Thursday, 23 June 2011

Now we are 1.6

I meant to make this post longer, funnier, more pretentious and - ahem - about three weeks ago. Sadly, events conspired against that, so here's a late and cut down version of my thoughts on Minecraft 1.6.

The big thing to come out of the 1.6 update (or rather, collection of 1.6 updates) was the ability to travel between the normal overworld and the alternate hell-dimension, the Nether, in-game in multiplayer servers - meaning no more having to piss about with file names. I've found that adventuring in the Nether is very different to regular caving. In an - and forgive the awkward phraseology - overworld cave network, I always feel tempted to push on beyond my limits. There's always another passage, another vein of ore. It's different in the Nether.

The Nether is open plan, more or less, so simple navigation is easier. Actually getting where you want to go, though; that's much, much harder, because the ground is so uneven. Almost every block of the way you're building staircases or bridging gaps, making it slow going. These factors, combined with both the relative scarcity of essential minerals and the overwhelming lethality of the Nether in general, mean that adventuring is a much more focused affair. Rather than epic four hour potholing expeditions, you descend, pinpoint what you want, grab it and leave as soon as possible. It's much more of a tense race against time to get what you want before you die, compared to the grand exploration jaunts of an overworld cavern system.

Tha's no bad thing. Contrasting gameplay elements add value. There were times when a big potholing trip didn't grab me, as I wanted something a bit more adrenal to do, and the Nether fills that hole. Too often when I died after two hours of gathering resources only to die to an unseen creeper or sudden lava floe, the feeling wasn't one of "I'll get even with you, game" nor even "oh well, must do better next time," but "eh, bored now, cbf replaying just to lose all my stuff again. Whatever. Bai." Since overreaching is rarer in the Nether, that sort of death bringing feelings of resent and waste are also less frequent.

And if you thought overworld adventuring was a communal excercise... more than ever, the Nether requires a party to work together. There's no time for getting lost or wandering off, no need for "Dig up, stupid" type conversations. You have to be a co-ordinated team to pull off a big heist. The biggest threats are the ghasts - giant floating cow/octopus things which shoot fireballs with unerring and unnerving accuracy. They can only reasonably be fought via bow and arrow, they have a longer range than player characters, and they have all the hit points in history. Oh, also: they usually come in herds of three or four. A frantic escape from an engraged ghast pack, covering each other's backs as you pelt for the portal, is something to experience.

Aside from some irritating bed bugs (ho ho!) 1.6 is the best thing to happen to Minecraft in some time. Anyone who stopped playing, I recommend you gather up a party and try out adventuring in the Nether. If nothing else, building a portal chamber can cut out on tedious travelling time between your bases topside, which was always one of Minecraft's bugbears.

Speaking of Minecraft, I've given Terraria a try. It seems fun, and it's actually surprisingly different to Minecraft. While early guesses had Terraria pegged as 'Minecraft with a bit of Castlevania,' in practice it's more the other way around. This is a platforming game at heart, which happens to feature terrain manipulation as one of your tools. A lot of the challenges revolve around working out how you can use the landscape around you to go here, fight this, collect that. My favourite Minecraft moments are the architectural challenges you come across while caving - navigating your way up a gigantic waterfall, or working out how to stem a lava river to save as much obsidian as possible, or constructing a precarious scaffold up to a vein of ore in the ceiling. I'm looking forward to trying more of Terraria and seeing how it measures up.

Another online game I've started recently is Spiral Knights, one of Steam's five free MMOs. It's cutesy and energetic and just the right side of tactical to be engaging without requiring too much concentration. It's nothing special, but it cuts down on the usual MMO gumph effectively and throws some varied challenges at you. I already like it more than any other MMO I've enountered. Review forthcoming, once I've spent some more time with it.

Back to Minecraft to close us out: Zelda Adventure looks like it could be entertaining. And the Minecraft Ghibli World is sickening in how spectacular it is, especially the Laputa chasm. Certainly makes my best-ever structures looks like complete rubbish.

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