The newly-launched Minecraft Battle mini game (free on consoles) is Mojang's latest attempt to recapture some of the massive market that plays on independent servers on third-party maps. The Battle mini game is pretty simple — it's a big free-for-all with up to eight players, where you try to kill, hide, and survive, hoping to be the last player standing.
The mini game takes place on a variety of familiar set pieces — an evil lair full of lava, a pirate cove, an ancient temple — and the game spawns weapons, armour, potions, and food in chests around the arena for players to find and fight over.
If this sounds a lot like The Hunger Games to you, then you've got the right idea — it's pretty much exactly like that. The players start in positions around a center platform that is full of chests, usually the ones with the best gear, and then have to race to get there first and get equipped before the brief grace period ends.
Things get pretty savage from then on. If you don't manage to find any equipment, you're at the mercy of the better equipped players, who will hunt you down with flaming arrows, exploding potions, diamond swords, or some combination of the above. If you're clever and quick, you can sometimes escape and find one of the more secretive chests, but just like in The Hunger Games, if you overextend and fail, you're going to die.
If you're terrible like me, you might try hiding and waiting for the other players to kill each other off first. That way, you can pick up the gear that gets left behind. Unfortunately, because all of the items that slain players are carrying get dropped on the ground, the best loot tends to accumulate in the hands of one or two players. I found that it only took a minute of match time, generally speaking, to get an idea of who the victor would be.
Winning in this arena relies on a lot of the same instincts that were necessary in older arena games like Quake or Unreal Tournament — it pays to know the map and know the timing on power-ups and items. The more familiar you are with the arena, the more successful you'll be.
At the end of a match, you are presented with a scorecard that highlights players for their performance, along with fun statistics that tell you how badly you did. Players who die mid-match aren't forced to languish on a "You Died" type screen, however — they're allowed to fly around the map as bats and squeak obnoxiously at the players who are still fighting.
The Minecraft Battle mini game definitely has its moments, but the thing is, that Minecraft arenas have been around for years now. Independent arenas tend to have more players, more maps, more features, and more options. Though there is some appeal for console players here, this me-too effort needs to be a lot more compelling to draw players away from the popular and well-established network of PvP servers that already exist.
The main issue for players who aren't already involved with Minecraft PvP is that the combat here is still incredibly clunky and non-intuitive. Melee combat at its most sophisticated consists of jumping and holding down your attack button and firing a bow is an exercise in frustration at the best of times. There are many people who appear to like Minecraft PvP, but when compared to almost any other competitive combat game, it falls short.
Right now the Minecraft Battle mini game only has a few maps, though it seems that Mojang intends to monetise the mode by selling map packs. It's too early to comment on the value provided in any meaningful way, but the maps I played were definitely fun and well designed. At $US2.99 ($4) for three more maps, the pack seems reasonable enough. Given that the Battle mini game is free, it's definitely worth trying out.
Rob Guthrie is a lapsed academic who writes about history, video games, and weird internet things. Follow him @RobertWGuthrie for pithy Tweets and lukewarm takes.