Minecraft Review

By Stephen Johnson - Posted Dec 09, 2011

This indie-game blockbuster (get it?) is among the most creative open-world games ever made. Its simplistic look hides an incredibly rich gameplay experience that is literally endless in its possibility.

The Pros
  • Epic adventure: Minecraft's procedurally generated landscape and resources provide limitless adventure and possibility.
  • Provides the tools for endless creative expression
  • As addictive as nico-crack (a nictotine-crack hybrid I invented)
The Cons
  • Could use a little in-game guidance
  • Newer "RPG-Style" aspects seem thin and listless

Minecraft PC Review:

When I first played open-world sandbox game Minecraft, soon after the first, full survival mode launched, I knew very little about the game. My first in-game day was spent wandering about, admiring the procedurally generated graphics, punching some trees in a sun-dappled forest, digging some aimless holes, and wondering why so many gamers had suddenly proclaimed this uneventful, primitive, goalless game as a masterpiece. Then night fell.

As darkness surrounded me, the previously bucolic world of Minecraft exploded into chaos and horror as skeletons, zombies and strange, detonating creatures called “Creepers” materialized from the darkness and assaulted me. While the MOBs of Minecraft might be 8-bit looking and a little silly by day, at night, if you don’t understand their ways, those things are monsters.

In a panic, I dug into the ground and covered myself with the earth. I was barely alive, but safe. But it was dark. Not videogame-dark, where you can see what you need to after boosting the brightness setting, but complete, black-screen darkness. I was still able to hear the moans and groans of the creatures that wanted to kill me, and had no idea if they could follow, so I started to dig away from the sound.

I tunneled blindly all night, lost and terror-stricken, an eyeless mole-rat. Finally, through dumb luck, I managed to break through to the surface again, the sun was shining now, and my former adversaries were bursting into flames from the sunlight. Good riddance, bastards. I looked behind me to see the results of my evening of fear and darkness: Ugly holes gouged in the earth, a monument to panic. I committed myself to the simple goal of comfortable surviving a night in Minecraft, and so I was hooked into the most addictive game I’ve ever played.

Minecraft PC

“That Atari Creature Wants To KILL Me!”

The appeal of Minecraft can be difficult to explain to people who haven’t tried it. It looks like crap compared to the highly detailed graphics of big-budget games, (though the randomly generated world takes on a sometimes eerie beauty.) It doesn’t have a “plot,” as such. It refuses to hold your hand or coddle you. It doesn’t direct you towards excitement or cinematic set pieces. Minecraft, instead, allows you to create your own game experience through providing you with simple tools and a simple framework, and gives you an experience that can only be obtained through playing a game. It’s as pure an example of gaming as a unique form of art as I’ve ever played.

Minecraft PC

Punch Tree! Punch Tree! Punch Tree! Repeat!

There isn’t a story to Minecraft in a traditional sense, but there is a structure. A player’s journey through the game mirrors the history of human civilization. It’s that epic. The early days are a fight for simple survival against the elements; everything is hostile and every decision potentially life-ending. You fall off cliffs. You drown. You get lost. Like, really, really, hopelessly lost. A Minecraft world can grow to the size of the actual Earth, if your PC has the memory.

Later, as you learn the “rules” of the world, survival becomes second nature, and the game becomes about exploration and exploitation of resources. You make paper and compasses to craft maps, so that every trip away from home isn’t a harrowing adventure tale. You mine iron ore and coal, and combine them to make swords and armor. You build torches to light your house, plant crops so you don’t run out of food, build stone ovens to bake cakes, and surround your house with traps that kill off the accursed and deadly Creepers.

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“I am a golden GOD!”

Later, you combine your game-given goods into even more complicated, personal creations like electrical systems, railroads, and working calculators. When enough material goods and resources are stockpiled, human aspiration kicks in, and you begin to envision and build a vast palace or city to live in-- either or alone or with your pals if you’re playing multiplayer. Given enough time, talent and dedication, anything can be created in Minecraft, from full-size replicas of Star Trek ships to working computers. Minecraft really rewards creativity. While many gamers might want to create a medieval style houses, Minecraft’s tools proved sufficient for me to build a mid-century, Eames style home to live in instead.

Now that you understand how to get by in the world, you can join a multiplayer server and hang out with other people. Live in a strictly role-playing world, help on a massive building project, build traps to murder the unsuspecting, and basically join a gaming community. While the multiplayer servers aren’t a game per se, players have taken it upon themselves to create puzzle rooms, challenges, and other game-like delights. How much you like multiplayer ultimately depends on your tolerance for other people.

A brief note about game documentation and game community: Minecraft contains no in-game tutorials or help at all. While the huge and loyal fan community has built extensive wikis and guides that cover everything in the game, (and anything its creator, Notch says), in-game, there’s nothing. It’s all but unplayable without online help, but it can be very hard to look for help online without seeing spoilers, and discovering things is the point of the whole thing. A little gentle, in-game guidance could help.

Minecraft PC

Little Help, Here?

The greatness of Minecraft comes from these entirely self-guided experiences. It comes from the primal sense of adventure exploring a deep cavern brings, and the genuine terror when you realize you’re hopelessly lost in that same cavern and giant poison spiders are closing in. Completing a huge construction project is as rewarding as finishing the giant Lego set you got for Christmas that time was, except you can walk through it and “live” there. When it’s at its best, Minecraft blurs the line between toy and game beautifully, and isn’t really like any other game.

With the basic structure of the game complete, the creators of Minecraft have been adding more “traditional” RPG elements to their game lately. First, a hellish plane called “The Nether,” and later, things like enchanting, a leveling system, NPC villages full of silent, random-moving NPCs, potion brewing, and an end-game dimension, The End. The End contains a final boss battle, and even a credit roll, just like, well, every other game. All these newer additions to Minecraft seem thin and listless compared to the original power of the game. The Nether and The End both lack the complexity of the “Real World,” and while they’re OK as a distraction, you probably won’t spend much time in either place, unless you really need to “beat” Minecraft.

Minecraft PC

While the idea of adding this new content was most likely to provide a more varied experience for “hardcore” gamers, it actually creates a more mundane one. Following the “paths” laid out by these traditional RPG elements is just sort of boring. There’s nothing all that fun to me about farming monster kills to get to level fifty so you can enchant your sword and kill the dragon at The End of the game – I’ve done that before, in other games.