The difference between clever and cunning.

Monday, December 27, 2010

I'm in a Mine. Crafting.

It's appropriate that I review Minecraft shortly after I covered the World of Warcraft expansion. Aside from both having the word “craft” in their name, the two games are polar opposites. Each encompasses a radically different philosophy in game design. WoW is (as has been stated before) a theme park. Theme parks can be a tremendous amount of fun, but people understand they’re in for a structured, controlled experience. Minecraft isn’t a theme park. Minecraft is a sandbox.

When you start a new game of Minecraft the player is plopped down, empty handed, in the middle of an infinitely vast, randomly generated world. You can pick a random direction and walk for hours and Minecraft will continue to procedurally generate more terrain, shifting from snowfields to forests to island chains as you pass through different biomes. Everything in this world is made of blocks. The trees, the mountains, the deserts, and the oceans, all made of blocks. Every block can, with some effort, be removed and replaced according to your whims.

The view from the mountain over my base. The world goes on forever.
(As always, click to enlarge the pictures)

The controls are quick and intuitive. If you’ve ever played Doom you can move comfortably and if you’ve ever played Diablo managing the inventory and crafting interface is a snap. Minecraft has proven relatively stable, only crashing once or twice, although the recent Beta updates caused some frame rate issues for a while. Music is sparse and moody, and the audio feedback of your tools and footsteps on different surfaces fills out the world nicely.

For a game with such primitive graphics… No, primitive is the wrong word. Basic. Modular. Anyhow, Minecraft’s world is full of life and atmosphere. Water runs, grass and trees grow, and harmless cows and pigs wander across the terrain, waiting to be converted into leather and ham. Fire, if carelessly unleashed, rips through forests and wooden structures. The sun moves slowly through the sky overhead. This is important, because once the sun goes down the formerly peaceful world floods with giant spiders, zombies, and exploding cactus monstrosities.

Sun's going down. Better hurry home...

Your first goal is obviously survival. I’d recommend watching some of the excellent YouTube tutorial videos on surviving your first night, because this is that kind of game. There is no instruction manual or tutorial. (To be fair the game is, as I mentioned previously, only just now entering Beta. More on that later.) Knowing some basic information, like how to build first tier tools and that light prevents monsters from spawning, is invaluable and helps prevent the otherwise likely death-by-spiders.

Minecraft can be an unforgiving, reminiscent of the earliest generation of MMO’s. The monsters do a lot of damage, especially before you are able to craft armor, and aren’t shy about ganging up on you. The game saves constantly, so there’s no going back and loading up a previous save if you make a terrible mistake. When you die you re-appear at the same spawn point you first started at, no matter how far away you were. Every single item you were carrying is dropped back where you died, and dropped items disappear forever in five minutes. Minecraft also lacks any sort of built in map function, and it’s quite easy to lose your bearings and become hopelessly lost.

The light of dawn makes the undead burst into flames.

The game’s environment is hostile, but that’s fine, because Minecraft is all about changing the environment to suit your needs. Every single brick can be manipulated. Carve a shelter out of a mountainside and set up a perimeter of torches to ensure safety at night. Leave behind a series of markers to let you find your way back to your camp.  If you keep falling down a hole, pave it over. If a river blocks your path, build a bridge over it.

There is no part of the world that is beyond your power to change, and this is a large part of what makes Minecraft such a unique experience. Don’t like a mountain? Remove it and build a better one in its place. Or a castle. Or an elaborate maze. Or whatever you please. Only a few block types (like sand) are even affected by gravity, so you can build that floating fortress you’ve always wanted.

It’s possible to play without ever leaving the open sky, but it’s also possible to dig down and never look back. Iron and diamond and other valuable ore can only be found past a certain depth, so it’s tempting to dig greedily and dig deep. It’s even possible to grow wood and food resources underground, with the right combination of light, water, and space, so there is nothing stopping a determined player from going “full dwarf” and becoming completely independent from the surface.

The underground is hazardous. It’s easy to accidentally dig into a sandfall, rushing underwater river, lethal fall or lava. The only light comes from your torches, and monsters can come from any area that’s dark. There are huge pitch black cave systems that stretch under every Minecraft world. You can break into them by accident, but you frequently hear monsters roaming the lightless depths nearby as you mine. It’s delightfully creepy, and showcases the game’s excellent sound design. The sound of running water and monster groans are the only hint of danger you get before you tunnel right into it. Exploring the world below is dangerous, rewarding and a lot of fun.

Lava and water beneath the earth.

Your nameless character is the first and only man in this brave new world. There is no plot to follow, no quests to undertake, and no missions to complete. There are no characters to talk too or otherwise interact with. The only NPC’s are harmless wildlife and the hordes of nocturnal monsters. There are no levels or stats. You can craft a variety of weapons, armor, and tools, of varying levels of effectiveness, but everything eventually wears out and must be replaced. Your abilities are solely defined by what you happen to be carrying at the moment, and the changes you have made to the world.

Minecraft is less a conventional game than a toy. This is gaming at its most freeform, the polar opposite of the linear, six-hour, First Person Shooter, graphics spectaculars that the industry has adopted as its figureheads. Your objective is whatever you wish, from construction to exploration, provided you can locate the resources and craft the equipment and construction material you need. No other game I’ve encountered before lets you change the environment to anything like the same degree.

Aside from exploring the surface and endless underworld, Minecraft’s great joy is building things. Every player will want to carve out a home base or fort, if only to have a safe place to weather the nights, and seeing your little speck of custom civilization spring up amid the endless wilderness is truly rewarding. You’re Robinson Crusoe in squarish pixels.

A modest but cozy home base.
It’s obviously quick and intuitive to grasp how to build something out of square blocks. Anyone who has ever seen a Lego instantly understands the concept. If you can imagine it, you can likely build it. Once you move beyond stacking blocks there are a lot of cool features to master, from doors and ladders to working mine-carts on tracks and even a sort of primitive circuitry to power buttons and levers. Players have done amazing things with the running water, lava, and the host of other, ever expanding tools and features built into the game.

The community is impressive, and simply seeing people showcase their projects and engineering feats on YouTube is a pleasure. The official forums and wiki are a great resource. I was able to find plans for a protected and efficient greenhouse design to aid my crop growing experiments. If you ever need help making one of your ideas work, or simply want to see cool stuff other people have built, the forums and wiki are highly recommended. 

The randomly generated worlds are cool, and it is always tempting to load up a new one just to see what it looks like, but they can contribute to Minecraft’s barrier to entry. For every ideal spawn point it’s equally possible to get one without access to important first tier resources, like coal. Watching a tutorial video is highly recommended, and an intro world or sequence would go a long way towards easing new players into the game before letting them take their chances with the random generator. It’s entirely possible something like this might be added in the future, because Minecraft literally isn’t complete yet.

It feels a little odd to be “reviewing” a game that just moved from Alpha to Beta as I wrote this entry. It is important to understand that the Minecraft available today is not a finished product, and may not be for some time.  It is constantly being tuned, updated, and gaining new features. What we end up with may be very different than what I’ve discussed today, for better or worse.
Can you spot the exploding cactus abomination lurking in the dark?

Minecraft’s strengths are also its weaknesses. It isn’t a monopoly board, but a giant bag of Legos, a blank page rather than a finished novel. If you want to enjoy a cinematic story or blast through a meticulously tuned action sequence you will not find them here. You drive the action and shape the world in Minecraft, not the other way around. If the types of exploration, crating, and building I’ve described don’t sound appealing, this is likely not a game you will enjoy. At least check out the explosives video I’ve included at the bottom of this entry though, because it is pure awesome.

While not perfect Minecraft is a triumph of indie gaming, and an amazing toy in its own right. I’m eager to see what features are added in the future as the game continues to evolve. The game continually surprised me. For example: returning from a long mining expedition, I found the decorative saplings I had planted in my indoor greenhouse had grown into towering trees that blocked out the sunlight and killed the smaller plants around them. While hardly crippling it was still very cool to see the world react to my changes in unexpected ways.

Reasons to play: Amazing freeform toy. Limitless options to explore, build, and experiment.

Reason’s to pass: Punishing death penalty. Some barrier to entry. Players who crave a focused, cinematic experience may find themselves bored.

Note: This is primarily a review of the single player Alpha and Beta on Normal difficulty. Minecraft does have a free “classic” version where you have unlimited blocks of every sort and no enemies.  It also features a multiplayer mode where people can co-operatively build together (or grief each other’s structures). Finally the game has a “Peaceful” difficulty setting where no monsters appear. If the experiences I’ve described seem a bit intense, know that there are more relaxed and more social ways to enjoy the game.

Minecraft Resources

Awesome Minecraft Explosives video (Showcases how dramatically you can change the world): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFZKtvHQSNY

Monday, December 13, 2010

It's the End Of The World

Ah Blizzard. One day you’ll stop messing around. One day you’ll hook electrodes directly into my brain’s pleasure centers and convert me into a hideous but docile cybernetic drone. Every time I complete some mundane and repetitive task, like breaking rocks or hunting down one of the surviving free humans, I’ll receive a jolt of pure sense-of-accomplishment directly to the cortex.

That's the stuff.

I can’t wait, but until that glorious day there is WoW, and today there is the Cataclysm expansion.

The last days before a new expansion hits an MMO have a decidedly apocalyptic feel. Madmen rave from every street corner, the economy lies in shambles, and the nervous masses grasp at every scrap of news and whispered rumor. Guild leaders and moderators struggle to ease the troubled minds of their charges, but can they hide their own quiet doubts? They cannot, and the people sense it, and they fear…

Everything that is known and loved and loathed is put to the question. All the power and treasure and glory we have labored to amass are held cheap and tawdry. Is the Great Nerfing upon us, like the mad-eyed prophets say? Will everything be ruined, ruined forever? Will the servers melt into molten slag and all ones returned to zeroes? My god, what will happen to my character, my class, my guild?! Will I be spared? Will anyone?

Wait. Is that it? Is that the expansion I see coming now? What is that light? So bright as it breaks through. Illuminating. Burning. Beautiful and terrible… I can see it! I can see forever! And it sees us… (Transmission lost)

Can't you see it? Hear it? Feel it? Coming for us...

There is nothing on this earth like being in the first wave as an expansion goes live. The servers go up. New zones come online for the first time. All is quiet, peaceful, and perfect. Then a solid mass of berserk players arrives, and nothing will ever be ok again.

Imagine Omaha beach. No, imagine the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan. Except there are five hundred Allies of every nation, rank, and uniform pouring off the boats and only twenty Axis soldiers evenly spaced across the beach, each blithely patrolling their own little sector. And your commanding officer won’t let you advance until you’ve killed ten Axis soldiers and blown up five sections of barbed wire.

Soon there are giant piles of hundreds of dead Axis soldiers all across the beach, the Russian and American soldiers have begun fighting one another, and someone keeps shouting over and over that they can’t find the Bangalore torpedoes while everyone else mocks him. So it’s actually not like Omaha beach at all. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive review of the Cataclysm expansion. That is beyond our scope. One could argue that it isn’t really possible to review an MMO. One would be wrong, but one could argue it. This is just intended to be a combination of my personal experiences going in face first, and some thoughts on Blizzard’s design philosophy and how it’s evolved. Plus some cool screenshots. (As always, click to see them full sized)

The first thing I noticed about the new zones, aside from how awesome they looked, was how linear they are. Blizzard has refined it’s “theme park” design school to an art. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You’re stuck on rails yes, but the rails make up a roller coaster. The game shuttles you neatly and efficiently from one quest hub to another. Great use is made of the “phasing” technology that was introduced in Wrath of the Lich King to give the illusion of progress and a world that changes based off your actions.

A host of cutscenes help move the story along.

One series of early quests in has you rallying and equipping a group of stranded, shipwrecked survivors. Just as you’re finally getting them back on their feet, an enemy attack wipes out the tiny outpost and sweeps you along to the next area. The campaign in the Mt. Hyjal zone has you aiding the druids in slowly pushing the enemy down the mountain. Enemy forces are actually driven out of areas and whole sections of forest re-grown based as you succeed. Of course, everyone else sees the exact same story as you, with little variation, but that's the price we pay for this level of dynamism in a theme-park style MMO.

There are even a few encounters with Deathwing himself.

This is, beyond any doubt, really cool. One of the most annoying things about MMO’s is that, by their very nature, it is hard to feel like you’re making any impact on the world. The dragon you slew needs to be there for the next person to slay, which makes your own victory seem just a little hollow. Seeing zones change and the story move forwards from stuff you did is extremely rewarding.

This level of linearity is not without problems. In my personal experience a single NPC didn’t appear in one of the early Cataclysm zones, which meant you couldn’t complete the quest they were related too, and progress through the entire zone was held up. Because of a single missing character, dozens of quests were completely inaccessible. The problem was fixed in 24 hours, and to be fair this was an incredibly smooth launch considering the sheer scale involved, but the linear nature of the new zones means they bottleneck very easily. If even one quest is bugged or broken it can be very hard to keep moving forward.

Fix. The. Bugs.

On a side note Blizzard appears to have dispensed with the idea of group content anywhere outside an instance. It’s a good change. These quests could be fun, but finding a group could also be an aggravating roadblock. Their removal streamlines the leveling process nicely. You still take on some impressive and powerful opponents, but you usually have NPC backup or some other quest specific way of evening the odds.

Blizzard's sense of humor can be found everywhere.

The new zones are well worth the price of admission. They are huge, and full of cool features. The underwater Vashj’ir zone is so big it’s practically an expansion all on its own, and the sea life and underwater vistas look amazing. There’s always some cool to see, and while there are plenty of bread and butter kill-this-fetch-that quests, there are also plenty of memorable moments and fun new mechanics. Questing through these new areas never felt grindy or boring to me.

That's a Whale, to give you a sense of scale. You actually go inside the creature behind it.

Before I let you go, I realize this blog has been a little WoW heavy lately. For this you may, unsurprisingly, blame the expansion. While Wow coverage and commentary is certainly intended to be an element of this blog, with “Azeroth” right there in the name, please don’t come away with the impression that we’re only a WoW blog. As riveting as I find making my Internet Numbers bigger, in my experience there are few things less interesting than hearing someone talk about an MMO you do not play.

If you also play the same MMO, given what we’ve discussed today, I suspect our experiences in the new zones would be, by their very design, quite similar. So you probably wouldn’t find it very interesting either. In fact, you’re probably busy playing right now rather than reading this carefully crafted and insightful masterpiece. Ingrate.

To the pit with you!

But fear not, gentle reader. We have more of the same thoughtful reviews and fascinating industry commentary you’ve come to depend on coming down the pipe quite soon. A man has to do something besides play WoW. Until the brain electrodes get installed, I mean…