Minecraft on XBLA: First Impressions

I love Minecraft. I make no secret of the fact that it is my favourite game of all time. So many happy hours have I wasted spent down zombie-filled caverns or building inadvertently-phallic towers block-by-block. Minecraft is even to blame for the existence of Shootah, by proving that not only does Java, my language of choice, still have a place on the desktop and can be a viable platform for game development, but also that one beardy 30-something guy hacking away on his own can make something quite special and find a fanbase for his quirky little game long before it’s even complete. Not that I expect to create anything with the impact of Notch’s infinite sandbox, but it was inspiring to find that there’s still a place for the lone developer among the EAs and Valves of this world.

In any case, I was delighted to win a free copy of the newly-released XBox Live Arcade version via a Twitter give-away. While Minecraft’s natural home is on the PC, I like the idea of being able to play while slobbed on the sofa, and the addition of split-screen multiplayer ignited the dream, however
unlikely it may be, of coaxing Mrs McChesney to join in.

I’ve only spent a couple of hours with it, so this is very much about my first impressions in comparison with the PC version. It’s not really a review of the game, so I’ll say this up-front:

If you’ve never played Minecraft, you should find a way to play Minecraft.

If that’s on the PC(/Mac/Linux) version, then all the better, but if the 360 is your platform of choice, that’s ok too. You’ll still experience the core of Minecraft, though the PC version has come a long way since the source was handed over to 4J Studios for conversion.

Certainly it looks the part, and it only takes a few button presses before a familiar blocky landscape is stretching out before you inviting exploration. There is a tutorial for newcomers – a feature that the PC version could be doing with – but I skipped that and jumped straight into the game. Even then, popup boxes explain the various items and block types that you discover along the way, though I would have liked some option to turn those off.

The controls work well and are intuitive, though inventory management and crafting can be a little fiddly at first. The latter has been greatly simplified, by necessity, allowing you to just select an item to craft from a menu and have it appear, rather than “assembling” it from the various components as in the PC version. It’s not a bad implementation, but the GUI is a little small and I found myself having to squint at it to figure out how many units of item x I was carrying, for example. One assumes that the devs tested it with their faces in their monitors rather than across a living room on a modest-sized TV.

Some disappointing choices have been made on the audio front. C418’s atmospheric score plays on a loop in the background, rather than coming and going as it does on the desktop. This fading in-and-out may be completely random, but there are enough times that it seems deliberate – kicking in as you emerge from a mine just as the sun comes up, for example – as to grant an oddly cinematic effect. I love the Minecraft soundtrack, purchased the album, and listen to it outside of the game, but even your favourite music grates after the 20th play in a row, and I can see myself turning it off completely on the XBox version.

Additionally, the creepers – Minecraft’s most iconic and feared bad guys – now go out with a weedy bang that sounds more like a temporary placeholder effect than a mighty explosion. Why they didn’t even use the original PC version (itself replaced by a more substantial effect), I don’t understand.

Sadly, the XBox version doesn’t implement Minecraft’s famous “infinite” map, which keeps expanding as you explore and is limited only by the amount of disc-space you have available. On the 360, each map is limited to 1024×1024 blocks – about 1 sq km – so once you’ve mined it out you’re likely to move on to a fresh one fairly quickly.
On the other hand, multiplayer has always been a bit of a pain in the bum on the PC version. Setting up a server requires jumping through more hoops than the average player is likely to be bothered with, and while there are plenty of public servers to join, you’re always at the mercy of it being brought down or deleted, taking your creations along with it. Ideally there should be a way to open up a single-player game to online participants with a couple of clicks, and this is precisely what the 360 version offers. Add the aforementioned split-screen option, and this might just be the most social version of the game in existence.

Updates are promised, and it would be nice to see the XBox version catch up with the original, adding stuff like strongholds, enchantments, potions, the hunger bar, and the infinite map, but there’s plenty to keep the newcomer engaged, and the tutorial and in-game help make the first hours far less baffling than on the PC. But I’ll be sticking to the version I know and love for most of my Minecraft fun. I’m happy to have the XBox one on hand, though, for quick and easy multiplayer and sofa-based building. Hopefully it’ll be given the chance to evolve into something more.

Update: Here’s an excellent article discussing some of the technical aspects of the conversion: http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/digitalfoundry-vs-minecraft-xbox-360-edition I still haven’t read of anyone else complaining about the creeper explosion sound, and I’m beginning to think that maybe it is the original, and I just don’t recognize it through speakers rather than headphones.

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