Due to a pathological aversion to anything that gets hyped to the skies, until just recently I’d never played the original PC version of Minecraft. It felt like I’d played it, having read countless news pieces and thoughtful essays on the game across the past couple of years, but until I sampled the PC demo to check up on some differences between it and the Xbox 360 version I’d never experienced the title’s charms.
Here’s the lesson: sometimes a thing that people are raving on and on and on about as really fantastic can actually be really fantastic.
It’s just about possible that there are some people reading this who don’t really know what Minecraft is. To those who nestle inside the insular world of videogames that may seem extremely unlikely, but believe me, there’s a chance. For anybody who is unfamiliar with the game, here’s my best attempt at a summary: it’s Lego for survivalists.
Minecraft plops you down in a world of blocks, where every individual unit can be dug up, mined, chopped and stuck in your inventory for later. Trees will produce wood, sand becomes … more sand and beneath the earth you can find precious minerals like coal, gold or diamonds. Animals populate the world too, providing access to wool, eggs, meat (if you’re a monster) and tame wolf pets so you can pretend you’re a Stark child from Game of Thrones.
But what to do with all these raw materials? Well, once you’ve constructed a simple crafting table and furnace, you can begin to fashion better tools (axes, hoes and the like), boutique furniture, glass and all manner of other building blocks and practical tools to aid your goals.
Beyond the first few steps towards survival in the world, those goals are entirely up to you. Fancy excavating a deep mine? Go nuts. Want to tend some crops, bake bread and look after the local animals? Get to it. Feel the burning need to construct a gigantic Ziggurat topped with a relief image of Gary Linker’s face that can only be viewed properly from space? Well … uh … ok then.
That’s the Lego-related part. Survival skills become necessary when night falls. At night, the darkness engulfs your poor little character (unless you happen to have some torches) and nasty beasties come out to feed upon your flesh. To make it through to the dawn, you’ll (preferably) need to construct a solid shelter or, at the very least, make some weapons to deal with them. On any difficulty level above ‘Peaceful’, enemies like skeleton archers, giant spiders and the exploding-happy Creepers can make your master building project tricky.
The 360 version of the game provides a neat tutorial that introduces you to all of the above and also preps players on the new user interface, which has been tailored for a 360 gamepad. Both work smoothly, with Minecraft’s quick-select bar, inventory and various crafting menus all slotting fluidly into the altered control scheme. While the game’s field of view (FOV) is quite ‘tight’ and close in, it does run at 60 frames per second. At times, I even found that the narrow FOV added to the tension and claustrophobia of an unexplored cavern.
It’s important to note that this release is based on a release of Minecraft several update stages behind the PC one. Therefore, some of the newer things present in the PC version aren’t included here. Mojang and 4J (the developers who handled this port) have insisted that they will be issuing free updates for the 360 every couple of months, so it’s possible that the two versions may converge (or at least get closer) in future. Due to the nature of the platform, this Minecraft will also never be open for modding.
Those aren’t the only differences though. I’ve picked out three major changes that Minecraft 360 makes to its PC brother’s formula; one bad, one debatable and one that’s genuinely good.
First, the bad. The maps in this version are (relatively speaking) quite small. To an extent this one is enforced by the Xbox 360‘s memory limitations, but that doesn’t help to make the maps any larger. This is definitely a question of perspective, because anyone who didn’t know about the PC version’s essentially ‘endless’ maps will probably be perfectly happy with the size of the islands the 360 version drops you on. Of course the ocean has invisible walls to keep you inside the main island area, why wouldn’t it? That’s what games do, right? But if you are aware of just how massive the PC maps get, you might find the 360 ones (which you can walk across, end to end, in oooh about five to ten minutes) a touch constraining. Again, it’s a matter of perspective.
The crafting system has been changed too, making it much friendlier and more open. Perhaps a bit too friendly, because now the game will show you everything its possible to craft up-front. You’re shown which bits and pieces or material are needed for each object, allowing you to actively pursue those chunks of smelted iron for that bucket (say). Some will feel this removes the early joys of discovery that came with getting on board early with the PC version. That’s true to an extent, and there surely could have been room here for an option to either hide or limit the amount of crafting ‘recipes’ shown to the player, but it also removes the pathological need to check online for what to do with Item X or how to create Thingie Z.
It’s a move to streamline the game which, honestly, I have no problem with. Wandering around collecting materials and checking the crafting table every hour or so to see if I can actually make something from my knapsack full of crap seems less fun than having an idea what kinds of resources I’ll actually need to undertake my next project. Some will disagree with this, perhaps even vehemently. It’s a change which is open to much debate, and comes down to personal preference.
Minecraft 360‘s unequivocally positive change is the addition of split screen local co-op, where up to four players can drop in and out of the ‘host’ player’s world at leisure. If your television happens to be large enough (32“ or bigger will probably be necessary to keep everything sizeable enough; HD is mandatory), it’s a terrific feature. Minecraft from your sofa, with a friend, lover or talented family pet. It’s win-win.
Hosting an online game is simpler than through the PC release too, though more restrictive. There aren’t any ‘quick match’ style hookups here, but if you leave your world open to visitors then up to seven of your Xbox Live friends (assuming they own Minecraft) can stop by and set your shelter on fi … I mean help you. Yes, help you.
In short, Minecraft 360 is a slightly older, self-contained version of Minecraft. It has a deftly handled new user-interface and control scheme, a guided version of the crafting system, a handy tutorial and split-screen co-op; none of which the PC release can offer. However, if you’re looking for endless maps, modding opportunities, ‘discovery’ based crafting and the latest, greatest updates for the game, the PC version is the one you need. Either way you’ll end up with a version of Minecraft, so debates about version specifics will fade into insignificance when you start work on that mighty Linker Ziggurat.