I have a confession to make: I had never played Minecraft before last week.
All three of my kids have. My son, who is now fifteen, got his first account a few years ago and logged a ridiculous number of hours with it. And it's not like I hadn't wanted to play it before. The aesthetics always appealed to me in the same why that the quirky appearance of 3D Dot Heroes did several years ago when it released on PlayStation 3. But I was always hesitant to give it a go at the same time. The survival genre has seldom held my interest. Games like Don't Starve start strong and draw me into their worlds, but quickly lose my attention. By Minecraft... well, Minecraft's a keeper.
My review has to be in a vacuum. My son tells me that the PC version is still better, with more flexibility and better control options because no one has quite managed to make Minecraft work as well with controller as a mouse and keyboard. I take his word for it. I still have not played it on PC, but my own experience with Minecraft on the Xbox has impressed me nonetheless.
Initially Minecraft is precisely what I figured it was: a cute take on a survival genre. The tutorial did an excellent job of walking me through the basics, when I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. And despite the tutorial at first I would take a look at things like the recipe options and be really quite afraid that the learning curve would prove more than my patience could handle. I was surprised to find that while there is a great deal to learn, the actual game made perfect sense once I had dedicated the time to dig into the interface and properly learn it. The sheer variety in tools, and things to build is really very impressive.
The default worlds available to play in - Halo, Mass Effect and Skyrim - are great takes on three of my favourite franchises. It was really quite fun to see how creative one could be with the building mechanics here. I have seen some pretty impressive structures pop up over the years in Minecraft (one of my buddies made a ridiculously cool Voltron on the 360 version a couple of years ago), but I always viewed them passively. I did not know the game, I did not understand the effort that went into the design and I had never walked around in these constructed worlds. Let's just say I have a much greater appreciation for the effort those goes into some of these now.
However, as much as I love building things and are hopelessly addicted to the likes of LEGO and RPG Maker, I was curious about the survival game itself. The worlds are huge and there is a great deal of flexibility in just how you approach survival, though at the end of the day it comes down to the kind of shelter and weapons you have to protect yourself from the night creatures. Once that safe haven is established, Minecraft suddenly takes a turn from the tense to almost feeling like you are coasting. Once you are properly able to defend yourself, the outside world at night is not a concern - though that quote from The Lord of the Rings about delving too deep has meaning of its own as well.
The world of Minecraft wants you to further explore and eventually your resources close to your base are expended. Eventually you will need food and other supplies. This leaves you wandering further and further from the safety of your base. You either have to establish new bases of operation or make sure you are well enough equipped to handle what creeps out at you come night. Similarly you can dig down, deeper into the world. It's there my warning about delving too deep should be taken seriously. What I came to realise was that Minecraft was endlessly capable of surprising and delighting players.
Survival games have never really been my cup of tea. However, Minecraft somehow transcends its peers, providing a creative outlet that goes well beyond its simple yet charming visuals with surprisingly deep mechanics when constructing things. At the heart of Minecraft is a creative experience that I probably should have played a long time ago, but am glad I finally got the chance to experience now. Better late than never.
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