Review: Minecraft

I got screwed over by a cow today. I was minding my own business, setting up a railway station like you do, and I needed a power source. So I built a perpetual motion machine out of mine carts and arranged it so that I could pop a mine cart out of the loop here and send it down to another mine cart there to give it loads of momentum before bringing it right back up to my loop so it could be used again. While I was testing this system, a cow climbed into my cart. As they do.

It was a happy cow, all mooing and zooming around at near-supersonic velocities and all that, so I let it be. And I tested my loop, and it worked, and all was good. After a while the mooing got to me so I bludgeoned the cow to death with a pickaxe and used its leather to make a hat. Later, when I tried to use my new mine cart railway I discovered that the cart didn’t return to it’s cradle after being used. And that’s when I remembered that in Minecraft, occupied mine carts hold their speed better than empty ones. Balls.

Minecraft is a procedurally generated mining simulation developed by one-man studio Mojang. Minecraft is famous because it made its creator, Markus Pearsson AKA Notch, a millionaire before it was even out of alpha. I’m not even kidding. He hit upon the idea of selling the pre-alpha version of the game at reduced cost, with each major update bumping up the price until it went gold. The incentive is clear: buy in early and you get the game for a fraction of the price the late adopters have to pay. I waited until Alpha to slap down my 15 bucks, and I’m kind of glad I did. For all its massive popularity and indie darling status, Minecraft is a bit…weird. That’s not to say it’s bad or a poor investment, it’s the exact opposite, but right now it’s…weird. I shall do my best to explain.

When you start up Minecraft you will be treated to a wait of a few minutes while it generates a world for you. Minecraft is currently unique in that it uses an entirely procedurally generated world that manages to look and feel like it has a coherent overall design. Or it does now, at least. Earlier versions of the world generator created various oddities such as vast empty spaces, massive obsidian towers, floating islands and worlds entirely covered in lava. The current version is much more stable and even incorporates different biomes, deserts, jungles, plains tundra etc so different regions of your world actually look different. After the world generation is done, you will spawn in the middle of a field with no tools and no idea what is going on. The first thing you will notice is that everything is made out of blocks. The second thing you will notice is that you can smash them. From there it’s only a minor leap of logic to realise that by right clicking you can place the blocks you destroyed (and subsequently picked up) wherever you want. ‘Huh.’ You will think. ‘That’s kind of cool.’ You will then noodle around, possibly constructing some kind of fort out of dirt and wood for about ten minutes. Then night will fall and zombies will eat you.

You will respawn at your starting point (with no items) and get eaten again. You will then close the game and look up how the hell it actually works on the wiki.

In Minecraft you have access to five basic verbs: walk, jump, attack (swing wildly with whatever you are holding to destroy blocks and kill monsters), place (put things from your inventory into the world) and craft, the second part of the title. Some of the crafting recipes are obvious: turn wood into planks, turn planks into crafting bench (crafting is accomplished by placing items in a grid, your inventory has a 2×2 grid but most items need the bench’s 3×3 grid to make), place 2 planks vertically to make sticks, arrange wood or stone around sticks to make tools, and so on. It gets more complicated. A bunch of wood with a diamond in the middle makes a jukebox player, 6 iron bars and a stick makes mine cart tracks and 3 sticks and spider silk make a fishing rod. And that’s not even getting into booster rails and redstone repeaters.

The game has an almost vertical learning curve. Notch has always stated that the intent was for people to find out through experimentation what can and can’t be created, but the abstract nature of the crafting process makes it difficult to tell if you’re on the right track or if the thing you want to create even exists. Just find a recipe list online, you’ll be much happier. After you’ve built yourself a home to keep the zombies and skeletons and exploding cacti (known as creepers because they make absolutely no sound other than an ‘sssssss’ right before they blow up and kill you) and put torches everywhere (monsters only spawn in the dark) it is time to mine.

All of the minerals you need to make cool stuff are underground, as are most of the cool things like huge cave complexes to explore and monster dungeons. There are two cardinal rules to mining in Minecraft: Never dig down and never dig up. Well, not never, but be very cautious if you do either. If you dig out the block you are standing on and there’s a cave (or worse, lava) underneath, you will fall and probably die. Conversely, if you dig up and there’s sand or gravel above you it will fall down and suffocate you. Only sand and gravel obey gravity, other blocks will quite happily hang in space with nothing connected to them. I find it’s best to dig tunnels that you can climb back out of easily, hacking a staircase through solid rock after getting lost miles underground is not an experience I ever wish to repeat. Ladders are your friend. So are torches, put them everywhere. If you leave any corner of your mine unlit I guarantee that monsters will spawn and eat your face. Chests are extremely useful for storing things so you don’t lose them when you die.

It is around this point, a few hours in, when you have amassed a stockpile of stuff and explored a few caves and been scared out of your mind by the monster groans that randomly play underground, that you will find yourself getting a bit bored. The main problem with Minecraft, at least in its current state, it that there isn’t very much of a game in there. In its loosest definition, a game is simply guided play, which I suppose Minecraft satisfies. The more traditional definition requires some sort of goal, an endgame, something to strive for. If this is something you demand in your games then you will find Minecraft (in its current state) sorely lacking. In any case, once you reach this moment of boredom with mining you have two options:

1. Quit Minecraft and go play something with more blood in it.

2. Set yourself a project.

I beg everyone who reads this: If you play Minecraft only a few times, please take some time to research the kind of things that can be done in the game’s (increasingly-complex) world simulation and design and make something. It doesn’t have to be large, it doesn’t have to be complex, you just have to see it through to the end. If you’re still bored, fine. Minecraft isn’t for you, there’s no judgement here. If you’re no longer bored after completing your first project then you already know what I’m about to tell you. Minecraft is as much fun as you make it. It’s like DnD, or Lego. If you just build the sets in the box then you’ll have fun for a while, but if you instead treat those sets as collections of parts from which to build your own creations then you can have fun forever. You first project is likely to be medieval recreationalism: castle building. I built a preposterously huge tower with a class cage full of lava at the top for my first project, a design I’ve repeated at a smaller scale in each of my new worlds. From there it’s a small step to build replicas of other things from the real world: boats, houses, towns. There’s a tremendous satisfaction in figuring out how to recreate a complicated object in a recognisable way in Minecraft’s blocky, abstract style.

You’ll play with water and lava, making fountains and moats. I once poured lava from the top of a hill just to see what would happen, burned my whole damn world. You’ll discover mine carts at some point and link all these things together with your own little railway, and before you know it months have passed and you’ve built a world. I haven’t even really touched on the redstone stuff, electrical circuits and logic gates. With enough space it is possible to simulate real world computers within Minecraft. Someday someone will build a computer powerful enough to run Minecraft within Minecraft and the universe will implode.

The next update is going to add pistons: blocks that can shove other blocks around. Currently, most creations are fairly static, but with these things the variety of contraptions you can build is almost limitless. Bored with the items available? Install a mod! There are hundreds. Sick of looking at the game’s pixellated graphics? Install a texture pack! There are millions! Shaders too, some make the game look absolutely fantastic. And when you’re done with all that, you’ll look around at all your marvellous creations and feel a little twinge of sadness that nobody else can play with them. Then you will discover the multiplayer.

Minecraft is impossible to review, because I can’t predict what your experience with it will be. It is a game whose quality is directly proportional to how much of yourself you are willing to invest in it. In that respect it is better than many ‘real’ game available today. If you’re on the fence, buy it anyway. In the long run you’ll be glad you did.

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About nooneiverse

I am on the interbuts, look at me go!
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