|Release: November 18, 2011|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p|
by Josh Wirtanen
It's here. On November 18, Markus "Notch" Persson pulled a goofy looking lever from a stage at Minecon in Las Vegas, and Minecraft became a real game. It was almost like magic. Of course, now that it's a real game, it's officially time for it to be given a nice little numbered score. Notch has officially called Minecraft "reviewable," bestowing his blessing, in a sense, upon video game publications and web sites that wish to tackle such a thing. And that means it's my job to bestow such a number so we can finally quantify the Minecraft experience.
It's admittedly a bit strange reviewing a game I've been playing for almost a year now. I originally bumbled my way around the open beta last spring (and you can read about those bumblings in a four-part series I did; start with Part 1, then move on to Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.) Of course, this was early in the beta, and tons of new features have been added since then. So once Notch's lever was pulled, I started a brand new world from scratch and began building anew. And I found myself just as immersed as I did when I began last spring. In fact, even amidst all the phenomenal games that have come out this holiday season, I have a feeling Minecraft is going to consume sickening amounts of my time this winter.
Now, if you're not one of the four million-plus people who have purchased a copy already, you might be wondering what exactly Minecraft is. Well, it's pretty hard to give it an explanation that does it justice. The problem is that it's so simple on the surface, yet so incredibly complex once you dig a little deeper into its layers. In fact, entire books could be written explaining the ins and outs of its various systems. Essentially, you pop into a randomly generated 3D world with absolutely nothing; no weapons, no tools, no resources, etc. But you quickly learn that the environment is both your best friend and your worst enemy. It's your friend while you're gathering resources like wood, coal, ore, and diamonds, and begin building a humble shelter (or a majestic mountainside fortress.) It's your worst enemy, though, when darkness falls and the monsters are unleashed. During the nights, you can cower like a sniveling sissy, build some weapons to slay the attacking monsters, or just sleep peacefully in a bed you've built out of cotton and wood.
But there's so much more than basic survival here. Sure, the monstrosities that you face off against in Minecraft have themselves become cultural icons, with images of Creepers gracing T-shirts, mugs, posters, and the like. But the you-vs.-the-world gameplay element isn't even the main attraction. As corny and cliché as this may sound, the meat of Minecraft is your own imagination.
Because really, if you can imagine it, you can probably build it in Minecraft. I've seen in-game representations of famous landmarks like the White House or the Coliseum. I've seen favorite 8-bit legends like Mega Man, Mario, and Samus lovingly re-created in blocky form. I've even seen an actual working computer built using Minecraft's incredibly simple but mind-blowingly functional Redstone circuitry.
Essentially, Minecraft is an incredibly powerful sandbox toolset that comes with griefers built into the system. The real challenge to the game isn't building—that much is fairly simple—the challenge is gathering the required resources and keeping your creations safe from the exploding Creepers or the Endermen who can pick up blocks and rearrange them at will. Of course, if you just want to build without all these distractions, the game also has a Creative mode that gives you infinite numbers of every type of block to work with, as well as a "Peaceful" difficulty setting that prevents monsters from spawning. On the other end of the spectrum, there's a brand new Hardcore mode that gives you only a single life, with death being completely permanent.
Admittedly, Minecraft's visual aesthetic is a bit controversial. At first, many people scoff at its low-res textures and almost offensive blockiness. Yet it's an aesthetic that grows on you with time. The game has been carefully crafted with this blockiness in mind, filling its world with strangely boxy-looking critters and objects. What you may originally write off as ugly or outdated, you might eventually come to see as gorgeous. And I have to admit, standing atop a cliffside and looking over the landscape below can be a breathtaking experience.
You see, atmosphere is king here. There's just something about this environment that makes it so welcoming and immersive. A huge part of this, I think, is the minimalistic approach it takes to its soundtrack. While you are mostly doing your mining, crafting, and exploring in silence punctuated only by some environmental sounds, every once in a while a piece of music kicks in. This music, composed by C418, is usually a hypnotic mix of piano and synthesizer. It's always soft and simple, yet is so perfectly suited to the game's vibe that it can be goose bump-inducing.