Minecraft has been something of a phenomenon in the gaming industry. It went from being nothing more than a quirky little indie game, released in a very early stage for a an equally small price, to becoming one of gaming’s most talked about creations in recent years. It’s spawned endless YouTube videos, merchandise and last year, the game was finally released in a full and proper condition, after spending a significantly long time remaining in beta. Since then, a mobile version of the game has been released and now the Minecraft virus has spread to consoles with an Xbox 360 edition made available last week. How does Minecraft manage the transition from small screen to big screen? Quite well as it happens, although it feels as though we’ve stepped back in time a little.
Minecraft’s premise is extremely simple to understand; you collect whatever materials you can mine from the world, such as sand and wood, and fashion them into weapons, tools and huge constructions built from the ground up. That is basically it. You could say that Minecraft is a level-editor without any narrative behind it. Although sounding extremely simple, the game is one of the deepest games you’ll play any time soon, due to its insistence on making you both the developer and the protagonist. You create the world you live in however you like, and you play the game however you like. There are no rules, no limitations on what you can do and build and certainly no expectations. Some will create massive sky fortresses with lava rivers and statues made out of diamond, whereas others will only manage small wooden huts out in the forest somewhere. It doesn’t matter, because creativity is encouraged in Minecraft, whether you be a master at it or an amateur.
Some would immediately say that Minecraft is ‘boring’ and that there’s nothing redeeming about it besides building. I’ve even seen the game called a ‘wood-cutting simulator’ before. It’s clear that Minecraft offers so much to you if you know how to harness it for your own enjoyment, but not everybody is going to like the way the game tells you to get on with things. Building huge houses and castles is a very rewarding experience once you finish the construction but make no mistake, getting there can be a very time-consuming task; you need to collect the materials required for the building, which are often copious amounts, then spend time making the building before adding the finishing touches and if you’re playing with others, making the area as less of a target for those pesky griefers as much as possible. Being aware of just how long it’ll take you to create anything of value in Minecraft will reduce the tedium once you begin. Some may be unable to get on with the long construction process but others will purely for that sense of pride and achievement at the end.
Some games require a lengthy and bombastic campaign to capture the player’s attention, with explosions and plot twists that take the gamer on a ride from start to finish, but Minecraft refuses to go down that route. It allows you to play however you like, wherever you like (on randomly generated worlds each time) and with whomever you like. Total and complete freedom is quite rare for a videogame these days and it’s quite a refreshing change from playing a slew of games that spend so much time copying aspects of more popular titles that they lose any identity for themselves in the process. Minecraft is unlike most other titles out there, offering unprecedented freedom, control and no ending in sight and in the process, making the replay-ability go off the charts, whether you play alone or with others.
One of Minecraft’s key features, besides mining deep into the Earth and building, is crafting. You collect all of your materials, which you then have to craft into weapons to fight off the deadly creatures that emerge in the darkness, tools to continue mining and collecting supplies and objects to assist with your construction. On the PC, crafting almost requires the use of a wikipedia page in order to discover which recipes are for which object, but on the Xbox 360 Edition, it’s been made infinitely easier. All of the recipes are now in an easy-to-understand, clear and concise menu. If you have the ingredients, you can create an item with one press of a button and if you don’t have the ingredients, the game will tell you what you’re missing and how much of it. It’s easier, friendlier and you won’t be needing to hunt down those recipes on the internet anymore.
Crafting is not necessarily a big issue with the PC version but it’s an irritating interruption to have to exit the game and pull up a wiki in order to discover what you’re missing. You would, of course, get accustomed to it over time and memorize the recipes so you would no longer need to do this, but for new players, it’s almost intimidating. The Xbox 360 Edition just makes it that much more simple, for hardcore and new players alike. Not only that, when you come across a material for the first time, a tool-tip will appear in the corner, telling you what it’s for and how to utilize it. Some effort has clearly gone into making Minecraft as accessible and understandable for new players as possible and it’s a welcome change because, despite its simplicity and easy-to-learn concept, there are elements within that are quite complex at first glance. Plus, when you’re already flooded with materials and tools in order to construct your building, spending unnecessary time searching through wikis and internet forums for recipes is a distraction one doesn’t need nor want.
Minecraft plays well, offers so much and expects nothing in return but does it look good to boot? Absolutely. Everything in Minecraft is square, from the blocks you mine to your character’s head and even the rain that falls from the sky but the graphics are simple and wonderful, adding to the charm the game gives off. The blocky graphics may put off players who are still of the misguided opinion that graphics make the game but once you stand atop a tower you’ve created and look down on the vast landscapes of sand, water and dirt beneath you, they look insignificant. I’ve come to be of the opinion that Minecraft just wouldn’t work if everything wasn’t made of square blocks and I’m confident that these people would as well given time, as it’s not difficult to get accustomed to the look of the game with more time spent with it.
The look and feel of the game has transitioned superbly from the PC to console but is there truly anything in this version that you cannot get from the PC? There is. Besides a friendlier crafting system, multiplayer has been made so much easier for the less technically-competent of us. If you want to join a friend’s game, all you need do is press one button to join them. One button. From there, up to 8 players can craft in the same world together, offering that same limitless control but with others to enjoy it with. It’s no secret that playing with others on the PC version can be an obstacle for those who just want to find a game, join it and play in it with minimal fuss or effort required on their part. The simplicity of Xbox Live makes the multiplayer portion of Minecraft work the way it should have from the beginning.
Besides an easier online gaming experience, the Xbox 360 Edition also introduces local split-screen multiplayer for up to 4 players. Now you can play Minecraft with others, whether you have access to an internet connection or not. I haven’t tried split-screen myself, as I’m typically more of an online gamer, but although split-screen is a nice introduction, it must surely be an issue with smaller television screens. In fact, I’ve read elsewhere that you can only play split-screen if you have a TV capable of 720p HD, which players were wrongly given no prior warning about beforehand. Irrespective 0f that, I just cannot envision having a view stuck in one corner of the screen being contributory to the Minecraft experience. I don’t think crafting is even possible with 4 player split-screen, due to the reduced view, and that just doesn’t work.
Multiplayer has certainly been made easier but it’s not without its annoyances. Constructing big buildings on your own is worthwhile but when you have other players to view and observe them, the achievement is increased ten-fold. That being said, anything goes when you have other players inhabiting the world; buildings can be destroyed, chests can be looted, people can be killed and vice versa. Unless you run a police state or you really know your fellow players, you need to keep an eye on them as much as you do the beasts that roam the area at night. In fact, trust nobody. I regularly play with others and building anything out of wood is asking for ‘griefing’ and the more extravagant of creations are the bigger targets, naturally. It’s not Minecraft’s fault that some of the players see fit to ruin the hard work of others but it doesn’t make it difficult for them either. Being able to lock down a chest to only the player that created it would be a start, as well as a set of filters to use within the world; for example, no lava or no TNT would surely deter any troublemakers. As it currently stands, however, the rules are non-existant and people will take advantage, of that you can be assured.
The biggest question of all surrounding the Xbox 360 Edition of Minecraft is not necessarily whether it’s any good but whether it’s as good as the PC version. The answer is no, unfortunately. Playing the Xbox 360 Edition feels like taking a step back in time, as it’s an earlier version of the game and as a result, has less features than the version we’ve been playing for months already. Updates have been promised, with one already announced, bringing with them more features from the PC version into the console one, but how long it takes to bring this version up to date with the PC remains a mystery. Preferably sooner rather than later. The Xbox 360 Edition is good, very good even, but at present, it feels much like a dilute version of its stronger brother.
As well as being significantly younger than the PC version, the Xbox 360 Edition is also lacking typically PC-only features, such as mods. This was always to be expected because this is a console and a Microsoft one at that, who operate a stringent policy on how the games on their system get updated and how their players use them. That being said, it was always going to be disappointing. That, however, is not the biggest change. That would come from the reduced map size from the PC version, offering a limit of 1024 x 1024 blocks, compared to the PC’s endless boundaries. I’ve heard a lot of negativity surrounding this aspect and yes, of course I’d welcome a larger map size than what is currently available but as it stands, I have yet to find this reduced map size an issue significant enough to warrant much concern; the map is still large enough to mine and build on, it’s just not as large as many are used to. 4J studios have said they’re going to look into ways to possibly increase the size but you have to remember that this is a console, and an Xbox Live Arcade game at that, and as such, certain limitations are to be expected, as frustrating as they may be.
Minecraft: Xbox 360 Edition does a wonderful job of bringing the addictive crafting experience to the console world, enabling new players to get in on the building as well as older, more familiar fans. Whether you see any point in purchasing this version over the more superior, feature-filled PC version depends on whether you need a better crafting system, or an easier multiplayer experience. The Xbox 360 Edition was never going to usurp its bigger brother but 4J Studios have done a fantastic job in bringing one of gaming’s most brilliant inventions into a bigger audience, with massive sales success already.
Now get your pickaxes ready because it’s going to be yet another day down the mines.