Hands-on with Minecraft Dungeons: Is it Minecraft for the rest of us?

Minecraft developer Mojang was one of Satya Nadella’s first big acquisitions after the Microsoft veteran took over the reins of the company in 2014. Looking back, that $2.5 billion deal was a brilliant decision. Indeed, the software giant acquired what has since become the most popular video game of all time, with 180 million copies sold and 480 million players as of November 2019.

Minecraft is available on all platforms today, and it is also used by teachers as a medium for learning. The game remains incredibly popular with kids, and you can also find tons of gameplay videos on YouTube, or gamers streaming it live on Twitch.

Still, there are probably plenty of consumers and gaming enthusiasts who have never gotten into Minecraft. How could a game with such dated (some would say hideous) graphics remain so popular after all these years? Well, Mojang’s game is finally getting ray-tracing support on Windows 10 this year (a beta is out now), but there’s no denying that Minecraft still isn’t a game for everyone. It’s pretty hard to get started without reading tutorials, and unlike other game genres, sandbox gaming isn’t something that’s immediately fun and rewarding.

As you may know, Microsoft has recently shown that it’s ready to push Minecraft in other directions, starting with the AR game Minecraft Earth last year. This one hasn’t exactly set the world on fire like Pokemon Go did years ago, but Minecraft Dungeons, a new Minecraft-themed dungeon crawler releasing May 26, could be a whole different story. We jumped into the closed beta this week, and it seems to provide the feeling of immediate fun that Minecraft always lacks.

The most accessible Minecraft game of all time?

Minecraft Dungeons has often been compared to Blizzard’s Diablo series, and there’s certainly some truth to that. It’s a dungeon crawler, which is playable solo or in multiplayer up to 4 people. During the campaign, you’ll need to complete various procedurally generated levels, and the beta’s world map features 9 different biomes in total.

Except for the tutorial, only two missions are available in the closed beta, and they take place in two different biomes called “Creeper Woods” and “Pumpkin Pastures”. Before starting a mission, however, you’ll need to create your character first: there are no character classes in Minecraft Dungeons, so the only way to customize your character is to choose a skin and then find loot .

Once you have chosen your character’s skin, you will start in a village where you can choose your mission, and you can also find merchants in the village to trade Emeralds earned from missions in exchange for random loot. Both closed beta missions are pretty straightforward and I completed them within minutes. You’ll be given mission objectives like freeing villagers, and of course, you’ll find plenty of Minecraft-themed mobs along the way: zombies, spiders, and skeletons are all there, though the mean villagers ( “illagers”) will probably offer a better challenge.

To be clear, there is no building or crafting in Minecraft Dungeons. You’ll just have to kill monsters over and over again and find better loot to upgrade your gear and abilities. You can also equip three artifacts that give you special abilities, each of which has a cooldown period. As an example, I found a flaming quiver giving me burning arrows, as well as magic boots giving me a speed boost for a few seconds.

The progression system in Minecraft Dungeons is quite different from that of Diablo: instead of unlocking new active and passive abilities with each new level, you’ll unlock enchantment points for your gear. For example, I used an enchantment point to unlock a chain enchantment for my weapon, which gave me a 30% chance to chain nearby enemies and keep them bound for a short time. I also used another point to unlock a potion barrier enchantment for my armor, allowing me to take 90% less damage for a short duration when using healing potions. Additionally, I upgraded my bow with a multishot enchantment giving me a 20% chance to fire five arrows at once.

Personally, I think a Diablo-like class system with clearly differentiated characters probably provides more depth and replayability, but the loot and enchantment system in Minecraft Dungeons should still offer plenty of customization options and possibilities. Because Minecraft Dungeons was designed as a family game (for ages 10 and up), the gameplay is pretty easy to understand, and the game itself is pretty easy too: there’s no game over, and when you die, you just respawn not far from the monster that killed you.

Is it fun to play?

I only played the closed beta of Minecraft Dungeons solo, and found the game more fun than Minecraft. Dungeons work great with a controller (mouse and keyboard controls are also supported on Windows 10), and while you often end up mashing the attack button and the right trigger to shoot arrows, kill monsters is satisfying. The game uses the popular Unreal Engine, and while Mojang’s art direction might not appeal to everyone, Minecraft Dungeons looks quite unique.

Again, there are only two levels you can play in this closed beta, and you can complete them multiple times on higher difficulties to earn more valuable loot. Creepers, the common green mobs that follow you around and explode when really close to you, are still just as dangerous, though unlike Minecraft, their explosions don’t create huge holes in the ground.

Hands-on with Minecraft Dungeons: Is it Minecraft for the rest of us?  - On MSFT.com - April 17, 2020

The same can be said for TNT crates, which are quite rare to find but very good at dispatching enemies quickly. It’s kind of fun to see enemies flying past a TNT explosion, but again, what would have caused a huge crater on the ground in normal Minecraft doesn’t affect procedurally generated dungeon levels in any way, unfortunately.

The lack of crafting and building mechanics also seems like a missed opportunity. A game like Fortnite has made building a key element of gameplay to protect yourself from others and gain access to special areas, but Minecraft Dungeons has none of that. It’s possible for the game to get repetitive pretty quickly, especially if the multiplayer is only limited to a co-op mode.

A promising casual game Xbox Game Pass

Overall, if you’re a hardcore Diablo III fan, Minecraft Dungeons clearly doesn’t play in the same category. Keep in mind that this is only a $20 game and for that price it seems to offer a fair amount of fun. Minecraft Dungeons should be great filler content for Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass service, and it already looks a lot more interesting than previous Xbox Game Studios titles like Bleeding Edge or Crackdown 3.

Minecraft Dungeons will also release on PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch next month, and Mojang plans to enable multiplayer multiplayer at some point. Unfortunately, the Xbox One version doesn’t support Xbox Play Anywhere, so you’ll have to buy Windows 10 separately or play it for free with Xbox Game Pass for PC.

If you want to access the private beta on Windows, you can always register on this page. If you’re selected, you’ll also receive three invite keys to send to your friends while the Closed Beta is still live.

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