You can read this review in full in our print edition.
Our January issue, which is on sale December 20, will include an in-depth interview with Mojang founder and Minecraft creator Markus "Notch" Persson on the game's journey up to this point, and what comes next.
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Minecraft allows you to shape worlds, but first it constructs one for you: a procedurally generated landscape of mountains and dales, deserts and strongholds, that nobody else will ever have seen before. It’s an astonishing start to each adventure, and it’s critical when it comes to explaining why this seemingly primitive indie project has become a cultural phenomenon while other, far more lavish building games remain curios. The trick is that Minecraft doesn’t just give you tools allowing you to create things; it also provides a context that ensures you will.
There’s no room for blank-page syndrome when you’ve already got a whole biosphere in front of you, then, while the need to mine even basic materials will see you carving your first sculptures just by hesitantly digging a few holes in the dirt. Mojang’s insistence on manufacturing your playground in advance of your arrival also adds a crucial element of stage management to a game where the designers otherwise keep a respectful distance. Yes, Minecraft can take you anywhere, but it will always start the same way: you dial in fresh terrain and then you step on to it. Even now, when it’s finally out of beta and the Adventure update has introduced levelling, enchantments and dungeons, you begin every campaign as a block-headed Robinson Crusoe, lost, lonely, and aware that all the tools and landmarks you need you will first have to construct.
Minecraft isn’t the game its sales figures necessarily suggest: it’s stranger and more willful than most mega-hits, and it isn’t particularly friendly early on. Lacking tutorials and obvious objectives, it’s not uncommon to spend your first few hours simply wandering around, waiting for the moment when the game will actually begin. The fun only emerges if you stop hunting for it: when you change tack and make a plan that the world either supports or undermines, when you pick a distant peak to investigate, and then night falls and the mobs emerge. While Mojang’s game takes up almost no hard-drive space, the demands it makes of its players are enormous. Without your imagination, your idiotic schemes and your unlikely hopes, Minecraft is just landscape and farmyard cameos. With them, however, it’s been turned into everything from a model of the Starship Enterprise to a relief map of the Earth.
Building is the game’s most obvious hook, and while great works require great effort, at least the UI doesn’t get in the way. Ditching Popit menus and selection wheels, you can do a lot in Minecraft with two clicks: one to suck blocks into your inventory, another to spit them back out again. Creating couldn’t be simpler, but you also have to gather materials, and while many of Mojang’s ludicrous ambitions tend to be realised with quiet pragmatism, the game is not without its pleasing complexities. Certain blocks require specific tools to harvest them. Those tools, in turn, are created from the blocks you’ve already collected, laid out in a shape-matching crafting grid that allows you to guess at arrangements and ingredients through simple visual logic. Two sticks beneath three planks will give you a wooden pickaxe, so two sticks beneath three cobblestones should provide you with a hardier model. That’s an early victory, and a little meddling will quickly net you a sword or a hoe to go with it.
An achievement tree may provide direction, but it’s your desire to chip away at the world more effectively that really pushes you through the learning process. When you start to plan ahead, you’ll discover that Minecraft’s blocky geology, with its subterranean chambers and hidden seams, creates a constant procedural tension between the things you want to build and the environment you have to work within. You can burn to death quite briskly just by putting an axe through the wrong wall and burying yourself in lava, while night, with its zombies and Endermen, sets the pace for your activities, forcing you to work during the day and then fortify yourself after dark.
Minecraft’s a powerful survival horror game at times, and that can be your entire experience if you want it to be. Simply ignore the impulse to focus on anything other than armour, weaponry and enchantments: Mojang doesn’t mind. You can turn off the dangers just as easily by switching to Creative mode, which allows you to fly, destroy blocks with a click, and mess about with a full range of materials. It’s intoxicating for a few sweet hours, but unless working with friends, or building something truly massive, it can feel like too much of a vacation. Without the foraging, the danger, the food poisoning and explosive Creepers, Minecraft’s sandbox isn’t quite as rewarding.