A friend sent out a tweet today asking if anyone was playing Minecraft, and what she was missing. Limited to 140 characters I could only think one one response - "Yes. A lot. It's like digital crack on toast. Very moreish."
To be honest that's a bit of an overblown response, especially since I've never tried crack - let alone topping a piece of toast with some, but Minecraft definitely has its hooks in me and I have been left with bloodshot eyes waiting for my next fix.
Immediately I struggle to describe Minecraft. Do I start with the graphics? Because at first glance it's oh so basic. A world made of blocks with blocky landscapes and blocky animals viewed through the eyes of a blocky man. Oh wait, maybe I should describe it as being a bit like a first-person Dwarf-Fortress, without the dwarves. But then that assumes that you have heard of that particular indie hit (and if you haven't - educate yourself!)
Perhaps then the best way to introduce the concept of Minecraft is by saying it's a sandbox game - for a start there's a lot of sand (and dirt, rock, wood and so on). It is the most sandboxy game you'll ever play. In the main single player mode your unnamed character is dumped in to a randomly generated world with nothing but empty pockets and his fists. Your mission is open, it is merely to survive, for night brings the nasties. Zombies, skeleton archers, giant spiders and umm... green exploding monsters that look kind of like angry gangrenous penises. So the first day will consist of you punching trees to get wood. Using the wood to make planks, the planks to make a crafting table, the table to make tools and then digging out some coal to make torches.
Then the first night will be spent in the cave you've dug. Don't forget to put the torches up inside so the monsters can't spawn in there with you. Perhaps you built a door for your hidey hole too. They can't use doors so that will keep you safe. Perhaps while you wait you'll dig. Your axe and pickaxe will break so you'll make some more with the rock you've found. Then perhaps you find some iron, build a furnace and smelt the iron into ingots and upgrade your tools. Dig and dig and dig...
Daybreak. As the bad guys burn in the sun you step outside, armed with a sword for the first time and you actually take note of your surroundings. May I suggest you climb the hill you built your home in to? Not only are you likely to get a good lay of the land but you can build a beacon so you can easily see where your safe haven is as you explore.
Kill a pig for its meat. A cow for its leather. Chickens lay eggs and shed feathers and you can literally punch cloth off sheep. Everything you find can be crafted one way or another and as the day/night cycle repeats you find yourself going out at night more. Your hole becomes a winding labyrinth, you build a house, a fort, a castle...
Minecraft is currently in an Alpha build and as such still has planned features missing and is incredibly buggy. It's still amazingly deep though, a quick search on YouTube will bring up examples where resourceful miners have built entire mine cart systems or canals for transportation. Then to blow your mind a dust mined from redstone blocks can be made into circuits and even logic gates. It really is incredible.
What I've spent most time on is the multiplayer. Recently implemented, it is survival for the social ones amongst us. Currently your characters are invincible as are the animals and mobs (so mobs are off as default). Also it is a lot more buggy so mine carts glitch and make people nearby freeze and disconnect. Redstone circuits are hit and miss as to if they'll even work and crashes are frequent.
Yet through all the bugs Minecraft remains absolutely essential. There's something that appeals to the explorer and adventurer in me as I guide my character over the crest of hill and see this randomly generated valley in front of me. Trees, plants and waterfalls decorating the landscape in an entirely believable fashion (not an easy feat when the world looks like it's made from Duplo blocks). Better yet is the fear as you explore one of the many darkened caves and caverns you find. Torches dotted behind you as you mine for diamond and gold, listening for the growls of monsters in the darkness. Then a lesson learned as you dig the block directly below you and you fall in to a lava pit and all your inventory is melted away.
Playing on the Eurogamer server has been a treat. I've watched as the buildings have gotten larger and more complex. I've built a large water slide through a mountain (with a large amount of assistance from others) and I've stood on the top of said mountain watching the sun go down as the torchlight makes it look like a city shining off in to the distance.
All this is the work of one man, known only as Notch. He's clearly working hard on this as updates are weekly at this point. It's impressive work and according to Notch himself it has already made a lot of money to the point where Paypal suspended his account for suspicious activity.
While Minecraft is in alpha it is €9.95 - 50% of the planned final price. However if you're too tight to spend such a small amount of money there is a free version that is just the equivalent of a building block set. There's no mining, crafting, creatures good or bad. Just you and infinite blocks to create whatever you like. Fun for a while but lacking the depth of the "real" thing, and the lack of a save ability will either put you off or, like me, ensure buying into the alpha is essential.
Because Minecraft is still in alpha, I'm not giving it a mark. It's not the finished product and to pretend so is unfair but as you may of guessed from this article I can whole heartedly recommend to everyone out there with a desire for adventuring, an eye for creation and just more than a little bit of patience. Get mining!
Now that I'm seeing some of the grander efforts people have built I see much more about what the game's about. I think my initial scepticism came about from the admittedly ropey looking first day tutorials.
As a single player experience it's no doubt lacking, but in an open world with many people contributing towards building something huge, that's when it morphs into what everyone else has been raving over.