Imagine, if you will, the world of Minecraft smashed together with the gameplay of Pokémon Go or Harry Potter Wizards Unite. That’s Minecraft Earth, Mojang and Microsoft’s first publicly available foray into augmented reality. It’s a strange premise to be sure, and one that I struggled to wrap my head around even after hundreds of hours of playing AR games in the past. It’s not until you get hands on with the game that it starts making sense, but even then I’m not quite sold.
Despite only being in early access, this free-to-play mobile adventure game has set incredibly lofty goals for itself. Press teams and journalists alike have been bandying about words like “revolutionary” like it’s going out of style. An AR game where you break apart the world around you and remake it in your own image — which is what anyone with a passing knowledge of the Minecraft franchise might expect — certainly would be revolutionary.
Sadly, that is not what Minecraft Earth is.
Minecraft is still a gaming phenomenon — I’m not going to dispute that — but 10 years after its release, the next so-called revolution the franchise can herald seems to be a cash-in on the popularity of the AR space. Even then it doesn’t quite live up to expectations.
The game does allow you to do some pretty cool things, but if you were hoping to build a new bridge over the River Thames, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Instead, you spend most of the time walking around the real world and tapping on things you find on a stylised overhead map. When you find something you can tap on — known, quite unimaginatively, as a tappable — you tap on it a few more times until it gets added to your inventory. Tappables can be anything from trees and rocks to cows and sheep, all dropping into your steadily growing inventory.
There’s no overarching story to Minecraft Earth. It’s not much of a surprise considering it’s a Minecraft game, but you simply step outside and start playing. There are some ‘Adventures’, but right now they don’t really do much. These are supposed to add a survival aspect to the game, but more often than not you simply get an AR tree appear in the game that you can turn into blocks of wood. That’s probably the least fun adventure I’ve had with a videogame in the last week, with ‘letting a cow play in London traffic’ coming a close second. There are adventures where you get attacked by Mobs (skeletons, spiders and other things, for those who don’t know), but you can quit them at any time to no great loss.
But Minecraft is all about building your creations. Having scooped up every tappable in sight, you can then use those materials to build dioramas and miniature worlds on 8×8 and 16×16 block Buildplates. It’s here that the game’s AR credentials come to the fore, dropping this Buildplate into the real world, as viewed through your phone’s camera lens. And there’s also a similar group creativity that the game can latch onto, as you invite other players to join your creation session.
And once you’ve created your masterpiece, you can drop that Buildplate into the world in a life-size form, for you to freely explore. There’s something inherently weird about a game that allows you to make life-sized AR structures that you can theoretically explore, but that then still binds you by the laws of physics and what is actually there. In Minecraft you can build Hogwarts Castle, you can build whatever you please and explore it at your leisure; the limit is your imagination. In Minecraft Earth, the limit is a staircase.
This, for me, is the biggest thing that’s going to hold Minecraft Earth back. Since you can’t go ‘up’ in the game without trying to break the laws of physics, you’re limited in what you can really build. Sure, you might have multiple floors in your creation, but as soon as it’s full size, you can’t go upstairs. Who is going to want to exclusively build the bungalow masterpieces they can actually show to their friends? Bearing in mind that you’ll have to be physically near your friends who are both interested in the game and in exploring your creations, I just can’t see the revolutionary thing this game offers. Even then, building something as complex as a bungalow is a pretty big ask; the most complex you’re likely to manage before your phone melts in your hand is building a stable with some pigs in it.
Another thing that’s pretty uncool is that people you invite to your game can break your stuff and steal your resources. Amusingly, there are parental controls to stop your kids from accidentally seeing all of the willies that you just know are going to be built across whatever your local landmark is, but — and here we come back to the issue of AR — those controls would mean squat when your kid is standing next to the guy building a massive penis on the front porch of Buckingham Palace. Then again, you really should keep an eye on your kids and who they’re playing games with.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, there is no permanence to these creations. Anything placed is there for a limited time, which can be either a pro and a con, depending on which side of the troll spectrum you’re on.
So, with the massive caveat that this is an Early Access game and still very much subject to change, is Minecraft Earth the kind of game you should be excited about? Pretty much the answer is the same as the answer to this: do you like Minecraft and being outdoors? Because as revolutionary as Microsoft may want it to be, it is only going to appeal to a very specific group of players. It’s a game that diehard fans will love and be able to eke every ounce of fun out of.
The most interesting thing I’ve seen so far is clip of someone standing at the bottom of a staircase and testing the verticality of the game (AKA The Staircase Problem). They built a block under their feet while climbing a spiral staircase to see what would happen. Spoiler warning: they went up, which was cool, but when that’s the most interesting thing I can tell you, you’re not exactly in for a wild ride.