A Review of Minecraft

Jim Cirigliano, 3 August 2012

Indie sensation Minecraft has exploded over the past two years. Now that the game has officially gone live from beta, Jimmy C dives in to gives us the rundown.

Imagine yourself in a vast landscape surrounded by desert to your east, lush forest to the south, tundra to the north, and a spooky entrance to a dark cave in the barren terrain to your west. You have nothing but the clothes on your back, and you must explore this vast world in search of materials in order to scratch out a living and survive. 

Actually that sounds pretty scary. But that’s exactly the scenario you find yourself in when you begin a game of Minecraft.

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Oh, did I forget to mention that monsters spawn in dark places? They totally do. And while you’ve been busy punching trees to collect wood, the sun has started setting.

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The word "unique" is thrown around an awful lot, but it’s hard to find a better word to describe Minecraft. In a videogame marketplace that seems to be competing with itself to see which title can create the most graphically elaborate blood splatters and gore, Minecraft unapologetically features “retro” blocky, pixelated 8-bit graphics; has no particular plot; and is completely G-rated. You’re just dropped into this endless world made of blocks that you can shape into just about anything you can imagine. 

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The world stretches infinitely, randomly generating new terrain as you approach the world’s edge, so you can never run out of blocks or areas to explore. Or, if you’d rather stay near your original spawn point and build the world’s most elaborate hot dog stand, you might as well do that. There’s nothing forcing you to stray far from your starting point except the irresistible allure of exploring the world. The game’s terrain generator behaves most of the time, but occasionally you’ll find some really weird or cool geography such as floating islands, pitfalls, chasms, and so on.

I would characterize the gameplay as an engaging blend of a boundless sandbox game and a sprawling dungeon crawler. During the game’s daytime, you can explore the world’s surface and build whatever fanciful creations come to mind using an endless supply of blocks. Because the wide open outdoor spaces on the surface become unsafe at night, you’ll often turn to mining underground, lighting tunnels and caverns with torches as you go, and finding the best and rarest resources the deeper you delve.

In the beginning of a new game, you’re mainly looking for resources to help you survive—wood and stone to use as building blocks and with which to craft basic tools, coal to make torches for precious light, and food to restore your health. But you’ll soon stumble upon other things—shiny things!—that you’ll invariably want to collect for their practical or decorative value. Thus begins an endless adventure delving deep into spider-infested cave systems, dodging hungry zombies at night, and exploring the world’s expansive surface for riches, building blocks, and other resources.

During your adventure, you’re invariably going to need some kind of shelter. The world of Minecraft is a dangerous place at night. Skeletons, zombies, spiders, and other monsters can spawn anywhere that it’s dark, so it makes sense to build yourself a little enclosed space that you can keep lit and safe even when the sun goes down. This can take the form of a hole you dig out for yourself in the dirt, a cozy wooden cabin, or a majestic stone castle complete with lava moat and working portcullis—it’s entirely up to you and how much time and effort you care to put into construction. Most of the time, you’ll start simple by necessity, and improve your house as you find new building blocks.

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Once you’ve got a safe little homestead, you can travel around exploring, or you can build yourself a little farm to raise cubic chickens and grow crops if that’s more your speed.

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But the real action is underground.

Most of the ground beneath the surface is solid rock with occasional mineral veins throughout, but once you start exploring underground you’re bound to tunnel into interesting areas such as elaborate cave systems, monster spawners, and abandoned mines. Each of these holds treasures and dangers all its own. The randomly generated cave systems and abandoned mineshafts can be fantastically intricate and full of deadly hazards, and can easily take hours to fully explore and exploit.

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Minecraft offers three modes of play: survival, hardcore, and creative. Survival mode is the basic game mode, where you must gather materials from the world, fend off monsters, and build whatever your little heart desires. If you die—something that happens to me with unsettling frequency—you simply drop the blocks and items in your inventory onto the ground and respawn at your home point to continue.

Hardcore mode is the same as survival mode, except it is locked on the hardest difficulty setting, and when you die your world is erased. No respawns or second chances! This game mode is not for beginners or for those who want to keep their in-game creations.

Creative mode is a much more low-key style of play. You have an unlimited supply of all the types of blocks, you can fly around the map, and you cannot die. This is a great game mode for players who aren’t interested in fighting monsters or exploring the game world, but who just want to build cool things without limitations.

Although Minecraft is an excellent single-player experience, players can also join multiplayer servers to share a game world with a group of others. I didn’t play around in this mode much, because there’s something upsetting about the idea of another player being able to come around and knock down your house or blow up whatever you’ve built. If you can get onto a server with a moderator and a set of rules, though, there’s potential to build some amazing works together with a group of friends.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the game’s iconic creature, the Creeper. At a distance, these little green cactus-looking critters have a creepy-but-harmless look about them. As they amble around, you might even call them cute if you didn’t know better. Creepers are perhaps the only creatures in the game that move absolutely silently. When you come close to one, it locks onto you and…approaches. 

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Maybe it just wants a hug? (Spoiler alert: It definitely doesn’t want a hug.) 

Many a Minecrafter rightly fears a Creeper that has gotten too close—or, worse yet, a Creeper that has silently slipped inside your house. 

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Minecraft is published by the independent software developer Mojang out of Sweden. The finished version was released for the PC in November 2011, and has since been adapted to a pocket edition app for mobile devices and a version for Xbox 360. Some of the functionality and gameplay options are different among versions; this review is based on my experience with the PC game. 

The PC game became available to purchase long before the final version was completed—at the encouragement of friends, I picked it up while it was still in beta testing. The beta version of the game was great fun in its own right, but as it drew nearer to its finished state, many new features and creatures went live before ultimately becoming the “official release” of the game that you can buy today. 

Modding is both allowed and encouraged. There are texture packs, add-ons, and character skins aplenty that you can download free from the Internet. Those with sufficient skill can even create their own and share them with the growing Minecraft community. 

The game initially spread almost entirely via word of mouth, and even without the marketing muscle of a major software publisher, this little gem quietly became one of the best-selling PC games on the market today—and it’s not hard to see why.

Grumpy Grog says: Try as I might, I simply cannot get bored of this game. At first glance, it looked so basic—so why can’t I stop playing? I’ll tell you as soon as I’m finished mining the diamonds out of this cavern I just found, and adding the third story to the mansion I’m building out of pumpkins. Hey, where’s that hissing sound coming from…?

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