Monday, November 28, 2011

Minecraft Review

Minecraft, developed and published by Mojang AB.
The Good: Randomly generated worlds to explore, destructible blocks can be mined and placed to construct almost anything, impressive array of items to make and improve with experience, online multiplayer
The Not So Good: No in-game help, lacks an automated server browser and competitive modes, poor mod support
What say you? A fantastic randomly generated world to explore and alter, greatly hindered by an extreme lack of documentation: 7/8

Minecraft has held the banner for indie development ever since it burst onto the scene during the summer of 2009. Allowing users to explore randomly generated worlds, mine and collect blocks, and then place those blocks to make whatever crazy designs they desired, the game has proven that a good idea can flourish on the vast expanses of the Internet. Over four million people have purchased the game before the actual release, carefully tracking its progress through alpha and beta versions and scouring each version for new features. Now that the game is no longer a “beta” product, we can now evaluate it fully and see if Minecraft has made a successful transition from inventive demo to full-fledged computer game.

Minecraft has a truly distinctive visual style. Displayed in a window, you can resize the screen to display a larger game world, although the textures will retain their low-resolution attributes. The blocks and items are made of large pixels that give Minecraft a decidedly old-school look (and makes it easier to design in-game items). The biomes are varied and give different areas diverse appearances. Enemies are memorable as well, and their animations are a bit stiff but it works in the low fidelity theme that permeates throughout the game. The sound effects are basic but effective, giving all of the weapons, enemies, and other creatures unique sounds that helps you identify them even if you can’t see them; hearing monsters outside of your house at night is very creepy. The music is a pleasant arrangement of tonal sounds, reminiscent of MIDI, that, again, works well within the confines of Minecraft’s theme. While Minecraft certainly won’t win any awards for cutting-edge graphics, it certainly does have an easily recognizable style.

Minecraft is a sandbox role-playing game where you collect resources, build and make items, and defeat enemies on your way to the dragon boss. The game comes in three flavors: the more traditional survival mode, a hardcore mode where a single death ends the game, and a creative mode that lets you build anything with no threat of death. Minecraft can be played by yourself or online, joining a server by using…other websites to find IP addresses. Yes, Minecraft lacks an automated server browser, so you must resort to outside assistance to find online games and then input the IP addresses yourself (the game then stores the servers you provided for future reference). The game may look like it’s from 1994, but that doesn’t mean the features have to be. That said, the online worlds people have created are very impressive, and everything is more fun with friends (or complete strangers) involved (and less lonely).

Minecraft is very open-ended: there are no quests, but an end-game is present for those who survive long enough. In fact, the game is a bit too open-ended, as the game is bereft of any help. You are thrown into the randomly generated world with no instructions, either inside the game or in provided documentation. While allowing the user to discover things is an argument for exploration, Minecraft is such a large game with many things to do that a complete lack of assistance is inexcusable. Want to know how to make a bed? The game won’t tell you. Want to know how to enchant things? The game won’t tell you. Want to know how circuits work? The game won’t tell you. I don’t want an in-your-face tutorial system, but a series of optional notes or an in-game help system (using F1, for example) would ease new players into the game and allow veterans to remember crafting recipes without resorting to the Internet. I would have never figured out that you could tame wolves if I didn’t visit the wiki to see what bones are used for. Minecraft has relied on the Internet for tutorials during its lengthy beta period, but that simply isn’t enough in a fully released commercial product. Another area that needed attention but did not receive it was mod support: Minecraft has been fertile ground for user-created modifications, but the game lacks an easy way to import them. Texture packs can be added easily, so why not mods? This is yet another feature you would expect to be completed in a released game.

All right, enough complaining about ancillary features, as the remainder of Minecraft is brilliant stuff. One highlight of the game is the semi-random, essentially infinite, destructible environment consisting of blocks that can be mined and then placed elsewhere (or smelted for resources). Part of the fun in Minecraft is exploration: discovering new islands, mountains, deserts, and caves that are generated on the fly while you walk around. There are many blocks to find: wood (used to craft basic items), stone (primarily used to build things), iron (for better weapons and armor), coal (for lighted torches), dirt (which takes up space in your inventory), water, lava, gold, glass (made from sand), redstone (for circuits), diamond (the best and more rare resource), and many more. The better stuff is located deep underground, so a common activity in Minecraft is digging deeper to find underground caverns where it is easier to search for valuable blocks. The use of blocks makes it really easy to make massive structures: houses, towers, castles, and anything else that can be assembled with cubes. The world of Minecraft consists of different biomes that offer distinct visuals: forest, taiga, swamp, mountains, desert, plains, ocean, and tundra all provide different benefits. You might also encounter NPC villages, dungeons, strongholds, and mineshafts, although these things are quite rare. You can also experience rain, thunderstorms, snow, and the day-night cycle. Minecraft capitalizes on the creative fun of Legos, and the blocky environments work quite well and allow for high imagination.

Blocks are used to create many items in the game that are used to harvest more blocks and defeat enemies that appear during the night. Basic tools include pickaxes, shovels, hoes (the farming kind), shears, axes, fishing rods, and buckets. More advanced objects consist of clocks, compasses, maps, beds, bowls, doors, paintings, signs, ladders, jukeboxes, pistons, fencing, and bookshelves. Various vehicles can also be fashioned: boats and minecarts (that travel along tracks and can be powered) make travel faster. You’ll also need to grow or find food: pork, beef, chicken, fish, and bread will fulfill your need to eat. As I stated before, the game never says how to actually make any of these things, so you’ll need to consult the the wiki or stumble upon them with blind luck.

Your weapons to combat enemies are pretty limited, although I suppose all weapons either fall under melee (the sword) and ranged (the bow and arrow) categories. You can improvise some traps using TNT, pressure plate triggers, doors, and redstone circuits, but having more straightforward mines and grenades would be easier to deal with more imposing foes. Sturdier resources (leather, iron, and diamond) can be used to make armor: helmets, chestplates, leggings, and boots can protect you from the bad guys. These bad guys come out at night (or dark places in caves) and include spiders, skeletons, zombies, “endermen” (which move blocks and teleport, attacking you if you make direct eye contact) and the iconic exploding creeper. There isn’t much variety here and you’ll tire of encountering the same handful of enemies every night, so hopefully more will be added in the future. Having a full stomach from eating (pork, beef, bread, cake, cookies, melon, milk, mushrooms, apples, or fish) will automatically regenerate your health diminished by attacks. There are also more friendly animals to encounter: chickens, cows, pigs, sheep, squid, and the wolf, who can be tamed (using bones) to accompany you and attack enemies. You can also breed animals (using wheat), forming a farm-like community. Minecraft certainly gives you enough to do, if you can figure out how to do it.

An exciting part of the game is enchanting items: experience earned through combat can be spent adding attributes to any weapon or piece of armor by using an enchantment table (which requires both diamonds and obsidian to build, both rare materials located deep in the ground, unfortunately) surrounded by bookshelves. For example, a diamond sword can be enchanted with smite (extra damage to zombies and skeletons) and knockback, or you can create a metal shovel with increased durability. Using more points will result in a more powerful enchantment, so you’ll have to decide whether to save up for more powerful attributes. This gives the player a reason to kill enemies (instead of simply avoiding them every night), since you use the experience to better your inventory. You can also brew potions to restore health, increase attacks, or move faster (plus negative effects you can throw at enemies). Obsidian can be used to enter The Nether, a fire world with unique enemies and blocks that are required to reach The End of the game. While there is a conclusion to Minecraft, exploring the randomly generated terrain, collecting blocks, making buildings, crafting and enchanting items, and fighting enemies will keep most people busy for quite a long time.

Minecraft excels because of the use of randomly generated terrain, easy-to-manipulate blocks that can be used to create almost anything, and plenty of items to make and enemies to encounter along your way to making the world your own. The use of cubes is genius: you can easily excavate and place blocks in any arrangement your mind can think of, creating houses, castles, towers, and gigantic Pikachu. You can make a variety of tools to gather blocks to make more tools, including axes, buckets, doors, dynamite, fencing, bowls, beds, and many, many more. You’ll also need to eat food (chicken, pork, bread), make weapons (swords, bows and arrows), and craft armor (helmets, boots) to survive the nightly attacks from a mixture of distinctive enemies (spiders, skeletons, zombies, and the iconic creeper). While the ongoing development of Minecraft has seen many new items introduced to the game to give the player even more things to experience and explore, little in the way of actually helping players figure out how they work, without the assistance of the Internet, has been provided. I’m sure there are features I am missing simply because there is no documentation for them. Allowing the user to explore at their own pace is one thing, but providing absolutely no assistance in figuring out how things work is another. Another area needing improvement is multiplayer: while witnessing (and helping to build) the amazing creations made by others online is a great feature, Minecraft lacks an automated server browser, and competitive modes that could have capitalized on the game’s destructible block world. The addictive nature of Minecraft cannot be denied, as exploring, manipulating, and constructing your world is a fascinating experience. However, common features expected in a released product are missing, such as extensive in-game help and more rounded online components.