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Minecraft is only limited by your imagination. The limit of my imagination, however, is almost frighteningly pathetic. Most of my enfeebled attempts at furnishing my unimaginatively titled worlds (Martinland, Martinopia, Martinchester), before and during this 360 version, generally revolve around me foraging enough gear to build a lavish, three-storey house and then, well, that’s pretty much all I can ever muster. The game might as well cut to credits as soon as I forge a diamond pickaxe.
Bung Minecraft into YouTube, however, and within seconds you’ll find yourself ensconced within a magical world of the Taj Mahal, USS Enterprises and a man accidentally ef=”http://youtu.be/LnjSWPxJxNs” target=”_blank”>burning down his house. The things people can do with Minecraft are often amazing, but more often the things you’ll do with Minecraft aren’t quite so likely to inspire awe.
Still, good news: even my bland noggin isn’t slack enough to not occasionally feel the wonder of Minecraft – and seeing as you’re probably at least 42.6% more astute than me, I’m willing to wager you’ll feel its infectious buzz too.
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The game’s scope is often so broad it’s surprisingly easy to miss the answer to the most basic question: what is Minecraft? It’s a block-building sandbox game with two primary commands: create and destroy. Squeeze the right trigger next to a block and you’ll thump it into bits using whatever tool you happen to be holding, and dab the left trigger to put items back into the environment. It’s almost too simple, really, so before your first evening with the game is out you’ll likely have erected a crude wooden phallus in the sky.
In many respects it’s a Swiss-army toolset of a game, designed with mathematical precision to facilitate a stream of ‘what-if’ questions from its players: what happens if I create a lava fountain? What if it’s possible to build a floating building in the sky? What will it look like if try and carve my face into that cliff?
It certainly helps that Minecraft’s world exists in a land of its own barmy logic, too. Some examples include, but are by no means limited to, how a single bucket (made out of three iron ingots, each constructed by putting coal or charcoal with iron ore into a furnace, itself constructed out of eight blocks of cobblestone) of water can become a never-ending stream, how knocking a bed into pieces means you can pick it up and use it again later, or just how zombies and other monsters come out at night.
Ah yes, the monsters. When the sun goes down, or if you decide to dig underground for the game’s most precious materials, you’ll be met with a crude army of spiders, skeletons, zombies and those oh-so-ubiquitous creepers. They’re single-mindedly out for your pixelated head, but death in Minecraft is not the end – you’ll respawn, but without any of your items. In a game almost entirely about collecting items, however, this can be especially devastating. It’s a part-baked attempt to turn an aimless voyage of exploration into something more traditionally game-like, but what’s particularly impressive is just how effectively it works.
While the main PC version has a few more established goals and objectives, such as enchantments and levelling, this Xbox 360 fork is currently without these features. 4J Studios’ port isn’t quite up-to-date in other areas, too; much of the game is still running off the beta version, so sleeping in a bed, for instance, isn’t quite the same, and the Xbox’s modest technical capabilities ensures the overall map size is a fraction of the PC’s. While there are updates promised for the 360 version, I worry how far behind 4J might fall when compared to the rapidly-changing PC version.
There are some other changes, too. Crafting in the PC version is accomplished by manually shaping items into existence via a 3×3 window, whereas the console equivalent is just to let players choose their desired trinkets from a series of lists and ingredients. Losing this knockabout sense of actually creating your items is a bit of a shame, but its absence is understandable considering its inherent fiddliness. It’s also a bit of a relief to see an in-game item list, too, as the PC version’s obfuscating lack of direction means you play the game alongside a browser window set to the Minecraft wiki.
4J Studios is also restricted in one of the game’s most central features: multiplayer. The joint efforts and saint-like patience of a large group has often birthed some of the game’s most compelling achievements and breathtaking sights, and here the PC’s dedicated servers take a backseat to four-player P2P matchmaking and split-screen. While neither can compete with the suite of tools and options available to PC server owners, 4J has produced a competent use of the Xbox Live framework, with players persisting in a ‘host’ world that never dies but, sadly, only lives when its owner is playing.
One area that the 360 version does manage to excel over its source version (other than the ability to share photos straight to Facebook) is with a tutorial sequence and enormously helpful UI, which combines to guide players through the game’s initial tasks and helps them build a shelter robust enough to survive their first night. Helpful popups stick around for a bit longer, handily detailing the specifics of each new block and item when you stumble upon them for the first time. If you’ve never played Minecraft before, the Xbox 360 version is by far the easiest to get to grips with.
It might be big, complicated and unrestricted, but Minecraft is an example of the possibilities of gamers rather than their games, and its towering success has been accomplished without alienation or elitism. 4J Studios has played its part in one of gaming’s grandest success story with affable competence, allowing console owners to grab their tools and build something in Mojang’s intricate and lovable world.
Version Tested: Xbox 360