Like many of the people who will download the soon to be released Xbox Live version of Minecraft, I came to the game with a fresh pair of eyes.
I had a vague idea of what I was getting into, the rich heritage of the PC original is hard to ignore. Minecraft has developed a strong and dedicated community since it was released in alpha form back in 2009.
The basic premise is this: You can make pretty much anything you like, and at night monsters descend. To be honest, it's a premise that didn't really appeal to me. It sounded too vague, too limited.
Turns out I was wrong. I'm just a matter of hours into my Minecraft experience and I already know I have started a journey that will continue for months, possibly years.
The tutorial explains the very basics. Cut down this tree, get wood. Get enough wood, make a crafting table. At this early stage I still wasn't convinced. I did as instructed, cut down some trees, made myself a crafting table and put it down somewhere arbitrary.
Then I killed a pig. You've got to eat.
Returning to the guidance of the tutorial, I created some wooden tools. Then I started to mine some stone, enough to create a furnace. I placed my furnace inside a structure, then used it to create some charcoal.
It was sometime around now that the penny dropped. A whole world of possibilities opened up to me. I realised that I could make pretty much anything that I wanted to. Scrolling through the crafting menus and seeing the huge variety of options available filled me with excitement.
I wrapped up the tutorial, and wandered off into a nearby village. Mojang (and 4J Studios) offer just a glimpse of what is possible in the surrounding areas. I could make my own castle, or hollow out a giant cave, and install a train line to link everything together, or conceal giant traps to snare the beasties that come out at night. My synapses fired in a thousand different directions.
My first introduction to the creatures that haunt the moonlit world of Minecraft involved me peering curiously through a gap in the door of my new base. Eventually bravery kicked in and I wandered outside to see what was what. Before long an ambling green monster walked up to me and promptly exploded, taking off nearly half my health. I ran back inside, if my character - Steve - had a voice, he'd have been screaming like a little girl.
At night the inviting landscape is overrun by a variety of sinister and dangerous creatures. Whether they're shuffling zombies, skeletal archers, exploding green monsters or giant spiders, it's best to stay clear of them. I promised myself I would come back and try again when I had some better equipment. A wooden sword obviously wasn't going to cut the mustard here.
Instead I retired to my shack and started digging. And digging. And digging. A chamber collapsed underneath my shelter. My new basement had emerged. I started hollowing out the earth to create new rooms and passages. Eventually I went upstairs, so I could go and explore the outside world. It was already dark, I had spent a whole day, maybe even two, just digging.
Time disappears in Minecraft. It is an absorbing experience, one that demands just one more minute in perpetuity.
It retains the simplistic beauty of the PC original. When viewed from up close, the blocks are unashamedly basic, but when taken in as part of a landscape or massive structure, the simplistic aesthetic becomes a thing of beauty. I explored a couple of randomly generated maps, and some of the views on show were stunning.
Audio is functional, but nothing more. Monsters growl in the darkness, but it is far from tense. Before long it just becomes the soundtrack to the evening. Considering the time likely to be invested in the game, it wont be long before most are listening to their own playlists.
Lack of guidance was a main sticking point for PC gamers. Mojang just left people to it, allowing them to discover at their own pace. Youtube guides and google searches provided the only reliable support network. The 360 tutorial remedies this situation, and I was impressed with the way they condensed some complex instructions at the start. It lowers the barrier for entry and was a wise move for the console port, it makes the whole thing much more accessible.
There's a co-op mode, where players can split a screen or join each others worlds and help with their constructions. It doesn't sound like the most exciting way to game online, but it inspires a level of teamwork more rewarding and satisfying than nearly anything I've come across in a team shooter or strategy game. Together you make plans, co-ordinate, build and create; it'll be a change of pace for many people, but one that will likely have plenty of appeal.
Minecraft will speak to a large variety of gamers. The creative freedom afforded to players is unparalleled. There are different difficulty settings, with a Peaceful mode for those who prefer a monster-free experience. This option ensures content that will be accessible to gamers of all ages.
It is a game that lets you do almost anything you want. You can adventure, you can build, you can work on giant projects with other gamers, you can dig, you can even make circuits, traps and rail networks. The scope is almost endless, the endgame is the limit of your imagination.
I've only played Minecraft for a short time, and I've been bowled over by the experiences I've had so far. It's a different type of game, one that encourages creativity and exploration. It prizes freedom and invention above all else, and that's why when you play it, Minecraft is likely going to scratch an itch that you didn't even know you had.
We reviewed the PC version of Minecraft just a few months ago. You can see what we thought right here.