Previews

Terraria hands-on: a tour of Minecraft XBLA's first real competitor

Shuriken, rocket boots and laser blades ahoy

2012 gave rise to the greatest ideological clash of our time - and no, I'm not talking about the US election. In the red corner, the bloodied and battleworn forces of Call of Duty. And in the blue, the inexhaustible font of soul-nourishing cuboid architecture that is Minecraft: Xbox 360 Edition. Two franchises - one about destruction, the other creation - carving up the Xbox Live activity charts between them.

Minecraft has stood alone for the Cause of Light thus far, pitting its contagious sandbox charms against the vengeful, iterative fury of triple-A action licenses at large, but the cavalry is coming. Out this spring, Engine Software's port of Re-Logic's PC hit Terraria is Minecraft in two dimensions - plus rocket boots, Lovecraftian floating eyeball bosses, employable NPCs and electrified tridents that sprout from characters like the world's least subtle Viagra advert. Say hello, denizens of Xbox Live Arcade, to your next 100 hour addiction.

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As the above hopefully implies, Terraria's resemblance to Minecraft is broad rather than deep. The premise and overall objectives are familiar - you're a small, stubby-limbed adventurer, armed with little more than a flexible imagination, lost in a procedurally generated world whose resources can be mined to create buildings and items.

The worlds in question range from diddy little provinces that take a mere half-an-hour to traverse from one side to the other, to whacking great continents you may never explore in their entirety. Each is stitched together from an extravagant array of biomes, including deserts where to tunnel indiscriminately is to risk drowning in sand (real-time physics applies to certain materials), strange fungal vistas of puff-purple, towering pine forests and glowering volcanic slopes - all pleasingly rendered in dabs of quasi-animated pixel, and subject to rudimentary but impactful lighting.

As in Minecraft, survival is the initial priority - monsters show up in force at night, and woe betide your diminutive retro tush if you're wandering around in the open when they do. The first 10 minutes of each game is accordingly a feverish race to scoop and sculpt nearby rock, dirt and wood into the vague likeness of a house, from which to stare fearfully at wandering horrors and plot global conquest.

Houses come in every shape and size, naturally, but their component rooms all boil down to the same base ingredients - two walls, a back wall, a roof, a door, a work table (which also lets you craft more advanced objects, like Minecraft's), a wall torch and a chair. Thankfully, the PC game's harvesting and construction mechanics have been tweaked with the Xbox 360 pad in mind. Once a bustling mess of icons and numbers, the menus have been split into nice, neat, bumper-friendly tabs - inventory, crafting screen, character load-out and the social features, of which more in a bit.

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There are also two new analogue select modes to help compensate for the absence of a mouse and keyboard. The default sees you tilting left stick to aim a reticule at whatever nugget of scenery or goblin creature has roused your ire, then clamping right trigger to wield the object in your grasp. The cursor automatically shifts to and highlights the next object along once you've harvested the first, which makes mining in bulk less fussy. Click the stick, however, and the reticule becomes a cursor, letting you drag, drop and paint in objects for easier, speedier construction.

The rooms you build will eventually house NPCs, who sell items and materials that are key to progress later in the game. One, the Guide, spawns from the get-go, and proves a handy repository of crafting recipes and starting tips. Later, you'll get to meet the Nurse, who sells health refills, and the Goblin Tinkerer, who can reforge tools and equipment.

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