane language while it forced you into virtual manual labour. Lucky for Minecraft, then, that it involves so much more.

The community around Minecraft is half the game and all the fun. By community, I mean not just the people you play with, but those who have devoted their time to filling in the sizeable gaps left by the game's creators in terms of documentation, tips and advice.

In many ways Minecraft's community is like family. You can't choose your family, you're stuck with them, and have to make do and love them for what they are. Minecraft is the same. Because it forces you to get involved with the community, either to get into multiplayer (which usually involves playing by other people's rules) or just to take advantage of crowd-sourced advice, you have to seek them out.

Sure, there are crazies. And arseholes. Just like in real families. But there are also, and this is rare on the internet, lots of people with a genuine desire to help out newcomers by telling how how the game can actually be played, or help them build things (instead of just destroying them), or even just hang out and experiment with...whatever the game allows you to experiment with. Which in many cases is whatever your imagination can come up with.

Minecraft gives you the means to truly play a game, to bend it to your whims, and not just press buttons to advance someone else's story.

The first time you enter a multiplayer server and see what people have built, what they've wrought with their bare video game hands out of earth and stone and glass, it almost leaves you speechless. There's a sense of enterprise and teamwork that you just don't find in other games, and it almost entirely wipes away any misgivings you had about the game from your time playing it solo. I mean, what does it matter if swimming feels sticky if you're helping some guys build a replica Death Star out of thin air while wearing Ninja Turtle costumes?

This sense of grand collaboration continues the first time you march off to Google to find out how to craft something or where to find something to craft with. Which normally is within the first five minutes of experiencing the game. The way both the game's wiki (you may as well bookmark it now) and hordes of raspy YouTube tutorials are packed with friendly advice on how to do anything in the game take what would have been hours of wasted blind clicking and turn it into a good old-fashioned learning experience.

Which should suck. Tell me that any other game needs such extra-curricular dedication and I'll tell you it's a game not worth playing, but there's just something disarming about the way Minecraft does it that makes it all OK. Normally looking up a wiki or a FAQ constitutes as a spoiler at best and cheating at worst, but Minecraft feels, intentionally or not, designed to get around this.

Its online support is an enabler. And this is crucial to your enjoyment with the game. When you first boot up the game, you think, shit, I can run around, I can punch trees, then when it gets dark, I die. A lot. But you can tell by the variety of the terrain, the crafting squares and the size of your inventory there's so much more to it. So you go consult a beginner's guide, and suddenly realise that what looked like a fun little survival sim is actually an incredibly complex world-building life simulation, in which you can carve the very fabric of the planet into whatever the hell you want it to be. Finding this out isn't a spoiler, or cheating, because there's no story to spoil and no structure to ruin. It's just part of the process, because it doesn't matter if the internet is telling you how to make iron, once its made you can do whatever the hell you want with it.

And when you realise this, and use those words as tools to build more tools, whoah. The world of Minecraft stops being one large landmass out to kill you and turns into the biggest LEGO set you've ever had in your life. LEGO, if you remember, is not perfect either. It's lost easily, frustrates often and everything you build ends up blocky and terribly unrealistic. But it seems to do OK regardless.

In fact, it does better than OK, it's one of the most successful toys of all time, and it's the same reason Minecraft has become so wildly popular. Like LEGO it has its problems and limitations, but the flexibility and scale of what's possible with it mean you don't care. You enjoy the promise of what's possible as much as the thing itself.

Not many games get away with the kind of contradiction Minecraft presents. Playing terrible on the one hand but feeling awesome on the other. But not many games are like Minecraft. It does something that's very important to a lot of people, so important that they're willing to put up with its flaws and quirks. And that something is allow freedom. Expression. Creativity. Minecraft gives you the means to truly play a game, to bend it to your whims, and not just press buttons to advance someone else's story.

That freedom is important to me. As much as the game frustrates me with its difficulty, inaccessibility and occasional cruelty, I keep playing it, because the game I'm playing on my own little world is mine and mine alone, and the games I play with other people can be mine, theirs or even entirely and completely ours. In the world of video games in 2011 that's a rare enough thing to persist with, warts and all.

Minecraftwas released as v1.0 for the PC and Mac on November 18. Kotaku purchased our own copy for the purposes of the review. Between the alpha, beta and this, across multiple accounts online and off, I've played this game a lot. Couldn't beat that fucking dragon though.

Comments

    I play minecraft by myself. Done so for a fair few hours.

    I enjoy just mining and building. Coming home and putting 20min tops every couple of days into a vast structure on creative mode is rather therapeutic I think.

    I've also got to say, it has to be one of the few games with lasting appeal. I get what you mean when you say its bad - it can be repetitive and dull - its definately not a quick score; but I think the time it takes means that when you stand back and look at your complex base (or travel through it) with secret passages and hidden rooms you get just as good a feeling as if you'd built a lego model.

    tl;dr. Its lego, giant lego, its fun, but time consuming, doesn't give a quick high.

      also, extra learning for a game? Terraria..

      or god, (i've just started playing this) EVE.

        I tried EVE, jesus christ I wonder even if the people writing the wiki entries know what they're talking about

    No, the game was always going to be this expensive. Even during Alpha Notch said that it was at a 25% discount, then Beta got a 50% discount. Not even researching you claims, really?

      Isnt it the other way around? Alpha got the 50% and beta got the 25%.

      I do apologise if i sound like a dick.

    I stopped reading the review when you said Call of Duty was the biggest game series

      If anyone at KotakuUS has a CoD boner, it's Plunkett. He'll whip it out any chance he gets.

      Dude, SURELY they're referring to mainstream success and sales... (ellipse for condescension).

      I didn't even KNOW Call of Duty had a convention... Apparently Quakecon (since 1996) is worth less of a mention?

    I play Minecraft by almost exclusively solo. I've never gotten the point of multiplayer because all your creations are either limited to a small space or are going to be destroyed by other players.

    I disagree with this review completely. Single player is where some of the best parts of Minecraft lie because that's when you're free to explore and create. Mulitplayer is where it becomes "just a game".

      I don't think the writer of this review actually tried much of the game. All he talked about is how people build gigantic stuff on multiplayer servers and how you aren't given any direction on survival mode.

      To me it sounds like he got on, died the first night in survival without building a house and then went onto a build server, which to me doesn't serve as enough experience to write a review.

        Do what i do, run your own server, only hand it out to friends. I hate creatvive mode where everything is just handded to you, so we play survival. when were feeling creative, i kinda, well, cheat... i disable monsters from spawning on the server. thing is, they are not really much of a challenge especially when you have 3 wolf pets. More annoying and getting in the way.

    There are so many ignorant and moronic sentances in this 'review' that I simply cannot quote/address them all...

    I usually find Luke annoying, but this is a new level of "Are you serious, Luke? You're trollin' me right?" I feel like he is being positive and trying to say that he likes the game, but so much of what he says seems to tell me that he dislikes it.

    "Let’s start with how it’s almost hostile to the new player. There are no tutorials, no in-game help messages, no prompts offering advice, nothing. You’re dropped into the one of the most immense games ever made with absolutely no assistance whatsoever. Where do I start? What do I do? What can I do? I’ve got no idea, because the game’s not telling me."
    This is prolly the highest concentration of absurdity in the review, for me. He dislikes the lack of hand-holding which isn't anywhere near as big a crime as he would like to believe. This isn't Call of Duty and not every game has to be. Think of every classic masterpiece in gaming history and now tell me how many of those had tutorials and hand-holding... now how many of them dropped you into the game and said "go"... :-P
    Then shortly thereafter he simply says that a number of things about the game "suck" with little to no explanation for that. I don't think the gameplay sucks at all. Compare the movement and controls of Minecraft to any number of FPS games with similiar physics-systems and you'll find that it matches up pretty well. Did Quake suck? :-P

    I realize he probably thought he was doing the game a service and 'reviewing it positively' but while reading it I just imagined Luke writing the review in between sessions of MW3 and/or Battlefield 3 multiplayer :-P

      I realize I sound like an asshole... I tend to be a jerk sometimes :-P Admitted.

      I just find it annoying how so many people, reviewers and players both, have become so wimpy/stuck-up when it comes to anything that resembles how games were before 2005.

        The review is written for Kotaku's main readership: casual/moderate gamers, and it reflects the current 'hand holding' gaming environment. That, or people just expect a tutorial, which these days is the norm, considering no games come with manuals (I like manuals!). And frankly, for a game this complex (sure it's simple, but there are so many rules right?) it kinda needs something like that for a newcomer or someone who is used to the ol' tutorial. Anyway. You do sound like an ass but I'm sure I do too heh.

          In my assification I guess I tend to focus more on being an ass and less on covering all as(s)pects of the topic I'm assing about... if that sentance makes sense :-P

          I do get what you're saying, but I just don't think that 'choosing not to include a mandatory hand-holding tutorial' should be some kind of kiss-of-death or humongous negative mark against a game. I actually really like manuals too, and I think every game should have one that isn't two crappy pages of EULA and copyrights... and it sucks that they're becoming extinct because people want to make money selling us slightly beefier versions of manuals for 20-40 bucks a pop
          :-P

          I *do* think Minecraft would benefit from a seperate 'help' menu or maybe a 'tutorial level' that is selectable from the main menu... but I don't think the lack of a mandatory tutorial at the beginning of every new world is something that should automatically be listed as a slight against the game.
          Half-Life didn't tell you what every key on your keyboard did. It started and you played the game... if you did have problems then there was the 'Hazard Course' tutorial that you could play seperate from the main game. I think that's a fine way to go about it.
          I don't think they should have to flash giant "PRESS W TO MOVE FORWARD" or "CLICK LEFT MOUSE BUTTON TO SHOOT" type messages for the first 30 minutes to an hour of a game, no matter what 'modern game sensibilities' would otherwise dictate.

          Call of Duty does that sort of thing because that makes sense for that paritcular game. It's very linear and you simply need to know what to do when they flash the screen at you to do it.

          Minecraft, to my eyes, is a very different type of game that relies not only on creativity, but also on discovery. I personally wouldn't want an integrated tutorial in that kind of game. It's kind of like imagining a tutorial level in Shadow of the Colossus or something. I don't think it should have to answer for every feature that other games have. But I *do* think it could stand to include something outside of "use your Googles" for players who are less willing to go in un-tutored.

          I think a lot of this has to do with the way people are approaching this game. I really love the discovery and survival aspects of the game and can appreciate the creative side but it's more secondary. So to me it makes sense that there's no tutorial. But a lot of people only use it as a creative 'tool' of sorts and don't even touch the 'game' side of it... and in that context I think a tutorial is a much more expected feature. (Kind of like the videos upon videos of tutorials in the LittleBigPlanet games)

          So I guess it's just the way I'm coming at it.
          Also, sorry for the Assery and whatnot :-P

        I disagree. Complexity and comprehensibility are not mutually exclusive. I believe this game lacks tbe latter and thats never a good thing - it means a lot of people will never enjoy the complexity. If you think of lego, most people start by building kits when they're very young and work their way up to their own epic creations. See see the same trend with other complex creative tasks, like cooking, math etc.

          Most games at the very least tell you how to do things. What buttons do what, what you can do, where things are. Hell, the Sims had a tutorial. Minecraft's lack of explanation seems lazy and cruel, and it lacks what countless other games have: an introduction to the setting, controls, and the point of the game. Mojang leaves that to it's audience to post on the internet. Games shouldn't rely on the community to give the game something it should have had in the first place.

          Does it ruin the game? No. But it is a problem.

    Best Minecraft review I've read. Been playing it since June 2009, and I couldn't agree more.

    Fully agree. I usually hate games that force me to alt-tab to find out how to play. At least Terraria tells you what you can make with the materials you possess and if you ask an npc what you can make with one of your materials he will tell you and show you the other materials required. And you don't need to copy silly patterns off the internet, you just need to have the materials and then click the finished product to create it. It's an evolution of minecraft really. Pity your creations don't look as good in 2D.

      Yeah I enjoyed the shit out of Terraria though it is just too time consuming for me. I get my building kicks with plastic model kits. Similar idea, less zombies, but ultimately more gratifying (for me)! :p

    this review is very poor and the reviewer clearly doesn't GET IT. go back and play COD with the other million 14 year olds and leave the truly creative games to adults.

      Wow.
      Not only is your grammar the paragon of shit, you clearly haven't read the review. Just because your mother bought you Minecraft as part of some kind of divorce settlement, doesn't mean you are special.
      At least, not that kind of special.
      This is by far the best review of Minecraft I have read so far.
      Fantastic work, Mr. Plunkett.
      Thanks.

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