What You Make Of It
(This review is based on 35-40 hours playing and researching single and multiplayer Minecraft Alpha v1.1.2, on Mac & PC. Some screenshots were made while using a texture mod based on A Link to the Past.)
IntroductionFrom Boulder Dash to Lode Runner; from Dig Dug to Mr. Driller; from Mr. Do to Miner Dig Deep...
We love to dig. We love to build. We love to fight monsters. We love to play by ourselves, or with friends. Minecraft is a rare hybrid of these concepts, and as such needs to be reviewed a bit unconventionally, not unlike an MMO that is constantly evolving. It is far from finished and far from perfect. The features in today's Alpha build may be completely overhauled in the "finished" release, whenever that may come. The day I edit and post this review coincides with the "Halloween Update" of Minecraft to version Alpha 1.2; however it is versions 1.0-1.1 that have had the most impact on the gaming community at large, and grown Swedish indie developer Mojang Specifications and Markus Persson (aka Notch) from a one man show to a staffed company. With the majority of features in the game proving popular, and about 500,000 copies purchased to date @ 10 euros, it's likely that every existing feature will continue to evolve with increased functionality and bug fixes. This review therefore encapsulates the core of the game that has captured such a devoted fan following, and can be revisited as the game evolves beyond its current state.
Gameplay and ModesThe individual elements of Minecraft are not unique. Much of the game and its visual style owes inspiration to another recent indie title, Infiniminer. (This is an acknowledged fact that bears being said, but I won't get into any debate beyond that.) The product that Notch is developing has multiple variants, each with their own appeal and quirks:
- Classic / Creative (Single or Multi) - the purely "sandblox" mode. All block types are available and unlimited. Creative was one of the first modes offered for public play, and is available for free online and in-browser. (The Minecraft server and client is coded in Java which all but guarantees cross-platform support, as well as hideous memory usage.) In Creative the focus is free-form building and using the blocks for aesthetic purposes. Many players find it an appealing format for "dicking around" with pixel art, though personally I find creating 2D objects in a 3D world to be missing the point. Not only can that eighty-story phallus be 3D but also hollow, with an internal staircase like all proper tourist attractions should.
- Survival Singleplayer / "Alpha" - Mining, crafting, building, critters, and monsters (or not...) Thanks to a variable difficulty setting, when night falls you can choose to play with the threats of arrow shooting skeletons, explosive zombies, and spiders... or not. One simply has to do without the unique crafting items dropped by mobs, and instead live a peaceful life with just the incessant mooing and clucking of suicidal wildlife. There is no end game goal, only a vast map where you can explore, mine and build to your heart's content.
- Survival Multiplayer / "SMP" - Everything in Alpha plus friends, teamwork, and griefers, but no risk of health damage... thanks to a code bug. Only the constant spectre of crashing servers, lost items, and irritable users begging for diamonds will scare you away, but all of these things are on the short list for fixing. Playing on a multiplayer server also lends some flexibility to the game play. Being able to teleport home is a plus! Even though you can't kill equally invincible mobs for their items, the server admin can simply grant you resources, and community mods have allowed nifty features like custom item kits on demand, and warping to other locations. Most of the "oooh, aaah" examples of thematic Minecraft worlds are a group effort, with the added manpower speeding the process of urban sprawl or deforestation. I'm hoping to one day find a server with all the survivors of Oceanic flight #815 – dibs on the Black Rock!
Despite your character's small stature you can interact with the world via familiar game mechanics: jumping 1 square, with the ability to survive a hard fall of at least 20 squares; an extended reach for breaking and placing blocks up to four squares away (flailing into thin air like Red Mages of yore); automatic pickup of nearby items; a limited amount of health plus armor, and an oxygen meter when swimming. Death in Alpha is a constant fear, as regaining your inventory requires a corpse run , while the only clue to your body's location is your memory and any inventory icons still floating nearby. Your spawn point is fixed from the start, and all difficulty levels have a time limit for how quickly your items will evaporate. Prolonged exploring becomes a risk/reward judgment. The amount of inventory space soon feels very limited as not all items stack, and those that do are capped at 64 units, or even less in some cases.
Perhaps most important to the game experience is that everything tends to function in both a logical and fun way. The demonstration video at the top of the official Minecraft website is Notch testing the cart and track physics by making a damn rollercoaster. Water flows and pushes things along, sand sinks, fire spreads, light keeps you safe at night, and buckets of lava can keep your furnaces smelting. Tools that use tougher materials last longer. Buttons, switches, and floor panels can trigger doors, explosives, or circuits of redstone powder. When crafting, you are making the basic shape of that item within a 3x3 grid: a torch is some coal on top of a stick; a sword has more blade than handle; a shovel has more handle than blade. Stairs and ladders look exactly like stairs and ladders. I shudder to think what machinations would be possible with a 4x4 or 5x5 crafting grid.. let's hope Notch doesn't add that in a hurry.
Audio / VisualAtmosphere in the game benefits from crisp, enjoyable sound effects and good choices of ambient music by German artist C418. Although the music does not play at regular or predictable times, players can also craft a jukebox and discover records to play specific tracks. Graphically Minecraft is a world of cubic pixel art, and while there is not a great demand on system requirements to be playable, being able to run at a high framerate and the maximum draw distance cannot be overvalued when exploring. The default texture pack and menu skins are fully user customizable: installing them can be as simple as dragging images into an archive, though in this case you are tweaking the Java bundle itself. Keeping regular backups of the client and your world's save folder is the only way to weather the agony of unforeseen glitches or plummeting missteps.
The maps/worlds of Minecraft are procedurally generated, which is a programmer's way of saying randomly created within a framework of rules. As such, worlds will share look-and-feel characteristics including but not limited to: dungeons, mountains, pits, forests, beaches, oceans, and islands floating in mid-air or on water. The various block types follow relational rules that make clay blocks spawn near sand, ores spawn within stone, diamond spawns deep and near lava, and even ice sheets form on water in a snowy area. This is part of why a new game of Minecraft takes very little space to store its map data, and the more a player explores and modifies the world, the more new data must be saved. I can't count the number of times that I have discovered a new mountainside cavern or beachfront island and exclaimed "I love this map!" I am still playing, exploring, and getting lost on what the game created the first time I ran it.
Servers and Community ToolsIf you are interested in hosting a server the default options are fairly simple to set up and maintain, providing you have enough available memory to handle the Java overhead per user. Community tools seem to sprout up even more quickly than the core game updates. Although, given that SMP is particularly buggy and unpredictable, one cannot demand a lot from third-party tools, or even be certain how a glitch was caused when it happens. It is my opinion that if all bugs were fixed and the game released in its current state, it would be popular for years to come, owing to its extensibility by the community (e.g. Runecraft). Already there is almost any tool you could ask for: topographic layouts of the world; map editors and dungeon generators; circuit testing and construction templates; reskinning textures or just hacking your inventory.
Closing ThoughtsOf all the "smaller" downloadable titles I have purchased in 2010, I say without hesitation that Minecraft is the best $14 I've spent all year. The moment this first struck me was during an early spelunking trip, where I ran out of tools and torches. Pitch dark under a mountain, slowing clawing myself up through the ground... with only the muffled moos and clucks of animals to guide me closer to the surface. Not a situation that I would ever expect to be in again, but it served as an important revelation that the game is giving me every opportunity to survive, and allowing me to learn from my mistakes. The unbridled creativity that I have seen on other servers and videos can be fascinating research, gleaning inspiration from other 3D artisans and engineers. Sometimes the hardest thing about a play session is making a decision about what to do or where to start building. So when crafter's block strikes, I simply spend some quality time holding down the mouse button and watch my cares crumble like so many blocks of cobblestone.
With its rough hewn edges and no predetermined goal, players must try to find their own recipe for fun within a suite of clever and sometimes punishing mechanics. Minecraft is quite literally what you make of it.