XBLA Review: Minecraft: Xbox 360 Edition



In the currently swamped marketplace, it’s rare that an indie game manages to make the leap from cute curiosity to genuine geek phenomenon, but if there’s a shining example of how quickly and fervently something can spread like an addictive pop culture plague, it’s Minecraft. Cooked up by its then one man studio Markus “Notch” Persson, the free-form sandbox game appealed to hardcore geeks and casual gamers alike, inviting them to lose days of their life in its alluring grasp, spawning Wikis and internet memes along the way.

But if you’re without a PC capable of playing anything more technically taxing than Minesweeper, you’ve probably missed out on the addictive joys of the free-form time-stealer, so you’ll be pleased that Notch’s studio Mojang and port specialist 4J Studios have lovingly brought the game to consoles (well, one at least) in the form of Minecraft: Xbox 360 Edition. The result is a surprisingly well crafted (no pun intended) translation, and while the concessions and omissions made in bringing the PC game to 360 will make those who already own the original shy away, newcomers will find the same amazingly addictive, creative joys with a few wonderful tweaks made to make it a more comfortable, accessible sofa experience.
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If you’ve somehow managed to avoid hearing about Minecraft over the past few years, it’s essentially a sandbox building block world in which you explore at your own pace, mining, chopping and hunting for resources to build whatever the heck you feel like. You start out with nothing but your pixel block fists, but punching trees will have them crumbling to bare wood for you to make versatile sticks and planks. You can then craft a workstation or a furnace to build more complex tools which allow you to mine for more precious minerals to build more advanced contraptions, and so on. The more stuff you mine, the more you can make. Pretty soon you’ll have the ingredients and riches to build gigantic castles, underwater fortresses, subterranean cave systems and minecart railways – whatever your imagination and the simple cube block structure will allow.

The open-ended sandbox of Minecraft’s exploring, mining and crafting only makes up half the game’s DNA though, with the other half owing a surprising amount to the survival horror genre. Minecraft runs on a day-night cycle. By day, the game is all whimsical exploration and the joy of Lego-style creative construction in a scenic land full of cutesy farmyard animals. But when the sun goes down, all manner of beastly blocky monsters come out to play, from venomous spiders and deadly zombies to slithering Creepers which explode when they get near.
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You’re dead meat out in the dark alone, so by day all that mining and building carries a second agenda: To keep your butt alive after dark until the sun comes up. You’ll fashion bows and swords to defend yourself, fish and hunt to top up your damaged health, scramble to put together torches to ward off the dark and – most importantly – build a secure shelter to keep the beasts at bay.

The first few nights without the resources to build a cushy home, weapons or a bed, forced to throw together a flimsy dirt hut or wooden shed with a hole to peek through to check for sunlight as unseen monsters shuffle and hiss around is creepy as all hell and the game milks a shocking amount of tension and scares from such simplistic visuals. The same’s true of straying too far from your fortified home during the day and getting lost, only to see the sun starting to set, knowing you have only moments to throw together a hasty shelter, or mining deep underground for minerals, only to punch a hole into an underground cave full of nightmare creatures. The reliance on dwindling resources and the creepy dangers that await in the dark often make Minecraft a survival horror game in the purest sense of the term, with all the frights that come with it.
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The darker survivalist half of Minecraft provides so much fun, a welcome dash of panicked terror and an added sense of purpose to all that crafting, but if you’re of a nervous disposition, you can forgo all the monster mash action, set the game to ‘Peaceful’ difficulty and just focus on mining and building things, and that’s a perfectly enjoyable way to play, too. The almost limitless construction possibilities tap into the creative, relaxing sandbox fun that made games like The Sims and Animal Crossing such a bizarrely addictive joy – don’t be shocked if you unwittingly let the game steal an entire weekend from you without noticing the time. Whether you want to construct a scale recreation of your favourite buildings or fictional landmarks, go to work on an epic castle, tame wolves to be your faithful companions, build a farm to make all that resource hunting easier or just run around punching cows, you’re given freedom to build and do whatever you like.

Unfortunately, those who’re put off by the idea of limitless creative ‘make your own fun’ freedom might find the sheer open-endedness of things a little daunting. And even if you don’t, the lack of any real objectives do hamper the experience in the long term; once you’ve unearthed every type of mineral, built everything, constructed gigantic fortresses, fashioned a portal to the Netherworld and wandered the landscape endlessly, things can get pretty aimless and the initially enrapturing fun will wear off a bit unless you’re someone who relishes an absence of structure and purpose.
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Things have been slightly simplified in the jump to consoles, with the obligatory console port downsides but a surprising amount of improvements, too. The controls are an intuitive breeze, the visuals are sharp and charming and when it comes to the crafting system, the ways in which the 360 version handles the process to make it more accessible are absolutely fantastic. The PC version took a “Screw it, let them figure it out themselves!” approach, with little indication of what or how you could craft, leaving you futzing around using trial and error combinations or scouring online Wikis.

The XBLA version, however, gives you a whole simple-to-use recipe book to show you what’s possible and what you need to make, say, a pressure plate switch, a bow or a bucket. If you have the ingredients you can instantly make them with the push of a button without the precise crafting placement that the PC version demanded. Along with the handy tutorials, item descriptions and so on, it all makes the potentially daunting world of Minecraft a lot easier to get to grips with and nudges you to the core creative fun a lot quicker.
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The big downside, however, is that the world is now limited to a smaller section of real estate, rather than the infinitely generating land that you’d find on the PC. Walk far enough and you’ll hit invisible walls to mark the world’s boundaries and resources are finite, so once you’ve mined all the coal, diamond and gold, that’s it until you start another world. It’s a necessary evil in making the leap to XBLA and the technical limitations thereof, but it means that the hardcore creative types who need an endless canvas to play with will want to stick with the PC original.

In fairness, to most people the world will still feel gigantic – just mining tunnels and caves directly beneath my base shelter took up hours on end and felt colossal, that’s before factoring in the expansive areas and islands further afield and all the land underneath them. There’ll never be a shortage of things to find on the surface, let alone what waits underneath, and most people’s ideas and creativity will run out long before the resources dry up. So while the finite resources are a bit of a downer, most people won’t find it a dealbreaker or even notice it unless they were planning on building a life-size recreation of New York City or an endless land covered in solid gold towering wangs.
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The XBLA version is ported from a slightly older build of the PC Minecraft, too, meaning that some content isn’t included (though apparently updates are forthcoming to hopefully rectify that), like Hardcore Mode (which removes the ability to respawn and deletes your world upon death) and Creative Mode (in which you’re invulnerable, can fly and have infinite resources to build to your heart’s content), along with some crafting items, abilities and populated villages. In a game free from objectives and structure and predicated on free-form creativity and exploration, the more content you’re given to play with the better, so PC Minecraft fans won’t want to make the jump to the 360 port, but there’s still a tonne to keep newcomers happy.

And if you’re the kind of gamer who likes to bring friends or your significant other along for the ride, then the option of split-screen multiplayer or online co-op will be an incredibly welcome one. If you’re playing online, the clear and handy toggle options to switch your game from ‘Offline’ to ‘Invite Only’ or ‘Online’ allows you to bring friends into your world to check out your handywork or act as slave labour, spending a relaxing afternoon toiling away together on shared construction projects. The 360 restricts the online experience a little – there aren’t any persistent online servers, so you can only play online with people on your friends list, and even then, you can only explore their world when they’re online and playing the game themselves. But in a way, the ‘friends list only’ restriction is a welcome one – the potential for people to wreak havok and destroy your creations is pretty high, so it’s handy to know who to hold accountable for payback.
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The Xbox 360 version of Minecraft won’t be an ideal replacement for those who have already sunk countless hours into the PC version, thanks to a few less features and a more limited landscape to play with. But if you’ve never jumped into this addictive sandbox world of block-stacking, brick-mining, monster-evading fun, the XBLA port is still a fantastic way to do it, with some wonderful tweaks to the PC to make it a more accessible experience, like the streamlined crafting system, the more intuitive, comfortable controls and the welcome addition of local multiplayer.

The free-form sandbox nature and absence of objectives means that your enjoyment will only last as long as your creativity does, but if you’re someone who loves playing around with Lego, then the endless creative possibilities and intensely addictive gameplay make Minecraft a must.

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Minecraft: Xbox 360 Edition is available to buy now on the Xbox Live Marketplace for 1600 Microsoft Points.