Minecraft review

By Steve Watts, Dec 16, 2011 1:15pm PST

Minecraft moves at its own steady, meticulous pace. Developer Mojang Specification's breakthrough hit is ostensibly a building game, with a survival twist. Aside from contending with the occasional monster and newly added final boss, my ultimate goal for the purposes of this review was to create, and live long enough to appreciate what I had introduced into my world.

Taking a structure from concept to execution is slow, and it can be tedious. Utilizing time during the game's twenty minute day and night cycle to obtain resources for future use can feel more like work than a video game. Minecraft can be frustrating in this regard; however, like real-world physical work, the fruits of my labor were the ultimate reward.

I didn't realize just how valuable that satisfaction was until I tried the Creative Mode. Survival requires you to find or make everything you use, while Creative is more freeform and provides endless supplies of everything. I went in thinking that I would prefer creating more complex structures in a snap. While the results came quicker, it was missing a vital element: work. For me, at least, building a gigantic tower just wasn't nearly as fun without putting work into it, so I quickly gravitated back to Survival.

Calling the beginning of Survival mode unfriendly would be an understatement, especially in our era of hand-holding tutorials and slow difficulty curves. Even equipped with the basic knowledge that night would bring monsters, I had to slowly learn--mostly by death--how to protect myself from the roving hordes.

The progression from my first night cowering in a small mud hut to overlooking the world from my mountaintop castle later is a testament to the game's promotion of building upon experience. By the time I built my multi-story stronghold with a basement that served as my primary dig site, I felt I had gained a good grasp on the situation. Minecraft shines by letting the player learn by doing, which imbues it with a constant sense of discovery.

Minecraft empowers the player, which led to me being overconfident and deciding to venture out at night. My progress was halted quickly as I was surprised by an exploding zombie in one instance or a skeleton archer who aimed perfectly to knock me into a pit of lava in another. The game sometimes felt brutally punishing when my death would lose me valuable equipment or hard-to-find building materials. Coping with those setbacks is part of accepting the game on its own terms. Begrudgingly, I would go on, start from scratch, and be more careful the next time.

I probably should have been more embarrassed than annoyed, since the combat is so simplistic. Almost all of the monsters make direct lines for attacks, and beating them tends to involve whacking them with a sword or axe over and over. They reel back, approach again, and I hit them again. Wash, rinse, repeat. Every death was more about being surprised than not being able to carry myself.

It may sound like a lonely, singular journey, but the reality is that Minecraft lends itself to a social meta-game. Sharing newly-discovered crafting recipes and stories with friends makes for a game experience I haven't had since the days of trading passwords for 8-bit games on the playground. The game is hard not to talk about, and I was constantly the author of my own stories that I wanted to share with friends.

The formal multiplayer takes the work ethic that defines the game, and then multiplies it. Since established servers have been running for so long uninterrupted, many have developed into sprawling mega-cities, rife with unique constructions and their own internal economy. It must have taken months and dozens of people working together to build these more complicated areas, and it's a testament of what the game can be when users work cooperatively.

It's too bad that after so much time, developer Mojang has still left multiplayer structure largely in the hands of the users. I appreciate the customization available, but simple features like a server browser, or easier steps to create your own quick game, would be appreciated. The game is constantly evolving, and I don't doubt that better multiplayer structure is coming at some point. Right now the process is simply too daunting for casual users, which means that some people will inevitably miss out on one of the most awe-inspiring parts of the game. Since the game has been such a success, perhaps crossing casual lines, this is an issue.

Sometimes Minecraft felt a bit like showing up late to a party. Like the complex structures that have been built brick-by-brick, the game has been iterating on itself repeatedly during its lifespan as an alpha and beta version. The learning curve might not have been so harsh if I'd been exploring from the beginning and learning new features as they came. The latest version is officially the 'finished' incarnation--hence our review--but Minecraft reads more like an MMO than anything else. Mojang has established a culture of constant updates, so the game's current state might be completely different within a year.

However many additions come, though, whatever new elements or mobs are put in place, the game itself has a strong core to rely on. It can be difficult and obtuse, slow and laborious, but that results in a rewarding sense of discovery and accomplishment. Sometimes work can be fun too.


This Minecraft review is based on the latest version of the game, purchased by the reviewer.

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