Credit when credit is due: Mojang made incredibly smart bets on ways to expand the Minecraft franchise. Return when Microsoft announced its takeover of the studio and its monolithic IP, I had a hard time imagining exactly what could be done with Minecraft beyond the base game. Of course, it would continue to expand and grow – but did people really want to do anything else in this universe?
At the time, I thought to myself that it didn’t matter whether the universe could expand or not. Minecraft alone was big enough and important enough to be worth every penny of the $2.5 billion Microsoft paid for it. But then something magical happened: Mojang continued to forge clever partnerships that expanded the universe in brilliant and often unexpected ways.
Lego Minecraft has grown from a one-off set for nerds to a full-fledged toy series loved by kids all over the world. Minecraft Story Mode released its first installment shortly after the acquisition, followed by Minecraft Dungeons in 2019, which was a truly brilliant marriage of established Minecraft lore with a kid-friendly Diablo clone. The Pokemon Go-like Minecraft Earth was a swing-and-a-miss – but it was an AR mobile game that launched just before a pandemic locked everyone inside – so I’m going to them give a pass.
If Earth was a blip, Minecraft spinoffs seem to be firmly back on track with the upcoming Minecraft Legends. On paper, this is what Dungeons did for catacomb exploration RPGs but for real-time strategy games. And after seeing half an hour of the game in action, I’m super pumped to play the latest thing.
As a real-time strategy game, Legends might not be what you might first imagine. There’s no Command & Conquer-style birds-eye view of the battlefield, and you’re not a disembodied leader gathering troops with the hand of God. Instead, at first glance, it looks like an adventure game. In fact, it looks like a slightly more embellished Minecraft, like the PC version with a bunch of weird mods installed.
Impressively, Legends runs in the same Bedrock Engine technology that powers the main game, although structurally it’s quite different. You both mine and craft, but instead of separating individual rocks, you do it on a more macro level. To get lumber, for example, you don’t have to go and smash trees – just point handy auto mining buddies at a specific tree, and they’ll quickly take down the entire tree for you. The same is true for all other resources. As I said, macro rather than micro.
The camera is pulled back to match this. So while much of the game superficially resembles Minecraft, you can instantly tell that this is a game on a different scale. However, the world itself is still procedurally generated, so there’s still that element of random Minecraft magic.
As a singular hero, you will gallop across the world and gather resources in an effort to raise an army capable of suppressing a Nether army attacking a world that has never been rare before. Minecraft doesn’t really have a canon, of course, but the developers are selling this story as “legend” that took place long before the status quo we know from other games. At this time, the zombies are sometimes even friendly.
Scattered across the procedurally generated world, you’ll find bases and other objectives to shoot down in order to advance the war effort. And how do you do that…? Well, it works in a way that draws a most unexpected gaming comparison.
By that I mean… it’s like Brutal Legend. With a little touch of Pikmin. Stay with me here.
So, yes, that’s right, Brutal Legend – the Black Jack vehicle that starts out as an action-adventure game that takes an interesting but perhaps misguided twist into a real-time strategy game played in third-person. The protagonist of Minecraft Legends can erect various buildings using the resources gathered in the world. Like mining, this crafting is macro rather than micro – so you build entire prefab structures with a single click, rather than brick by brick, but you retain complete freedom to place these structures wherever you want. Among these buildings are spawners, each capable of creating a different type of unit. You then use the spawners to add to your army, with a population cap determining exactly how many troops you can field at any given time.
When it’s time to jump into battle, your minions will follow, and then you can use rudimentary controls to get them to focus on one specific thing. You might have a certain subset of troops attacking something they will be strong against, while others will hang back to protect them and you, for example. This is where the Pikmin sentiment comes in. But you can also get stuck in yourself, dragging a mounted sword to take out enemies. It’s effective, but not the be-all and end-all because you can easily get overwhelmed. In all of this, it looks a bit like the RTS segments of Brutal Legend on paper.
However, where it differs from Brutal Legend is in the way it seems to play. Even watching one of this game’s RTS battles revealed its cumbersome and tedious nature – and Minecraft Legends seems the opposite. It’s smooth, fast and beautiful. It has fairly easy-to-understand controls for kids, but a depth of strategy that is likely to create some good multiplayer showdowns. Even without intervention, it feels manageable and smooth, which is exciting. Few RTS games have really nailed this on console.
These battles are also supported by the ongoing procedural world of Minecraft. If you want a fast travel point, for example, you’ll build a fort that will act as one. If you’re embarking on an epic campaign against an enemy base, you might want to stop halfway through your conquest to build a new staging base, complete with defenses and spawners, before heading deeper into enemy territory. . Fight, then build – a back-and-forth rhythm can be seen outlined which could help you tackle the challenges of the game seamlessly.
Demos without intervention are always difficult. You never really know what a game is like until you play it, after all. But sometimes you see a game and the demo sells you. You get it. Minecraft Legends is one such game. It looks like a neat little kid and controller-friendly strategy – and I’m here for it. I’m crossing my fingers that it’s competitive enough to support some good online battles as well. Even if it doesn’t, however, Minecraft effortlessly carves its way into another genre – which in itself is impressive.