‘MINECRAFT review’. It sounds weird to say, but version 1.0 is officially released today, two years after the game was first unleashed onto the public. Does the flurry of recent updates improve on greatness? Or has Mojang marred their success with unnecessary features? Read on to find out…
Philosopher George Berkely once argued that that all existence is a figment of the imagination. He believed that material objects – trees and rocks, pigs and cows – can only exist because they are perceived. Berkeley never played Minecraft, but if he had, he would have totally got it.
When you tell Minecraft to build a new world, and if your system is as creaky as mine, you’ll see blocks blinking into existence before your eyes. Reach the crest of a hill and you’ll witness a new valley’s birth below, conceived by a cursory glance. It’s a brave new world brought to life just to accommodate you, and the paint’s barely dry.
It’s usually about this point in the game that a familiar knot takes hold in the tangle of my lower intestines. It’s one of many knots I learnt in my single year as a Boy Scout, although this one wasn’t exactly taught. Every Friday it would take hold, I would never be sure whether I was in for a night of absent-mindedly cutting half a finger off playing with a penknife, or yet another in which my Reeboks were to be sprayed thoroughly with Lynx and set alight. The point is, the cause of that internal knot was the fear of possibility. It’s the reason I play Minecraft.
It’s a game of building, and of survival. You collect material blocks from around the world that’s been created for you, then piece them together into something fabulous. When the monsters attack in Survival mode, you hope your structures are sound enough to last the night.
The sense of terrifying possibility drives everything Minecraft is, making the game bigger than the blocks it’s made of. Under its influence, the bizarre anomalies that are an inevitable side-effect of procedural generation – pools of lava in the desert, floating sky islands, sheep bobbing contentedly in the ocean – become features, stories for intrepid explorers to recount to their friends.
That frightening capacity for possibility justifies too the game’s wilfully crude aesthetic, which should be a dealbreaker for gamers brought up with the promise of HD. Instead, it enables hugely ambitious terraforming and construction at any level of ability. Any fool is an architect when a planned building can be measured block-for-block on the landscape and be altered later just as easily.
Every aspect of creation in Minecraft is handled as simply, despite the mind-boggling array of options. Here’s a crafting ‘recipe’ as an example: eight iron ingots laid out in the furnace in the shape of a vest will always equal body armour, just as they would in real life if it were as fair. This is how Minecraft keeps design and construction compelling – by making the process as quick and painless as it can.
Sometimes the possibility is paralysing. Minecraft invokes the first five hours of any Bethesda game, which are almost always the most gripping. When, after emerging from prison or vault, you’re left gasping for breath in a world so large and dangerous that you’re likely to anchor yourself to a nearby town or landmark, just to have something familiar to return to.
Minecraft’s Survival mode offers those first heart-in-mouth hours indefinitely. Thanks to the irregular approach to landscape generation, you can never know what’s around the corner. It’s the eternal promise which means that exploration never tires: will this be a cave, or the entrance to a miles-long tunnel network? The system delivers surprises often enough that it remains enthralling for… well, at least as long as the two years since Minecraft’s first Alpha release. If we’re ever un-enthralled, we’ll let you know.
The possibility extends downwards, too. As a miner, digging ever deeper has a terrible allure – the same allure that has had human beings disturbing ancient underground evils in sci-fi and fantasy for decades – and a careful balance of risk and reward which means braving the lava and monster spawn points of the darker depths always pays off.
Coming over the hill
The existence of enemies in Minecraft at all is a point of contention for many players. The game’s multiplayer has long suffered from a determined few out to destroy the hard work of others, so those without a saint’s patience are likely to stick to singleplayer. But Minecraft’s monsters are griefers in their own right. Bunny-hopping in your direction, they’ll chase you across the map and blow up your beautifully maintained front lawn in your face.
Fighting them remains an awkward, panicky business. It’s often about containing and handling danger rather than dispatching it with finesse. But the simplistic AI makes no pretence at being anything else, and allows for elaborate trigger-based traps for errant Creepers.
The monsters may be irritating, but they provide the motivation, the sense of wilderness to be conquered. Minecraft’s ingenious light mechanic – in which planting a torch will prevent enemies from spawning nearby or entering its immediate radius – makes Survival mode a story of the Old West. You are a pioneer, lighting up the dark, trying to build a home.
Call it Colonialism if you like; a key part of the Minecraft experience involves reclaiming land from the wild. Here the desk jockey gets to be hunter, gatherer, engineer, farmer and, if they’ve earned it, warrior. Being a warrior is a much more robust option these days, thanks to a slew of new additions, mostly from the 1.8 Adventure Update which arrived in September. New monster strongholds and abandoned mineshafts have been introduced to better facilitate dungeon crawling.
The mineshafts in particular are exquisitely designed, striking a good balance between procedural randomness and logically structured tunnel exploration. They reward players for their trouble with treasure chests and, even better, cart tracks – so expensive to craft that they’re otherwise out of reach for all but the most committed players – to be ripped from the ground and recycled on the surface as rollercoasters.
Those mineshafts also magnify the game’s atmosphere – the profound loneliness of an empty world. Although Mojang has stopped short of leaving datapad diary entries strewn about the place, they hint at past lives as evocatively as Fallout 3 does. Quite how this atmosphere will be affected in the long-term by the new addition of low-functioning NPC villages remains to be seen. The loss of ambience would be a terrible thing for the sake of minimal interaction.
Dungeon-crawlers are now further accommodated by experience orbs, dropped from slain enemies. The more orbs a player collects, the more they level up, leading to skill upgrades and item enchantments. All experience is lost upon death however, making the system an incentive to keep wary and alive, if one was needed. It discourages players from acquiring BioShock‘s Vita Chamber Syndrome – the self-imposed grind of dying in battle only to repeatedly return to the scene of the crime to finish off the offending enemy.
Similarly roguelike-like is Minecraft’s hunger bar. Health now regenerates at speeds not far short of Halo, but is entirely dependent on retaining a full hunger bar, replenished by sourcing food. While starvation only becomes a pressing concern if untended for hours, it certainly refocuses Survival mode in a way that probably doesn’t appeal quite so much to the architects. Inevitably for a game first released in alpha, long-time players are likely to have a favourite version of Minecraft, and it might not be the one we’ve ended up with.
There have been inarguable improvements to Minecraft, however. An achievement tree accessible in-game now does a much better job of leading players through those first confusing steps – which begin with punching trees – and means the game isn’t quite so reliant on the Minecraft Wiki. Nevertheless, without consulting the fantastic fan-made resource, the necessary nitty-gritty of preparing food to eat and crafting tools can still be frustrating trial and error, and is one of the game’s few significant failings.
In multiplayer, Minecraft’s sense of possibility expands in all directions. Creative mode is the box of Lego which never runs out, and continues to allow for almost boundless freedom if the admin chooses to turn that box upside down and tip everything onto the floor. All the potential for creation and destruction that Survival mode offers is amplified and, wonderfully, creation on the whole seems to have won out in the community.
Creative mode has been responsible for a proliferation of architectural wonders and technical marvels, including working in-game computers, which have spread across the internet over the past couple of years. YouTube is stuffed full of pop culture reference and homage constructed in-game: in Minecraft, you can play Quake, revisit Rapture and explore the Starship Enterprise. The phenomenon has become far bigger than the game itself.
More than anything, Minecraft has become what we perceived it could be: like the worlds of Survival mode, it has grown to accommodate us. Notch provided the tools, but we built the cathedrals. So, developers and players alike, pat yourself on the back for the greatest game you’re ever likely to have a hand in making.
A very different game to the one released on an unsuspecting public two years ago, Minecraft 1.0 is a towering achievement built from regular cubes. It is the shining opus of independent development and continues to grow all the time.
Minecraft, by Mojang AB, is out now for PC (reviewed) via Minecraft.net. An XBLA version for Xbox 360 is planned, and Pocket Editions are already available for iOS and Android.