Finally arriving on the Xbox 360, following its phenomenal success on the PC and iOS devices, Mojang’s Minecraft has already become the fastest selling Xbox Live Arcade title in history notching over 1 million downloads to date. 4J Studios, who previously worked on the Perfect Dark remaster, take the reins of development for the Xbox Edition. For all the hype and popularity surrounding the title it is still a little daunting to commit 1600 Microsoft Points to a game that seems abstract, visually basic and potentially boring as hell. In terms of gameplay, Minecraft is the very definition of a sandbox – or should that be ‘sand-blocks’, of which there are plenty – game, presenting the player with a procedurally generated landscape and nothing more than their imagination to hand.
Despite the Xbox version consisting of an earlier build, many versions behind the PC release, new features and a redesign of the user interface are a blessing for Xbox owners and a source of curiosity for PC miners and crafters. The first difference with the Xbox release presents itself immediately: the tutorial. Whereas PC players would have to trawl through a Minecraft Wiki, Xbox players can learn about the world and creative possibilities through in-game prompts and instructions. If you choose to play through the tutorial, the game will guide you through the basics of Minecraft, from punching a block of wood out of a tree to surviving the potentially hostile nights. Beyond the main tutorial, prompts appear in the new crafting interface to tell you the exact materials you need, as well as the functions a new item or block can offer. Mining, crafting, mining, crafting – for those who haven’t played it the main gameplay loop of Minecraft may bear more than a passing resemblance to hard labour. It’s an acquired taste but once you’ve created your crafting bench and the full array of potential items reveals itself you’ll realise just how deep the game can be. Mechanisms, food, decorations, tools – all these and more can be made with the right combination of materials. To get them, however, requires select tools and those can only be constructed from certain materials – and so the endless loop continues as each block you gather opens access to a new item, that in turn enables a new block to be mined and so on. In streamlining the process for consoles, 4J Studios have removed the grid based crafting of the PC version – where you would arrange icons in a grid to create specific items – in favour of a semi-automated process. If you have the right materials to hand, crafting an item is simply a button press away thanks to the streamlined interface. Crafting is as easy as pressing the ‘X’ button, giving you a limited selection of materials to create, or by using a crafting bench which radically increased the kinds of items available. Furnaces can also be made, using fire to smelt ores and even cook food. Then it’s just a matter of selecting the item in the crafting menu and, as long as you have the right components, churning out however many blocks or items you require with quick press of the 'Craft' option.
With the rules of the game established, where you go from there is up to your ambition and creative inspiration. Say two children are presented with a box of LEGO bricks – one may begin building a rudimentary house, the other might stick two up their nose, scatter them around and give up, bored. Minecraft is much the same – without the spark of creation it could be an expensive folly or the paradigm of dullness. The immediacy of a Call of Duty or Forza isn’t present here at all. However, for those who persist, with even the smallest grand designs as a goal, it’s a rewarding and gentle experience. Building a house is usually the first task at hand – a bed, furnace and crafting bench proving invaluable to would-be architects. My experience certainly saw its fair share of architectural abortions; houses constructed of dirt that even cavemen would laugh at, a lack of forethought leading to pitch black nights of stumbling around bumping into cows. Youtube videos and word-of-mouth from online forums shine like beacons of inspiration, proving enough time and effort can produce unbelievable results.
Of course, once you’ve made your palace of diamond or finished that elaborate minecart rollercoaster what could possibly spoil your fun? Well, unless you’ve got the game set to ‘Peaceful’ mode you’ll need to be prepared to meet some of Minecraft’s iconic yet undesirable residents. Nothing puts fear into a man like the instantly recognisable hiss of a Creeper – a green, sour-faced creature that explodes in proximity to the player – with its gurning demeanour at the door of the house you just spent hours building ready to blow it up. Spiders, zombies, skeletons and more wander the environment at night, ready to attack you on sight. The nightly tribulations add a layer of survival to the game that moves it beyond a simple construction simulator, encouraging constant caution while you whittle away at the landscape.
Another Xbox-tailored feature quite literally multiplies the fun of Minecraft by four – PC players have been used to multiplayer but never in such a streamlined fashion. A simple invite will bring another player (or three) into your world, enabling players to team up or enact mischievous destruction. No matter how many times you’ve been on the same team in Battlefield , nothing tests your trust in a friend as much as putting them in a carefully constructed world that also contains explosives, enemies and a wealth of rare gemstones. Unsurprisingly, multiplayer either leads to bigger and more elaborate projects or it devolves into paranoid episodes of devious thievery and destruction. From the outset, Minecraft looks like the simplest of games but with even the slightest experimentation it becomes a realm of near endless potential especially in the company of others.
The simplicity extends to the graphics engine which manages to convey everything about the environment while remaining clean, unique and iconic. Blocks are identifiable by sight (once you’ve learned each material’s texture pattern) and the simple design aesthetic means a high frame rate is almost perpetually guaranteed, even during split-screen multiplayer. The day and night cycle is rudimentary but fundamental to the gameplay while weather effects break up the otherwise eternal sunshine. Characters, creatures and enemies also have a low-fi charm in their basic look and animation while remaining squarely surreal.
Minecraft is an experience rather like zen gardening. As you would rake the gravel in a Buddhist rock garden, so you interact with the cubes of Minecraft, often with intention of creating order from randomised chaos. For those who want to simply build without interference then “Peaceful Mode” can be an oasis of calm in a gaming landscape so focused on bigger explosions and louder weapons. For those looking for something that more resembles a game the standard modes have enough hostile interaction and survival to challenge (although Buddhist gardeners never had explosive enemies to contend with!). The wonderfully pleasant soundtrack from C418 is never repetitive or annoying – it’s the perfect accompaniment such that more often than not the thirty minutes you planned to spend playing has transformed into hours.
Of course, despite the wealth of options available, this version of Minecraft is still not as fully featured as the PC option. Future updates are promised but little is known about the delivery method and there could always be a nasty microtransaction sting in the tail later on. Still, the game is oddly engaging and there’s a decidedly rewarding feeling when you finish building something truly impressive. Achievements in the game encourage the player to build and experiment, the most intriguing of which sees the construction of a portal to an alternate realm. Quirky and full of charm, quiet and thoughtful, frantic and chaotic – Minecraft can be all of these things and more. Like the blocky materials you’ll dig up, the game really is what you make of it. For some that will be ten minutes of obscure boredom followed by a swift press of the off button. For others, it’s a blank blueprint waiting for a design, whatever is chosen limited simply by time and effort. It’s a Marmite game for sure – a divisive title that some will love and some will hate. Still, it’s unique, especially on the Xbox, and for that it deserves a try at the very least, if only to see what all the fuss is about.