Monday, January 2, 2012

Minecraft Review

My internet is back, and thanks to the steam winter sales I have a backlog of games to play and review.  But first, a requested Minecraft review.

(Note, if you are familiar with minecraft's gameplay, skip to the Review header in bold down below.)

First, a basic, but long, explanation of what minecraft is.  It's so unique that my review simply will not make much sense if you don't know what the game is.

Minecraft is a very unique game, and is best described in layers.  At it's core, it's a creative sandbox of sorts, with blocks that can be moved or placed by the players, allowing players to build the world into whatever they wish.  The world itself is randomly generated, it has it's own rules how to build itself, but ultimately there are enough possibilities where each game world you create will be unique, even if you played the game for years.

The game world is also populated with creatures, some passive and useful, others evil and downright destructive.  A really big part of what makes Minecraft tick as a good game is this constant struggle to build and maintain the player's own creations, despite the world wanting to blow it to bits.  These creatures also drop exp orbs, allowing the player to gain levels.  Last, they add a much needed "risk vs reward" system to exploring.

On death, players drop everything they are carrying, including their precious exp and levels.  If they can't get from the spawn point back to where they died or something horrible happens to the loot, all those items are lost forever.  Thankfully, one of the things players can craft is a chest, which allows them to store items inside it.  Assuming nothing happens to the chest, they can use it as a "bank system" and stockpile items for future use.

Minecraft has several crafting/enchanting systems.  These allow the player to change some items into other items.  It also lets them make raw materials like wood into useful things like swords, armor, or tools.  Enchanting is possibly the most interesting of all, as they can spend their own hard earned levels investing into enchanting their armor, tools, or weapons with bonuses.

Last, on Survival(the main mode of minecraft), players slowly starve as they take actions.  There are several ways they can solve this problem, the simplest being to simply eat anything considered "food" from the inventory.  A better solution is to cook the food first, and a more permanent one is to make a hoe and then start building a wheat farm.  The ability to make farms using the proper tools and any of the blocks in the game to build it with is a good example of one of the many "game within a game"s that makes minecraft so compelling to play.

Building would be pointless without a goal though.  And Minecraft does indeed have one.  It's land is infinite in compass directions, though there is a height limit to the maps.  Because of this infinite terrain, one of the main reasons to build is to make a "base of operations", where the player can build up supplies and then set off exploring around their base.

Explore enough, and you may find many natural caves, or different types of terrain spread all over your land.  Discovering new block types, and figuring out how to mine them, is all part of the fun of being a new player.  With each discovery, you'll find yourself being able to craft/build better things, or at the very least be rewarded with some new toy to play with, or even more resources to use on your forts/bases.

Experiment enough building one, or be lucky enough to find a something special, and you can discover the darker side of minecraft's universe.  This alternate dimension is very hard and nasty, looks really different from the normal world, and contains many rare block types that don't show up in the normal world.  If you explore this world further, you might even find the "final boss" of minecraft.  (I have to add here that this final goal is very hard to even run into or build up for, in all my time playing since Minecraft 1.0 came out, I have yet to experience this "ending" myself.)

Minecraft has several modes of play:

Survival mode is the standard minecraft mode of play.  In this mode, the player respawns on death, and everything must be earned by scavenging it from the world itself.  This isn't as bad as it sounds on paper due to the infinite world players have to pull resources from.  Most multiplayer servers have this mode.

Hardcore mode is an especally cruel mode where once the player dies, the only option presented to them is to delete the world file they created.  Basically, it's Survival, but with only one life.  It's got that addicting "everything I build is scrapped as soon as I die" that makes rougelike games special.  But having the world be permanently deleted on death is a very cruel thing in a game all about building your own place.  It's an interesting mix of gameplay but is certainly not for everyone.  Due to the way it works, this mode can only be played in single player.

Creative Mode is basically what it says on the tin.  It's Survival Mode, with the difference being that instead of being limited to what's in the world, the player can simply spawn whatever blocks they want.  Building the castle of their dreams has never been easier, and every block can also be destroyed instantly, speeding up the process of building stuff.  It also serves as a mode where players can freely experiment with the item recipes, the infinite resources means that there is no danger of losing rare loot.  Most existing servers don't have it due to the ease of "griefing" when every block is so easily destroyed by anyone logging into the server.

All these modes also come with a very important option under the game options, difficulty.  The difficulties include a setting called "Peaceful", in which the game will never spawn hostile mobs.  This special difficulty lets players do any of the above modes without having their creations or themselves be attacked.  Younger players really appreciate this setting, as do players who love the LEGO like building of things and not so much the risky exploring.

Servers work a bit differently, they can set hostile mobs on or off in their settings.  Because it's server controlled, the players themselves have no say in the matter, it's up to the server admin what modes and mobs are allowed on the server.  This has meant that many of the servers have found their own special mix of settings and created some pretty unique communities.


Minecraft's gameplay is rock solid.  Being in beta for almost a year has certainly helped polish up the mechanics, and there is enough different types of enemies where it's a real challenge to figure out base designs that survive what the various elements throw at you.  There is enough gameplay "meat" here to please nearly everyone, farmers, explorers, tower defense players, and even redstone circuits that allow for some "programming" of elements.

Minecraft's overall goal is far and obscure enough where one can have just as much fun playing around in it without even attempting to "finish" it or knowing the "ending" (I use that term loosely, as Minecraft never truly ends in traditional game credits fashion) even exists.  Unlike a lot of other games, the game is about the build up to that point of being so amazing that you can explore anywhere, and that trip is not only incredibly fun, but a very replayable one.  I have absolutely no complaints to say about the gameplay itself, it's a perfect mix of creativity and hostility, and honestly it's hard to find any way it could be made better.

If I had to sum up what makes it good in one's Creativity.  Everything in minecraft's mechanics demands and encourages the player to experiment and find better ways of doing it.  It's a constant flow from "I just built this new thingy" to "how can I make it better" to that special "Ah ha!" moment, and it never truly ends.

That being said, there are still many issues that plague the final game.  The lack of any in game recipe book borders on nearly a fail, even after a player crafts something it's up to their own memory to know how to make that object later.  Even a simple list of what recipes the player has made already would be much preferred to being given a blank slate every time you use the crafting table.

The only in game "tutorial" is found in a sort of "achievements" page, which isn't even easy to find if you don't know some basic controls to bring up the pause menu, and isn't entirely clear on what to do for many of the later objectives.  The game basically uses this achievements page to walk you through the basics of making a crafting table and then proceeds to leave you stranded trying to figure out how to make the basic tools needed to proceed in the game yourself.  However, these "achievements" listings don't tell you the controls or how to use the objects in question.

Combine the above with how even in single player, time won't stop for you while you are looking at the crafting table, and the game doesn't tell you at all that when night comes you'll be attacked.  You basically have a game where the first time someone who hasn't seen it plays, half the time they will be blown up and die at night.

While this is probably intentional as a throwback to rougelike games, that's no excuse not to have even a basic screen on either startup or on the menu saying something about what the player should be aiming for.  Even rougelikes would at least walk you through the basic controls, or if they don't, they have a manual for the player to read and say something like "press ? to open the manual" every new game.

There is a guide to surviving your first night on, but it must be said that the game itself would be completely unplayable if you handed it to someone with no internet and no previous experience with the game.  There is a real need for a "tutorial" button on the main menu, that walks through the basics like how to break blocks and use the crafting table or inventory interface, basic actions that are not explained even when configuring the controls in options.  (For those who want to know, you break blocks by holding down left click while keeping the cursor aimed at the block till the block cracks up and breaks, and you use the crafting tables by pointing to it and right clicking.)

The menu unfortunetly suffers from the same basic flaw, there are lots of options, but very little telling you what these options do.  The lack of any instructions how to play the game make the game feel cheap and unpolished to players unfamiliar with the game.  The options, especially the ones that make the game run better on lower end computers, really shouldn't be up to the player to experiment with just to find out what each one does.

This does a severe disservice to the game, as the gameplay itself is much more polished then the menus and lack of tutorial make it appear.  It's especally hurtful that Minecraft's interface and menu is so bad because it's a very expensive game, and a lot of cheaper games are better at telling you how to play them.

The graphics are not very pretty, but get the job done.  It's not ugly either, it's just a bit plain.  It should be noted that the reason for this lack of graphics is because the game has a LOT of these blocks of ground to load into memory at once.

One good bonus to the lack of graphics is that Minecraft is thankfully pretty clean.  It's been carefully designed so that it's worlds don't contain anything religious and is different enough from our own where it would be hard to find anything that offends anyone in it.  The low graphics mean that despite being in first person with swords, there isn't any blood, as enemies indicate damage and dying through flashing red and falling over in really simple death animations.  About the only non-E rated thing you will find are some of the items like spider eyeballs, and even then it's such a low res image that it's safe for anyone to see.

Younger players be warned, there are a few pretty scary enemies in minecraft.  In particular, creepers will blow up by players and true to their name, are creepy.  There are also giant spiders and these black, yellow eyed enemies that will teleport around and attack the player suddenly.  Turning the game to peaceful will prevent all these from spawning except for the spiders, who will never attack unless attacked on peaceful.

As usual for online games, if playing online, expect the occasional swear words and occasional jerk player.  There are a lot of private servers which minimize such players, and playing with friends building places and sharing your buildings with others is probably the best part of minecraft.  This is a creative game at heart, and so most of the players are decent people.  If you be a decent person too, most public servers will be rather welcoming of another player willing to build stuff.

I have one last fair warning about minecraft.  It's an addicting, time consuming game.  I would go so far as to say it's probably impossible to play minecraft "Casually" in a pop-in half an hour here and there way.

If you are even a tiny bit addicted to building things with lego block type systems or exploring in RPGs, Minecraft will be right up your ally.  I highly recommend it.  Even with it's flaws and rough edges, it's one of the most compelling and addicting creativity games ever made.

You can get the game right off the offical website below.  The game is account based so you need to register an account and purchase the game for the account, but once you own the game you can download it to your computer and even play offline.  Note that to play online on servers, you will need a registered account for each player that wants to play.

Gawain, signing off for now.

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