Minecraft is a phenomenon. The game that was born from one man’s mind has sold nearly 7 million copies and generated an immensely devoted community of fans. It’s been heralded as one of the best games of all time, and it’s not at all difficult to see why.
When we reviewed it last, Minecraft was still in beta, version 1.9, and has since been officially released, taken out of beta and received a wealth of significant updates. With Minecraft 1.3 hot off the presses and hitting as a free update, it’s time to take another luck at why this game is so successful and offer some update views.
The Ultimate Sandbox
Minecraft is a open-ended, sandbox-style game that doesn’t have a defined storyline. When you create a new world, the game generates a random terrain that consists of various biomes, each with individual features like weather, plants and even structures. These range from dense forests packed full of trees that you’re able to harvest for wood to dry, cactus-filled deserts. You can encounter jungles, snowy mountains aside ice lakes and vast oceans, all with seemingly non-existent boundaries.
As you explore the land, you’ll end up coming across structures such as small villages, jungle temples and pyramids in the desert, all of which have a chance of including a lucrative set of loot should you find them. As you head underground, amongst the stone, metal ores, gems and more, there’s also dungeons full of monsters (and similar sets of loot, should you be able to fight off the threat), large ravines and even abandoned mineshafts that suggest someone has explored before.
The land is also home to mobs, both passive and hostile. The former includes cows, pigs and sheep while the latter covers everything from zombies the iconic, explosive creepers. All of these can be either killed or harvested, with a chance of food or materials dropping when you do. The hostile mobs will become a particular problem in dark areas or at night and will require your attention to avoid death.
There’s no defined storyline or aim for the game. You wake up on a seemingly unexplored land and must harvest, mine, fight and build to survive. There’s no aim other than to survive and achieve your own goals, although the game’s official “end” occurs when you kill a boss in a dimension aptly named “the End” (even then, you’ll only be presented with an ending sequence and then your game can continue on). The community have create their own stories and legends about the game and the existence of the previously-mentioned structures suggest someone has walked the lands before, but nothing is officially confirmed and you won’t find yourself making your way through a storyline.
You can play the game by yourself, or host others too by setting up a multiplayer server or opening a world up so other players can join over LAN (a nice new feature introduced in the 1.3 update). A creative mode offers the player the ability to fly and have unlimited resources, but the default survival mode, with varying difficulties, ensures the challenge of gathering resources and having to maintain a satisfactory level of health and hunger. You can also play a hardcore version of survival, where death will end the game, delete your world and prevent you the ability to respawn.
The Basics: Mining and Crafting
The two fundamental actions in Minecraft are mining/gathering and constructing. The first thing you’re likely to do in Minecraft is punch trees to receive wood; wood that can then be used to construct a crafting table and subsequently tools, such as axes and pickaxes, that can be used to mine resources faster.
Blocks like wood and cobblestone can be replaced in the land to build structures, although other resources will need to be crafted or smelted in a furnace before they can be used. For example, if you mine iron or gold, it’ll need to be put into a fuelled furnace before it’s turned into ingots, which can then be used to construct blocks of the material, tools or other items.
There’s a plethora of different natural resources from the wood you can get from the four types of tree (the harvest logs and subsequent crafted wooden planks will differ in shade according to the type of tree) to sand from deserts and beaches to stone from your mines and the various available metals, gems and items of value that reside underground.
There’s not a complex system of the items in the game, although the crafting recipes will probably take you a short while to learn without needing to reference to the Minecraft Wiki.
Essentially, that’s Minecraft; you take blocks from the generated world and then place them elsewhere, although, perhaps only after smelting them or crafting into something else, to generate structures. A system of redstone, powered primarily of the dust that drops from Redstone Ore, allow you to create simple machines with pistons and other items.
The charm of the game is that you can do what you want. You can opt to spend nights underground trying to collect as much stuff as possible, or set out to build a city. You can build machines to automate what you do, or construct mini-games and adventures within Minecraft for other players.
While taking part in all this mining and crafting, you’ll have to be sure to keep your health up by avoiding hunger through killing animals for meat or growing crops. If you die, and you’re not in hardcore, you’ll respawn at the last place you slept or, if you haven’t slept in a bed yet, the original spawn point.
To Hell and Beyond
The world in which you spawn is referred to as the “Overworld”, made up of the features we’ve covered already. However, there’s also two additional “dimensions” accessible through portals, and with significantly different characteristics.
The Nether is one such dimension, the game’s version of Hell, is accessible by the player by constructing a frame of Obsidian (an item in the game created when water hits non-flowing lava, and mined with a diamond pickaxe) that’s lit on fire inside. The fire turns the frame into a portal, which the player can walk through to teleport to the other dimension.
Unlike the Overworld, the Nether does not have multiple biomes, and, if you dig down, you won’t start to hit materials any different than the ones available in the level on which you spawn. Instead of dirt, the landscape is primarily made of “Netherrack” and water is swapped out for lava, available in much larger lakes than is common in the Overworld.
The Nether brings it’s own mobs, including the flying, fireballing Ghasts, Blazes and Zombie Pigmen, which drop unique items that can be fundamental to activities and items in the Overworld. Glowstone, a form of lighting that’s alternative to the simple torches, is also found exclusively in the Nether. With lava, debatably tougher mobs and an overall larger risk, the Nether is dangerous and will require your player to get prepared with armour and tools from the Overworld. In this way, the dimension adds higher-level content which is recommend only once you complete objectives in the primary world.
Like the villages and temples found in the Overworld, the Nether has one structure: Nether Fortresses. These are constructed of the dimension-specific Nether Brick blocks and is also the only place you can find Nether Wart, a primary ingredient in the high-level potion system in Minecraft.
The other dimension of the game hosts the boss battle that results in the game’s official ending, “The End”. The End is not accessible through player-made constructions; only three End Portals will spawn in your map, in a special structure that is the prison-like Stronghold. You’ll need to experience most of the game before even attempting to head here, since merely the item needed to navigate you to a Stronghold requires you to armour up in order to hunt down Endermen (a pretty unique mob primarily found in The End itself, but that also spawn in the Overworld at night, can teleport and require quite the attack to be killed) to collect their pearls and head to the Nether and collect the dropped items from Blazes.
The End is a pretty simple dimension, a floating island of End Stone that Endermen walk upon and the game’s boss, the Ender Dragon. While making sure the Endermen don’t kill you, a difficult task in itself, the end of the game is reached by killing the Ender Dragon. Once killed, the end sequence will commence before the player can jump right back into continuing their game.
It’s completely optional but the aim of killing the Ender Dragon provides some goals for the player to achieve – you’ll need go mining, find diamonds, build a pickaxe, mine obsidian, construct a Nether portal and kill blazes just to collect one of two ingredients needed to craft Eye of Enders, required to both find and power the End Portal – if being thrown into a complete sandbox isn’t their thing. It doesn’t turn Minecraft into a linear, story-based game, but at least offers the player something to be achieved.
You can play a game of Minecraft with the sole intention of reaching the end and then finishing, of course. I participated in The Verge’s speedrun to the End, a co-ordinated effort to kill the Enderdragon in a fresh, newly generated world in as little time as possible, and it was pretty fun.
Graphics, Audio and Charm
Minecraft is known for it’s distinct blocky style consisting of a pixelated texture. It’s not a style limitation subject to technical features, with more advanced visual effects like lighting available. This isn’t some retro game, it’s a style specifically engineered to create Minecraft’s distinct charm.
You’ll come to love Minecraft’s style, even if it doesn’t necessarily compete with the blockbuster console games of today’s industry. Don’t underestimate it’s requirements though; your Mac will need a fair bit of graphical power to run it smoothly.
The game’s soundtrack consists of scenic tracks that are very nice and contribute to the charm of the game, although you probably will get tired of them eventually after your inevitable addiction fuels many late nights of playing.
New Features in Minecraft 1.3
Minecraft 1.3 brings a bunch of new features to the game as a free update. Firstly, maps will now generate with new structures, namely temples in the jungle biome and pyramids. These both come with traps and puzzles that need to be endured in order to reap the structure of it’s loot. Being added in one of the earlier 1.3 snapshots, i’ve been playing with these for some time and it’s nice to have additional structures to encounter as you explore the lands.
An addition to the existing structure, villages, allows players to buy and sell items from the NPC villagers using emeralds as a currency. This is nice, and does allow both an emergency supply of food should you need it, and even facilitates faster access to some of the more advanced items and, therefore, gameplay of Minecraft.
The enchantment system of the game, which allows players to upgrade tools and armour in various areas, previous required a lengthy process of killing mobs, something that wasn’t entertaining in the slightest. “Mob Grinders” could automate this process, but would then leave you to wait for upwards of an hour to get a good level before enchanting just one item.
One of the most significant changes in Minecraft 1.3 sees a variety of additional actions give the player experience, including mining ores and smelting items in the furnace. This just seems “right” as much more of the game contributes to your experience of it, and makes upgrading items a much faster process. You still don’t get to choose what enchantments your item receives, but the faster process somewhat combats the randomness.
A new gameplay mode has also been added, Adventure Mode, which is suited for player-constructed adventure maps. This mode, which is in it’s early stages of development, does not allow players to destroy, harvest and place blocks in a traditional way. Instead, most of the users action is limited to controls and redstone items, which limits a player’s ability to cheat. Naturally, for adventure map players and builders, it’s a welcome addition.
As would be expected, the update adds new items to the game, all of which are definitely beneficial to the game. These include Ender Chests, a special type of chest that allows you to access the same inventory from any Ender Chest, tripwires, writeable books and farmable cocoa beans. None of the new objects or changes to existing ones are bad or negative to the game, although some tweaks might not be to your satisfaction since they involve more work on your part.
You can view a pretty extensive list of updates in Minecraft 1.3 on Reddit. The update only confirms Minecraft’s value through Mojang’s constant, feature-packed updates. Even at the time of writing this review, days before the official Minecraft 1.3 release, the game’s developers are already at work on developing features for future updates, which look promising.
At face value, Minecraft’s premise isn’t going to appeal to everyone. It’s a sandbox to a further extent than games like The Sims, that still offer the player significant story-based and RPG aspects. However, Minecraft is more a tool than game and it’s fun is a product of how you choose to play with it. You can construct amazingly detailed buildings or use the tools to create adventure maps to share with other players. You can construct arenas to play the mini-games that are a product of community invention or just explore the lands.
It’s a fun game, and comes at an amazing value at $26.95 for essentially infinite replayability. The 1.3 update only cements that further, with Mojang’s commitment to bringing free updates that add significant batches of new content and gameplay. With the new objects, trading and experience systems, LAN multiplayer feature and more, Minecraft 1.3 gets a definite thumbs-up from us!