Despite ostensibly being a PC game, Mojang’s unprecedented indie smash hit has more in common with an eclectic box of toys than with Skyrim or Warcraft. Like a well-rounded set of trucks, balls, blocks, and figurines, Minecraft gives you the tools you need to bring your imagination to life. But with a real-time simulation constantly running, this is more like Toy Story than a LEGO set.
Minecraft has been out in beta form for several months, but officially released on November 18 with the addition of more RPG-like elements (thus this review, which speaks solely to the current version of the game). Those additions are a mixed bag at best, but Minecraft is an amazing achievement regardless.
Wandering the infinite, randomly generated 3D world of Minecraft is a game in itself. The mathematical magic Mojang has working inside the game’s code creates fantastic vistas, sprawling cavern complexes, towering mountains, and much more while relying on very few pre-defined pieces like the buildings that make up NPC villages. Every world is unique, fascinating, and bursting with possibility. Whichever direction you choose, wondrous adventure awaits. It can take innumerable forms: befriending a pack of wolves, clearing out a monster-filled dungeon, creating a mountainside terrace farm, planting a forest, or sailing across a sea are just the beginning.
Interacting with the world takes two fundamental forms: removing and placing blocks, and combining materials to make new tools/blocks/decorations/weapons/etc. When you start out in a fresh world, you’ll likely build a rudimentary shelter with a single torch lighting the interior to hide in during the monster-filled nighttime. A few dozen hours later, a skilled builder could have a mountaintop castle (built block by block with quarried stone) with a redstone-powered automatic farm (carved into the land by hand, with harvesting machines built from rare deep ores). Persistence leads to dungeons with traps set to kill the monsters that spawn within (including controlled flooding to deposit all the drops in a central location), and even a high-speed rail system to quickly travel through expansive mines.
Alternatively, you could build whatever you can imagine. The interactions between your character, machines, plants, animals, and monsters can be combined to bring just about anything to life. However, if you’re more of an adventurer than a builder, getting the materials in the first place is more than half the fun.
Despite having very few explicit goals, Minecraft generates fantastic scenarios. Once, while following a vein of ore a few meters below my underground home, I stumbled across an enormous abandoned mine. The crumbling mineshafts converged on a hundred-meter tall waterfall. While carving a path along the cliff face with my mining pick to try to reach the other side, skeletal archers began peppering me with arrows from above. I tried to retreat to safety, but an arrow knocked me from my hastily carved ledge and I plummeted to my doom – or would have, had the waterfall not poured into a giant lake that cushioned my fall.
Utterly lost, low on the wood needed to craft more torches, and a mile or so below the surface, I was having an amazing time without being told to advance on the glowing arrow marking an enemy position or collect a dozen bear pelts to help a poor hunter. The sense of accomplishment when I finally made it back home with my inventory full of fabulous rare metals was unparalleled.
The beauty of Minecraft is that no two players’ experiences are alike. What I just described was the natural outcome of my randomly generated world, the path I took through it, and a healthy dose of random die rolls. You’ll have an entirely different adventure, but Minecraft’s unrivaled content generation means that no matter your world, you always have something awesome to do.
The final piece of the Minecraft puzzle is the community. That auto-farming castle – wouldn’t it be cooler if your friends could admire it? Find a good multiplayer server (or run one of your own) and that becomes reality. Network performance is occasionally problematic, with any hint of latency or overstressed servers causing frustrating desynchronization, but on a good server it’s a non-issue.
The millions-strong global Minecraft community has made the game far more than the sum of its download. Gamers collaborate to design amazing machines for you to draw inspiration from and modders make everything from texture packs to whole new dimensions and power sources. Minecraft is more of a platform than a game in some ways. Diving into the mod scene can extend Minecraft miles beyond the base game.
While the toybox/platform side of Minecraft is incredible, the “game” side of it is lacking. The few explicit goals it dangles in front of you by way of its achievement and enchanting systems are lame, unwelcome distractions from the goals you set for yourself. The hellish Nether dimension is a fun place to explore but lacks content, and the boss fight at the end of the game isn’t worth the effort to get to it. If you can’t make your own fun or are heavily slanted toward achievement rather than exploration or building, Minecraft’s lack of structure may disappoint you.
Reviewing a game that sold four million copies before its official release may seem like an exercise in futility, but Minecraft is a phenomenon that deserves all of the many accolades it has already received. I’d love to see achievers thrown a bone at some point, and for NPC villages to have some kind of interaction, and for more interesting monsters to appear, and for Mojang to give me a pony. Focusing on what isn’t present is doing Minecraft a grave disservice, though, because Mojang has created a unique and wonderful star in the greater gaming sky.