Minecraft: PS4 Edition
Do you want to know a secret? You have to promise not to tell the other game critics.
Until a few days ago, I'd never played Minecraft.
I'd watched it being played a lot, either at friend's houses or on YouTube, and I was of course aware of its massive global appeal. I'd even watched that documentary about it. But I'd never actually stepped into the game myself.
Typically this review would now have gone one of two ways. Either I'd say "I wish I'd gotten into this earlier," then go on to praise Minecraft's knackers off, or I'd say "I don't see what the fuss is about," and get a bit moany and contrary about the whole thing.
But frankly, after finally playing Minecraft, specifically the new PS4 version which has just been released, my reaction is just indifference. That's not to say this new version is particularly bad. In fact, the randomly generated worlds are now 36 times bigger (as if they needed to be) and the whole thing looks much shinier. Even the controls are spot-on – you might be used to playing Minecraft on the PC, but none of the precision or accessibility you get from a the mouse and keyboard is lost here.
No, the problem isn't the PlayStation 4. It's what nauseating media types like to call "user-generated content". It doesn't excite me. I remember feeling like this when LittleBigPlanet came out. It was family-friendly and it had a good soundtrack, and it was charming in a twee, gentrified, middle-class British sort of way, but the central conceit, of letting you build your own levels, inspired nothing in me.
You might call me a bit of a curmudgeon, especially nowadays when social media and video sharing rule the world, but I don't really enjoy things that are homemade. I don't think they're very good. I'm more interested in things – videogames – that have been designed and written by professionals, by people with expertise. It's not that they're always of a higher quality – they're just more interesting to think about.
Professionally-made media has money behind it. People's careers are on the line. There's a greater sense of risk and investment. Plus, they seem more legitimate. They feel like the few exceptions that managed to break out of the communal creative pool and become actual products, as opposed to user-generated stuff, which is just more water in the ocean.
A cautionary tale
So Minecraft, wherein players collect materials then use them to build any object, monument or building that they can imagine, doesn't really work on me. It's not the game's fault. Naturally, I'm in awe of Minecraft's sheer size and ambition.
It's a true sandbox game, where players get to band together to do, basically, anything they can think up. It's just me, I think. It's my old-school, top-down, the artist is present approach to videogames and writing. I like a bit of distance. I like auteurs. I actually get turned off when developers talk about giving freedom to players.
I want to experience something – I want to be told a story.
That's not to say Minecraft has no narrative chops at all. On the contrary, after playing it for some time, I have plenty of stories to tell. My first night in the game was a real cautionary tale.
When the sun goes down...
When the sun goes down in Minecraft, monsters start to appear randomly on the map and attack you. If you've just begun playing, it's advisable to hide, since your combat ability is basically zero. But being a barrel-chested, take-no-prisoners, big bloody manly man (read: idiot) I decided to brave the outdoors and try to spend the night hours collecting more resources.
I crept around. I listened carefully. I was super, super cautious. But within about 2 minutes – or probably less – I was down to minimum health and besieged on all sides by what seemed like every enemy from every videogame ever.
Between getting arrows up the arse, I had a few moments respite, and found myself digging frenziedly with my bare hands trying to create a makeshift shelter. Now standing in a six foot hole, just wide enough to accommodate my shoulders, I plonked a single block of wood above my head and waited. This was my home for the night. I spent my first evening in Minecraft bleeding, buried alive, balancing a slab of oak on my scalp trying to avoid getting bludgeoned by monsters.
If that's not a story, I don't know what is, so maybe there's something to be said for letting the player do the driving.
But that might also be a separate issue. Skyrim, Fallout, XCOM: Enemy Unknown – these are the greatest games of the past 10 years and the reason they're so good is that they welcome spontaneous narrative. The leave players to fill in the blanks in the world and create their own, personal stories.
Minecraft does that as well and to that extent it's laudable. But the actual act of building – the things players, I, create – are often anodyne.
I spent ages putting together this big stone monument thing that I'd envisioned and when it was finished I just looked at it. There was nothing I could do. I thought about taking a picture of it and putting it online, or making a time-lapse video of its construction, but what would be the point? It's just a thing.
It's just a non-existent object made out of non-existent materials. It doesn't mean anything. It just is, for the sake of it.
And I think that's where Minecraft falls down. Even the most impressive sculptures, the full-size reproductions of Hogwarts school or the giant moving GameBoys, don't seem like they've been inspired by genuine artistic instinct or aspiration. It feels more like we're just testing what the game will let us do, that we're killing time, trying to push how big and out there Minecraft can go. It seems to me no more grand than a long, five-star police chase in Grand Theft Auto or a particularly gnarly bail in Skate.
It's kind of novel and amusing, but I'm not convinced by the "magic" of Minecraft.
- Gameplay: 6/10 –There's an interesting and ambitious level of freedom and Minecraft but it's too loose. It's insubstantial
- Graphics: 8/10 – That idiosyncratic block aesthetic looks better than ever on the PS4.
- Sound: 7/10 – The hiss of the Creepers is still frightening as ever
- Replay value: 10/10 – If you're into it, Minecraft is limitless. You can go anywhere, make about anything
- Overall: 7/10 – Undoubtedly, Minecraft is a landmark game. It's big, it's accessible, it's unique. But it's also kind of frothy. Whether you like it or not will depend on how much you value user-generated material
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