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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Little-Late Video Game Review: Minecraft

Occasionally, about once every few years, a clever little game is released that takes players by surprise.  Minecraft has been out for a while now, but it wasn’t until recently that I myself discovered this gem.  To my surprise it already had an extensive online community complete with its own Wiki, fan sites, tons of YouTube videos and an existing massive fan-base.

Minecraft is a very simple game in design, with grand potential.  You start in a completely randomly-generated world.  No two are the same, and there are always new things to discover.  You begin with nothing.  You have to travel to find trees to cut down with your bare hands, use the wood you gather to create tools, which allow you to expand your ability to now mine stone, which lets you make better tools.  You must build a shelter, light the blackness with torches made from the wood you find and the coal you discovered by happenstance.  From here, you expand your base, using the materials you gathered to build and build and build.  The passive creatures like chickens, cows, sheep and pigs provide other needed materials for survival.

You must, however, build your safe shelter before nightfall.  As the moon casts it’s gentle glow from the midnight sky, evil creatures appear to eliminate you: the Intruder.  Exploding Creepers, arrow-firing Skeletons, skittering Spiders and zealous Zombies seek to take you out, and only the light of your trusty torches can keep you safe.

Minecraft boasts an extensive crafting system as well.  A grid-based menu allows you place specific materials in a certain configuration to create tools and objects to help you in the game.  There are dozens of items to create from a huge list of materials.  Doors, minecarts, tools made from different materials, ladders, storage boxes and the ever-essential torches are just a tiny handful of options. 

The amazing thing about Minecraft is though you start each level the same, it always evolves into a new experience.  The mid and late game is filled with attempts to build even more extravagant and expansive structures.  Minecraft is the sort of game limited only by your imagination, and some players have used Minecraft to make some truly magnificent structures and levels.

The graphics in Minecraft look like early 90’s 3D.  At first glance they aren’t very impressive at all, but, for some reason, it is still breathtaking.  It is a mix of old-style and new technology that works nicely, sort of like 3D Dot Game Heroes, a game from last year that was just brilliant.  The light mapping is really nice, and sunsets look authentic against the 3D backdrop that resembles an NES game exploded by a mid-level 3D engine. 

Minecraft has a great online multiplayer component as well, with only occasional connection issues it gives friends a chance to build their world together.  The only real downside to this is that Minecraft does not yet have a dedicated server for online multiplayer, instead, one of the players must run a virtual server on their end in the background.  The server is free, however, and it isn’t much of a hassle to set up, just download and unzip, run it and provide your current DHCP IP address to your friends so they can connect.

There are also a ton of mods and texture packs that alter the existing experience.  Changing the way certain blocks look makes for a nice touch, keeping the game fresh while the mods give players new features and creatures to expand their experience.  Some of these are more reliable than others, but most work well, and I say this despite having a near catastrophic experience that almost cost me a save file.

The only real downside to Minecraft, occasional connection problems aside, is that, as it is still in Beta, there are numerous bugs that rear their ugly head.  These can manifest in collision issues resulting in sudden and unexpected falls from great heights, getting stuck in the environment, weird texture problems and the occasional disappearing player, animal or enemy.  However, given that it is still being worked on, that it bears a paltry $25 price tag, and that it is endless fun, these bugs, while frustrating at times, are forgivable.

Overall, Minecraft is a more-than-solid, casual gaming experience for all ages.  Each world is so expansive in scale that you can literally spend weeks upon weeks on one file.  On a single online game me and a friend were discovering new fascinating locales more than a week after we started, and this discovery continues to this very day.  This is a great gaming experience for more adventurous and cerebral gamers, who occasionally grow tired of “killing 10 of these guys” or fragging their opponents over their Internet connections.  If you want a unique gaming experience that will bring endless fun and freshness, Minecraft is a must-play.

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