First released on PC in 2009, but only deemed formally worthy of purchase last year, Minecraft is one of the most convivial games ever made, a sandbox editor which has given rise to an annual convention, hit YouTube weeklies, memes, factions and a clothing range. To play it is to join an enormous community of like minds. And yet, for the first couple of hours, it's also one of the loneliest games you'll ever play.
There's the initial race to build a dwelling before night falls and the world's monsters come out to feed - clawing down trees to assemble a worktable and tools, then bodging together walls and a roof from hunks of earth, wood or stone. Minecraft's handling of darkness is engagingly primeval: most beasties (sadly not including the explosive Creepers) require low light conditions to spawn, making torches a precious commodity. Crouched in your warren, listening to the sunk-eyed cuboid terrors milling outside, you'll feel like a Neanderthal eavesdropping on sabre-toothed tigers. The breezy retro aesthetic and lilting score are deceptive; strip it back to the bedrock, and Minecraft is about fighting to survive.
Garden of Eden
Once you've equipped your nook with the necessaries - a bed to save your game from, a furnace to prepare health-replenishing food - fear of the dark gives way to the disintegrating sensation that arises when you've got bottomless potential and no clear instruction as to what to do with it. Minecraft offers dozens of different block types and countless ways to combine them, but it can only give back what you put in. There's little that can't be built using the raw materials, from the obligatory willy-shaped castles through glass-walled rollercoasters to rudimentary logic engines, but if you don't have a vision, it can be very hard to keep momentum.
Thankfully, the Xbox 360 port benefits from a generous tutorial mode - essentially a part-built playpen with all the main elements on show. This complements the cunning of Mojang's environment generator, which groups blocks and non-playable characters intuitively to create order amid chaos. Tunnel down and you'll discover coal, iron, sandstone, zombie nests, abandoned mine shafts and buried ruins whose treasures enable quantum leaps of in-game technology. Veins of water and lava wind their way through chasms, sandy hillocks bristle with cacti, and giant squid can be seen frolicking out to sea. However sketchy your overall objectives, and however dense the terrain, there are always cues you can follow.
What's mine is yours
It's easy to fuss about the presence of other players once you've sculpted a corner of the world to your liking, but quell those over-protective parental instincts - Minecraft's drop-in split-screen is far and away Xbox Live Arcade's richest and slickest co-op experience to date. The framerate lumbers a bit when there are three other players on-board, but that's a small price to pay for the privilege of teaming up to explore a cavern, or populate a hilltop lighthouse with Jack O'Lanterns, or carve out a statue of your mum. There's online multiplayer, too, increasing the maximum headcount to eight. We plan on re-enacting the battle of Helm's Deep at some point. Wish us luck.
4J has turned in an accomplished port, boasting crisp, high-resolution visuals and a reorganised inventory. We noticed the odd minor bug, like items that refuse to craft, but it's nothing you should lose sleep over. It's pushing it to say that this is the definitive version - thanks to Microsoft's certification procedures, the PC game will probably benefit from more frequent updates, and how Mojang intends to handle user mods like custom textures remains to be seen. In terms of console sims, though, nothing touches it. Minecraft's world is one that everybody should experience.
Scarily deep, but incredibly well-crafted
- Unique, sumptuous worlds
- Build everything, from everything
- Startlingly atmospheric
- Brilliant multiplayer
- A high-quality port