Nov 15, 2010

Minecraft Alpha

I'll be filing this under “reviews,” but I want it to be clear that what we're talking about here are my impressions of a game that is still in Alpha, not a finished product, and this is probably a game I'll be coming back to in the future as major updates are release.

Minecraft is the first game being developed by Mojang Software, which was until very recently a one-man enterprise. Despite being developed by one guy largely in his spare time, the game has already sold over 500 000 copies and it's still in Alpha. An impressive achievement to be sure. But is the game as it stands any good?

I think so. In fact I think Minecraft is a fairly amazing accomplishment. Minecraft began as a completely free-form building game – think virtual legos. The game was good, but it lacked any kind of challenge or direction to make it a really heavy hitter. The current alpha version of the game (1.2.2 at the time of writing) on the other hand features monsters, mining, tree planting, tool crafting, farming, fishing, pig riding and a dark and fiery alternate dimension called the Nether.

The game is seriously addictive. You're plunged into a randomly generated world with no explanation and no instructions, and you can do whatever you want. Generally speaking, at the begging of the game, your first concern is making it through the night – you gather materials to build a basic shelter, get wood and stone for basic tools, and coal to craft torches. Then, most players try and secure better tools by mining deep down into earth for iron, gold, diamonds and redstone (more about redstone later – it's pretty amazing.)

From there, the game opens way up, and this is where it really comes into it's own. Explore, undertake huge (huge!) building projects, set up a base in the Nether, or build a frickin' computer inside the game with redstone. Redstone is a material that works kind of like electrical wiring, and people have used it to create things as complicated as functional 8 bit CPU's. You can learn about circuitry and logic gates from playing this game. And will, if you want to use redstone to it's full potential.

The biggest problem you face at this stage in the game is that, sooner or later (your mileage will vary) you're likely to become very bored. There's just not that much variation in the game, and there's not much to work towards - you can set goals for yourself, of course, but without any kind of way of measuring progress, or final goal, or even any kind of permanency, this wears thin after a while. You can try multi-player to extend the life of the game, but it's still very buggy to the extent that I've mostly ignored it so far. I understand that the developer plans to add some kind of end-game before the final version, though, so this is something that I expect to see improve as the game gets closer to completion. And it's worth noting that, even in the game's current form, I didn't start to lose interest until after the point where I would say I got my money's worth.

Sometimes when people see the game, they point out that the graphics are less-than-stellar. They certainly aren't TECHNICALLY impressive, but a game like this with Crysis-level graphics would probably just set your computer on fire. Aside from that, there's something strangely immersive and engaging about the strange landscapes generated by the game.

And it can be pretty at times...

If you want to give the game a spin, you can still play the old “creative” mode at the game's official website. Of course, the free version only really scratches the surface of what's available in the current alpha. At the low price of ten euros, I think it's worth giving the game a look. It's not for everyone, but it's an impressive and enjoyable game, and well worth a look.

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