It's immediately apparent after digging into Minecraft on the Xbox 360 that the platform is well suited for Mojang's first-person sandbox-style building adventure. From comfortable controls and the effortlessness of jumping into multiplayer co-op over Xbox Live, to detailed in-game tutorials and a more user-friendly crafting system, this updated yet scaled-down port of the indie hit is deliciously accessible. Total newcomers to the game will no doubt find themselves blissfully swept away by the many opportunities for open-ended creativity found throughout the Xbox 360 edition. While coming to this version after spending lots of time playing Minecraft on PC is a jarring and disappointing experience, the joy of free-form exploring, building, and adventuring in randomly generated blocky worlds is nicely reproduced here.
The good news is that the essence of what makes Minecraft so absorbing is left untouched. From the second you spawn into your first 3D world, you're punching trees to harvest wood, digging deep into the underground to mine resources, forging handy tools, battling creepers, and building fortresses to year heart's content--or not, depending on personal preferences. You're free to do as you please, unfettered by preconceived objectives, and the slow pace of exploration is balanced by the fun that comes from gradually figuring out the style of play that comes naturally to you.
New built-in tutorial menus and in-game help pop-ups also do an excellent job of explaining the core mechanics early on, which means you won't have to fire up a Web browser and consult a wiki to figure out basic elements. This makes it much easier to get a feel for the game quickly, while also keeping the deeper elements hidden for you to uncover on your own during your travels.
Trading in the mouse and keyboard for the Xbox 360 controller is a comfortable transition. While you can't sprint in this edition, a minor problem that sometimes turns long-distance travel into a plodding trek, navigating the world and tackling the many tasks available is an otherwise fluid affair. One of the biggest improvements is the redesigned crafting system that streamlines the item-creation process and makes managing your inventory a lot more digestible. Instead of dropping individual resources into various formulas on the crafting grid to see what you get, all you have to do is open up the crafting menu and select the item you want to build. Hitting the craft button pulls all the necessary materials from your inventory automatically and creates the item. Any materials you're lacking are highlighted in red, which is helpful for tracking them down. It's great to not have to memorize item recipes, and you can forge the gear you need a lot faster using this well-designed system.
Minecraft can be a real blast when played solo, but it's often a lot more fun when you've got friends messing around in the world alongside you. Setting up a proper co-op game on PC is a patience-draining nightmare that requires extra software downloads, server configuring, and far more irritating hoop-jumping than the average person has patience for. Multiplayer is a whole new deal now, thanks to the ease of access and functionality of Xbox Live, which allows for seamless drop-in co-op and party chat. You can invite friends to join your worlds-in-progress or leave them open for others to hop into while you're playing.
Either way it's a good time, and the lack of heinous setup mumbo jumbo is a welcome change of pace. Going one step further, the 360 edition also features split-screen co-op for up to four players. If you've got a large enough screen, a big comfy couch, some tasty beverages, and good grub, then this is the way to go for party play.
Unfortunately, a few excellent updates aren't a good trade-off for all of the content from the PC version that's missing. The 360 edition is a port of an older pre-Adventure Update Beta version of the game, which means the features, items, and updates that didn't make the cut this time around are pretty significant, and it shows. The variety of unique biome environments is limited, certain craftable items and resources aren't available, and some of the more exciting creatures are absent. There's no hunger or experience system, no alchemy or weapon buffing, and no Ender Dragon to hunt down and defeat. The free-form Creative mode is MIA too, leaving Survival mode as your only play option.
Equally disappointing is that maps are no longer infinite. Wander too far in any direction, and you bump into an invisible wall. There's still plenty of room to explore and build, but the world now feels more like a caged-in biodome instead of a sprawling realm to map out. At least you can still build a portal to travel to the hell-like Nether dimension, yet even that region is constrained too. All of this will be less of an issue for new players who've yet to taste the PC extras, and some may even welcome the simplicity. But that same simplicity is enough to spur longtime Minecraft vets to stick with the PC version--at least until downloadable content either fills in the gaps or offers enticing exclusive updates.
While plenty of concessions were made to bring Minecraft to the Xbox 360, it's good to see that the overall depth and flexibility that made the original so engaging aren't completely sacrificed. However, despite the nice multiplayer options, the improved accessibility, and the refined crafting system, the missing elements are a sizable backslide from the PC version. But is the core foundation still a lot of fun? Absolutely--if you temper your expectations.