Despite the well-deserved critical acclaim, Minecraft isn’t for everyone. For a newcomer, the PC version can be extremely intimidating. Nothing is really explained, which plenty of gamers have learnt to love and appreciate – look at the wealth of amazing footage out there, the stories people have created, the objects they have crafted. But there’s a barrier for entry there, one that assumes you’re willing to put in the time required to really get to grips with the amazing toybox you’ve just been given the key to. Anyone can sit down, play and enjoy it, but really getting to grips with what Minecraft is
, and the ways it can be played and enjoyed, takes a bit longer. Minecraft: Xbox 360 Edition feels like an attempt at making a version of Minecraft that anyone can sit down and immediately understand. It takes the time to explain how things work, without going too far and beating you over the head with its depth.
For the uninitiated – if that’s even possible anymore –- Minecraft is a game about... well, crafting. You collect materials from around the randomly generated world –- wool from sheep, wood from trees, and so on – and go about building things. Once you’ve created a crafting table and a furnace, the possibilities really open up. Want to build a boat and leave the island you’re on in search of a new area to explore? Do it. Is night approaching? Better build a shelter, because that’s when the monsters come out. See a mountain? Try digging your way through it. There is an end-goal to Minecraft, but it’s never explicitly stated in-game, and only extremely experienced players will ever bother seeking it out. For the most part, it’s all about playing around.
Beyond a few hours spent messing around in the PC version to acclimatise and a lot of time spent pouring over YouTube videos and write-ups of the kind of things you can get up to in the game, this is, it’s important to note, my first experience actually playing Minecraft in any significant way. I am, I suspect, part of the target audience for this edition of Minecraft – time poor, more comfortable with a controller in my hand than with a keyboard and mouse, and intrigued by the whole phenomenon.
The 360 version of Minecraft comes with a tutorial, which is an absolute godsend. It’s not too in-depth, but it explains the need for shelter, how crafting works, and what sort of materials you should be going after. It’s just enough to start you off, and doesn’t ruin the joy of exploration and discovery that Minecraft hinges on. You’ll still need to go online to figure out how to make most things (or experiment, of course), but the crafting interface has been tweaked too, so building the things you want is now much easier than before. Hovering the cursor over most objects and creatures now tells you a little bit about them, and what they might be useful for. This doesn’t so much ruin your ability to experiment as it does galvanise the importance of giving everything a go, and seeing what kind of reactions you can trigger.
The whole interface has been mapped to a controller extremely well. You can still tell that it was originally devised with a mouse in mind, but having to use sticks and triggers doesn’t end up impairing you at all. The difficulty system has been completely overhauled - the ‘Creative’ mode (which gave you every item in the game and invincibility) is gone, which is a shame, as is the permadeath mode. You now have Peaceful (no monsters), Easy, Normal and Hard options. It’s a system that works quite well, and differentiates the game from the PC version, although that’s not necessarily what everyone wanted.
This difficulty restructure sharpens Minecraft’s focus a bit, and brings the game’s core sense of exploration – the same sense Miyamoto was trying to create with the original Zelda – to the forefront. Playing the game is like seeing the world through the eyes of a child, free of cynicism and convinced that there are unseen, exciting forces at work in nature. Digging a hole isn’t a chore, but a grand adventure, because who knows what you’ll stumble upon underground? Early on in my third game (with the difficulty set to Hard), I started hearing moaning noises from a certain patch of sand. I built a small home over the patch and started crafting the items I’d need to explore – torches, shovels, pick-axes, and a sword. After much digging away I uncovered a huge cavern – and immediately walled it up again when I saw all the zombies down there. I eventually made an unsuccessful run through there, hoping to find treasure, but instead being killed (which scattered all my items around that area). It was a fairly low-key adventure, but still one of the most exciting gaming experiences I’ve had so far this year.
Multiplayer is now more accessible than ever too. Instead of searching for servers you can choose to enable your game online when you start it up, which I unfortunately didn’t get a chance to test out pre-release because so few people were playing. We’ll jump in after the game launches and report back if we encounter any major problems. Perhaps more important for many, though, is the presence of four player split-screen. Minecraft is a popular game among children, after all, and what more enjoyable bonding experience could there be for a family than building a Minecraft house together? Even if you’re an expert, the split-screen is a fun way of sharing the experience.
On the other hand, there are plenty of Minecraft players who will have no reason at all to jump into the 360 version. If you’ve put in hundreds of hours into this PC version, been invited into interesting servers, contributed to Wikis and generally mastered the game’s intricacies, this version wasn’t made for you. With ‘Creative’ mode gone, we’re probably not going to see any scale models of the Starship Enterprise
or actual working computers
being built in this version. Minecraft is obviously a game designed to be shared, so even not being able to save screenshots is a bit of a bummer (especially since this version looks lovely, pop-up aside). But the objectives of this version are different, and if you really want to create something amazing, you’re probably already doing so on your computer.
The worlds are smaller too – not so small that I hit the outer limits while playing, but I doubt we’ll see anything like Brendan Keogh’s ‘Towards Dawn’
trek emerging from this version. More concerning still is all the stuff that has missed launch. We’ve been promised Kinect support, mod and skin support, and cross-platform play, none of which are evident in the version of the game available on Wednesday. Reportedly these features will come later (hopefully as patches rather than through DLC), and whether or not they’ll be well implemented is impossible to say.
Regardless of this, the core experience you’re getting here is a great adaptation of Minecraft for the console market, one that plays to the strengths of the format it finds itself on. After five days of play, it’s safe to say that this is the version I’ll be sticking with for now, unless the huge amount of spare time required to really get to grips with the PC version’s numerous possibilities opens up. As a way of introducing new players and giving them the tools required to start enjoying the game immediately, Minecraft: Xbox 360 Edition is a success.