Note: This applies to the single-player mode, not multiplayer, as I was unable to access the latter. I apologize for the inconvenience, but all the features listed below should be consistent between modes.
The ultimate sandbox could have appeared under every description of this game from here to Wikipedia, and it would have made sense. Minecraft truly is one of the most immersive, engaging and entertaining experience available in the video game industry, yet it appears so charmingly simplistic that one could simply dismiss it as being cute but shallow. If they did, though, they would miss out on something truly astounding: a game that is truly an open world.
At its core, Minecraft is a mosaic of different genres, all centered around a do-what-you-want ideal. You spawn in a random location on a specially customized world with an empty inventory and no set objective. From there, the game allows you to cut down trees and build a crude shelter, construct a Crafting Table and build all sorts of tools, look for mines to gather minerals, hack apart plants for seeds to grow into more plants, or simply fight the local wildlife, skeleton archers, zombies and other ghouls, all of which are viable and rewarding options, are available to you within seconds of starting your game and are only a small portion of what Minecraft has to offer.
The game plays from the first-person perspective, with a focus mainly on resource management and hack ‘n slash mechanics. The controls are mapped to a small number of keyboard and mouse buttons (the traditional WASD key configuration for movement, the Space Bar for jumping, Left Mouse to attack or use a tool, Right Mouse to interact with objects, number keys 1-9 to scroll through your tool bar and E/I to access your inventory), which can be easily learned and works well. For the record, the Shift Key is used for sneaking, but it’s not a function the player will use often.
The part of the game where the most fun arises is in the crafting system, accessed via the player’s inventory or by using a Crafting Table. The system uses a 2×2 grid (3×3 for the Table) that materials in one’s inventory can be placed on to craft a wide range of objects (maps, pickaxes, minecarts, swords, armour, etc.) that have plenty of practical, as well as makeshift, uses.
Some may complain about the lack of narrative or character development, but in this context this open world design makes up for this nitpick, acting as a canvas for players to shape into their own unique experience. To be fair to those seeking purpose, though, there is a hidden realm that can be accessed via portals that features a true boss battle and an ending (no more details than that).
In terms of its gameplay, the only real flaw lies in one minor area: the lack of instructions. The game does not feature any sort of manual or guide for new players, forcing Minecraft newcomers to either adapt as they go or seek out a wiki for guidance. Some may also comment on the difficulty level, particularly if they are playing on the brutal Hardcore Mode (enemies are tougher and you only have one life; death means you must delete your save file and start again), but it seems designed to harden players and have them consider their choices and consequences carefully, lest they risk death and backtracking to recover their lost items.
Now, to this game’s presentation. Perhaps to compliment the simple-to-understand, hard-to-master philosophy of gameplay, the soundtrack is appropriately minimalistic, if present at all. It has the double effect of having the player focus on the task at hand while simultaneously highlighting the sense of loneliness present in single-player. Sound effects, on the other hand, are more present and contextual, from the thump of a pickaxe hitting cobblestone to the growling of wolves. It all adds to the immersion and the charm of this game.
The art design and graphics, relying on a simplistic pixel-centric style, are colorful and toss in the element of nostalgia to the experience. The visuals, while lacking the quality and detail of other notable open-world experiences (The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim being a prime example), definitely make up for it in mass appeal.
Overall, this is a unique experience that draws from many refined palettes to provide something that any gamer can appreciate. Minecraft is a game worth the countless hours one will spend with it, and it manages to be a product greater than the sum of its parts.
Author’s Opinion: I feel that, though I accessed a freeware version, the $26.95 price charged by the developer, Mojang, is fair for what you get. This is a game that any self-respecting gamer will check out for themselves before writing it off as “cheap” or “shallow”. I fully support the purchase and enjoyment of this game.