At this point, it’s a bit weird to review Minecraft. It has been fully available for purchase for a little more than two years, and in spite of its more than four million copies sold it’s still popular enough that you can watch that number continue to inch up on its homepage. It has spawned a company (which in turn is already publishing and developing other projects), a convention, mobile and console versions, a forthcoming documentary, and endless reviews and editorials already. The “gold” version of the game was just released, but even so we’re a bit past needing to review it.

I feel the need to say something about it in spite of that, though, because like it or not this is an important game. It’s the best possible argument you could make for the merits of independent game development and distribution. It highlights why the PC is still a viable and valuable platform, in spite of its repeated supposed “death” at the hands of consoles and, more recently, smartphones and tablets. It’s the only game I can think of where bits of development were effectively crowdsourced—the final 1.0 version of Minecraft was tested and debugged with much help from players on the fan-run Minecraft wiki, which is the closest thing the game has to a manual. We’ll be using it as an example when we talk about games in the future, the same way we might use Mario or Halo now.
 


Gushing aside, though, there’s a game here, and it’s not perfect, though there’s a lot to like about it. If you’ve somehow avoided it up until now, here’s how it works.
 

Basics of play

 
Minecraft has at its core three basic gameplay elements: the building (and destroying) of blocks, the crafting of items, and the exploration of the open, dynamically generated world (the mining part of the game falls under this heading). You can walk up to a tree and punch it until you get wood, which you can turn into wooden planks, which can be used to make sticks, which can be used to make tools, which you can use to quickly harvest materials you need to make yourself a shelter. You’ll need to do this, because once the sun sets the monsters come out, and they’d be all too happy to shoot you with arrows or jump on you or explode next to you. The “point” at first is to survive, and, as you become more comfortable, expand your tiny shelter into a huge, more impressive structure.

If you’ve played the game at any point before its demonstration at this summer’s Penny Arcade Expo, this will all be familiar to you—this is the root of the game and it’s still fully intact in the final version. In the last few months, sound effects and graphics have been tweaked, a new “hunger bar” requires you to keep your stomach full lest you starve, and things like weapon damage have been subtly tweaked, but if you’ve played the game at pretty much any point in its existence it’s going to be very familiar.

Early on in my very first Minecraft playthrough, I managed to survive for a couple of days and then got a bit of a “now what?” feeling. To alleviate this, you’ll want to go exploring—mine shafts, caves, and ruins dot the expansive maps, and each of them contain different rare elements that you’ll need to craft some of the game’s more complex (and interesting) items, which leads me to my next point.
 

Recent additions

On top of the basic game mechanics that have come to define Minecraft, the development team has added on some new things to keep advanced players hooked. These include deep and sometimes obtuse systems for enchanting items and creating potions, larger oceans and worlds, and animal breeding, among other things. These systems seem to have been created with the Minecraft obsessive in mind—if you don’t enjoy poring over the wiki trying to figure out how everything works, it might not be for you.

The basics of potion-making, for example, require you to delve deep into the earth to find enough diamond to make a diamond pickaxe, with which you can harvest obsidian, which you need to use to construct a portal to a hell dimension, which is the only place in the game where you can find the ingredients you need to build a brewing stand and find some of the basic brewing ingredients. Sounds more complicated than walking up to a tree and punching it, yes?

The easy-to-grasp basics of Minecraft—building, mining, crafting—are fun, addictive, and easy to recommend not just to gamers, but to the “casual” demographic as well. The more complicated new additions are designed to appeal to a more traditional sort of gamer. It’s not a bad thing, necessarily, but I could see the new systems muddying the simple fun of the game for some.

For people who are in it just for the fun of building, the “creative” mode is for you: it gives you unlimited supplies of all the game’s blocks, removes the health meter, and lets you fly around the map. If you want to make a giant skyscraper without worrying about fall damage, or if you’d like to build an underwater city without the complications of creating an enchanted helmet or potion for underwater breathing, this is what you want.

Mojang has also tried to give the game an “ending” of sorts, a logical goal toward which players can work along with the requisite boss fight, but it feels as though it was tacked on pretty late in development (which it was—it was one of the last things to be added before last month’s feature freeze). It’s there if you want to pursue it, and it will probably be improved in future updates, but what’s there is more a thing you do to get an achievement than it is a fun task in and of itself.
 

Multiplayer

 
Minecraft is plenty fun and addicting in its single player iteration, but it’s also a lonely game—aside from the patch of land you claim and then develop to serve as your home, you’re stuck in the middle of a practically endless expanse of world with a few animals and a bunch of monsters. The most fun I’ve had playing Minecraft has been with others.

The social implications of the game are obvious: it’s more fun to build something when you can show someone else the fruit of your labors. Finding and exploring caverns is quicker and (in theory) easier with one or more friends. It’s reasonably easy to set up a Minecraft server on your desktop or laptop that can support three or four people (depending mostly on your upload speed), and public servers with dozens of players are easy to find (if a bit unsafe for you and your creations—more on that in a bit).

Unlike most games, where the single-player and multiplayer modes share basic mechanics but little else, Minecraft is pretty much the same game. This means that the single-player mode often feels like a lonely version of the multiplayer mode. In short, this is a game that demands to be played with friends.
 

Issues

 
Out of the box, the game has two major issues that come to mind after months of play, though both have been more or less remedied by the fan community and don’t appear to have hurt either the game’s sales or popularity.

The first, as some have noted, is that the game offers little by way of in-game instruction. A simple achievement map points you in the general direction you’ll need to go for the very basics, from punching your first tree right up to tackling the “end” of the game, but things like crafting recipes aren’t given to the player in-game, requiring players (and especially newbies) to make frequent trips to the Minecraft wiki or another such resource to create the items they need.

The second issue is lack of player protections in multiplayer—by default, anyone can go up to anyone’s structure (or treasure chest, or what have you) and break it or loot it or pour hot lava all over it, and getting killed (and dropping all of your loot for anyone to pick up) happens with some regularity. If you don’t share your server’s address (or if you make use of the server’s whitelist) you can nullify this, but administratorss of public servers usually turn to game mods to protect players, their structures, and their possessions. (A side note on mods: they are plentiful, often excellent, and actively encouraged by Minecraft’s developers. It would require another piece entirely to cover them in any detail.)
 

Conclusions

 
 
Despite these issues, the game that you get if you buy it today is pretty robust and full-featured, and Mojang says that additional free content updates will continue to roll out over time (though nothing has been said about the amount or frequency of such updates). The replay value and bang/buck ratio that Minecraft represents is hard to beat, though you should still try the demo if you’re not sure you’ll like it.

Minecraft deserves almost all of the good things that people have said about it. In a marketplace full of iterative games that often have a little too much in common with one another (and speaking as someone who enjoys many of said iterative games), it’s something unique. It can be almost any kind of game you want it to be: a dungeon crawler, a survival horror game, a farming simulator, or even a rudimentary MMO. It resonates with people because it’s not quite like anything else, and that’s intended as high praise.

Mojang’s Minecraft is available for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux for $26.95. Official system requirements have not been published, but the game should run reasonably well on a system with any dual-core CPU, 2GB of RAM, and most DirectX 10-capable integrated and dedicated GPUs.
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  • Mithan - Monday, November 21, 2011 - link

    I discovered the game back in January after I hurt my back at work and was off work for a month. I had "seen" a bit about it before that but it looked stupid and being the guy who spends $500 on a new video card every 2 years, I laughed at how horrible it looked.

    Still, I took a chance and tried it.

    300 or 400 hours later, I have really enjoyed the game and have played it on and off this year as our Vault Network server gets reset.

    The magic in this game is the creation element, which is why you want to play it on a live server with 10-20 other people. Obviously, when you create things, you want people to see those things and that is where the game shines, because other people will see your creations and you will see other people's creations and you may even team up to make villages or roads connecting things or whatever.

    For anybody who is trying it, I suggest downloading Misa's Texture Pack. It really upgrades the graphics to an almost perfect balance between graphics/performance and it really makes the game a lot better as well.

    However the most important thing for playing Minecraft is to find a server with a bunch of other people and play with them.
    Reply
  • vol7ron - Monday, November 21, 2011 - link

    I have to check out Misa. I tried Minecraft and I realized it wasn't for me. I find pleasure in FPSs like Counter Strike Source and Battlefield:Bad Company 2. I can understand the World of Warcraft phenomenon (even though I haven't played it since beta and its release), but when I tried Minecraft some time ago I was more like "what's the point?"

    I'm sure the game is probably great if you take the time to understand it, but as I've gotten older I just don't understand the point of it and no longer have the time to understand other people's fascination with it. I don't want to knock it because I'm sure my younger self would find the time during the summer, but I guess there isn't enough gratification for time invested, for me.

    I hope one day I can appreciate it as much as everyone else seems to.
    Reply
  • Death666Angel - Tuesday, November 22, 2011 - link

    "I was more like "what's the point?"
    What's the point of playing with Lego or making a painting? Minecraft doesn't have a point, except provide a venue by which people can express themselves, create their environment, reenact things etc.
    That isn't for everybody and I played it a lot at first but haven't found the time in recent months. For me, unless I can play for more than a few hours, the fun doesn't kick in. It isn't a game I can play for 45 minutes once a week. :-) But best 10$ (or was it 15$?) I ever spent.
    Reply
  • vol7ron - Tuesday, November 22, 2011 - link

    Yeah, I guess I like a win/lose type of game play, especially live against real opponents, which is a nice part of Minecraft; but you're right, it did remind me of legos. While the texture packs seem to be an improvement, they still seem lacking as if they were meant for a machine that was built 15 years ago. I guess to me it seems more of a hobby than a game.

    I think I'd like it better if there were leagues with goals/objectives that you could compete once a week for. I understand it's not just about building, like legos, that there are patterns and summonings (?) involved to unlock portions, I guess I just don't have the time - perhaps in the future :)
    Reply
  • Stuka87 - Tuesday, November 22, 2011 - link

    I also use Misa's Texture Pack. She does a great job on it. I have been a player since InDev, but didn't play it heavily until Alpha. Simply because the game was so incomplete early on, there wasn't much to do.

    There are also some other mods (like water shader) that make the game look amazing. You just need a decent graphics card to push it.

    If you want to see some tutorials, or what the texture/water shader mods look like, go to youtube and Search for Stuka87s I have plenty of videos up.
    Reply
  • EnzoFX - Monday, November 21, 2011 - link

    Jolicraft.

    Though I can admit there is something to be had from higher res packs, though I've yet to find one who's quality matches that of Jolicraft.
    Reply
  • QChronoD - Monday, November 21, 2011 - link

    I think you're being a bit generous with "last month's feature freeze" since the boss was only added in 1.0.0 RC2 last monday (IIRC).
    Personally, I think that the game as a concept is excellent. It might not have been the first one to do any particular aspect but it brought all the pieces together in an exciting and fun to play manner. However, the execution of the game leaves a bit to be desired. It seems like most of the things that notch shoehorned into the game since the Halloween update last year that gave us the Nether are either mods that he bought out (the new map format) or his own 3/4-assed implementation of popular mods (pistons, enchanting, towns, Testificate, new lighting engine). /rant

    Enzo, I hope you get a chance to try out the LB Photo HD x256 w/ his GLSL shaders once the mods get updated. It takes a toll on your fps (~500 to ~25 on a GTX260 @1920x1200) but it looked beautiful. Hopefully the water reflection shader will be compatible as well. :D
    Reply
  • Darkerson - Tuesday, November 22, 2011 - link

    I only regret waiting as long as I did (july of this year) to get the game. I disregarded it at 1st, until I watched a couple videos, and now, along with Terraria, it's one of my favorite games. Reply
  • therealnickdanger - Tuesday, November 22, 2011 - link

    "LB Photo HD x256"

    +1

    I like the basic, vanilla look of the game, but there's no doubt that the texture packs and shader packs add a whole new level of scope and beauty to the game. Combined with the plugins, these randomly generated worlds often look more incredible than the artisticly-designed environments of most RPGs I've played.
    Reply
  • EnzoFX - Tuesday, November 22, 2011 - link

    I've seen those packs before, and I always find them... ugly haha.

    I just think it's bad design. It packs in more detail, simply for the sake of it. Not great detail either. As the name suggests, it looks like photos, which should hardly be such a direct source in graphics design. Where is the polish and interpretation? Where is the artistic exercise? This isn't CoD where you could just bump up some mundane detail and have people go crazy over it =P.
    Reply

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