The term "sandbox game" is one that gets thrown around a lot lately. While it seems the English lexicon is lacking a universally accepted definition (or Urban Dictionary, anyway), the phrase often promises nonlinear gameplay with vaguely defined objectives (if any), and a heavy emphasis on exploration and just sort of fooling around within the game world itself. What if there were a sandbox game, however, where the developer gave you the tools and the know-how to make the sandbox yourself? You can't do WHATEVER you want (sandboxes still need to be filled with sand, remember), but the size of the box, the grain of the wood, the Fisher-Price toys that will litter its surface... all these factors are in your hands now. Welcome to Minecraft, an ample offering from developer Markus Persson, based on the open-source project Infiniminer by Zachtronics Industries.
While there's quite an array of controls to learn for tinkering, basic movement around the world is accomplished via the [WASD] keys, and moving the mouse controls your first-person perspective. [Space] bar is for jumps, and [R] is for teleporting back to the spawn point should you become stuck. [G] summons odd AI-controlled dummies referred to as "mobs," who don't do much other than bolt around erratically and act as unwilling guinea pigs in your various terrain experiments.
When you're ready to worldcraft, use the left mouse button to conjure your currently selected block, or to dematerialize the one you're facing. To alternate between these two functions, simply click the right mouse button. The [1-9] numeric keys will pick which brand of block you'd like to create from the bottom selector, while pressing [B] will open up a much larger palette for you to choose from. There are other buttons and doodads, but the ones mentioned cover the bulk of your arsenal.
In terms of formal instruction, that's really all there is to it. Uncage your imagination, and let it take you where it will. Construct an impregnable fortress, and then plant tulips on the parapets. Dig a vast network of subterranean tunnels, and then drop a colony of mobs down the rabbit hole, and watch as they endlessly wander. Or, if you're in a particularly metacognitive mood, make a sandbox.
Analysis: This game is still in its "alpha" phase of maturity, so Persson will have made plenty of tweaks by the time Minecraft is old enough to walk on its own. You might think that means the game doesn't have a lot to offer right now, but the truth is solidly on the contrary.
Minecraft is something like being handed a bin of LEGO bricks without a manual. Some people put one brick on top of another one, sigh, and then decide they're bored. Other people disappear inside this whirlwind of colored plastic, and when the dust has settled, they've made a fully functional microwave oven. While I believe most people fall somewhere in between one of those two poles, the fact remains that a lot of players are going to toodle with the controls a bit, chase a couple of mobs around, and then call it a day. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, and if this isn't your cup of tea, then no one will be offended when you order coffee.
But for those who have the blueprints for that microwave oven, this game will appeal to your sensibilities in a way few others will. There's a veritable toy chest of block types to choose from, and while there really aren't differences between them other than color and texture, that won't stop you from fashioning whatever wonders inhabit your whimsy.
The graphics have this appealing retro blockiness about them, which makes sense when you consider the building medium. There isn't anything in the way of music or sound, and while this can be bizarre at first, the silence begins to take on a sort of Zen quality as you become more and more embroiled in your creations.
If I had any complaints, I would wish for a way to generate your own water instead of having to reroute it from already existing reservoirs. Water is one of the few elements other than blocks that you have to work with, so I'd like to see it more ably represented in the game's work bench.
Otherwise, sandboxes ahoy!
Update: Since this review's original conception, many technical issues have been resolved, and this writer felt responsible to address some of the now-expired points to avoid any undue judgment of the game.
The soft instrumentals complement the game's innate tranquility, so no matter what construct you're hammering together, you'll always have this feeling of walking through a sand garden. (No sandbox pun intended.) The echoes of your footsteps match whatever substance you're traversing, so expect padded rustling on grass or clip-clopping on wood. Occasionally, the sound effects will fall out of sync with your motion, but it's a tiny flaw in an otherwise immersive audio experience.
There's also tons of fun in the game's multiplayer servers, where architects can team up to devise even grander creations, or partake in one of the many fan-made activites. (Spleef, anyone?) One of the more notable concerns with the multiplayer, however, is the frequency of careless players stomping in and dismantling others' handiwork. While there's a banning system in place, be wary when venturing into the multiplayer realms.
Much more content is planned for Minecraft once it evolves into its beta stage of development, including new game modes that feature equipment, items, monsters, and other swords and sorcery staples that could give the game a fantasy bent. Not all of it is sorted out yet, but be confident that Minecraft is certainly going places.