Minecraft Earth hands-on preview – building the latest mobile fad

GameCentral joins the closed beta for Mojang’s answer to Pokémon GO but is Minecraft AR really such a good idea?

If you haven’t heard of Minecraft Earth before you can bet that’s going to change over the next few weeks. It is, unashamedly, an attempt to create a Pokémon GO style phenomena, with a mobile app that encourages you to explore the world with your phone and create Minecraft-like constructions using AR (augmented reality) tech that makes it look like they really exist. It’s a good idea in theory, and Minecraft is one of the few names to rival Pokémon in terms of mainstream recognition, but does that guarantee it’ll be a hit?

Although it’s not yet on app stores, Minecraft Earth is currently available to beta testers in London, Stockholm, Tokyo, and Seattle. It doesn’t have a specific release date but it should be available, as a free download, for everyone sometime this summer, and not just in those specific cities.

One of the reasons the game is likely to be a success is because it’s one of those things you have to see in person to understand what all the fuss is about, even though at this point AR is a fairly well-established concept. How it works is very simple: the aim is to build AR structures by collecting resources from ‘tappables’ you come across by wandering around in the real world. That aspect is more like Harry Potter: Wizards Unite in that the tappables are all around you – virtually speaking – and picking them up requires a minimum of effort if your phone is already out.

The tappables appear on the map as typical Minecraft objects (trees, rocks, animals, etc.) and when you tap them they’re revealed to be either common building blocks, like wood or grass, moving up to rarer objects like granite, TNT, and the ultra-rare Redstone blocks.

To use these resources to create something you enter Build mode and place a virtual building plate on the floor, which you can then place objects onto. The app is very clever about how your creation interacts with everything else around it and attempts to make sure it doesn’t sit on top of existing real-world objects, thereby spoiling the illusion that it’s real. So while you can technically build anywhere you like the app will only allow you to do so on a suitably flat surface.

The problem with all this, as you might already have guessed, is that it requires some relatively involved 3D controls to work – which are certainly vastly more complicated than just flicking your finger to catch a pokémon. The app is clearly trying to keep things as simple as possible but in doing so it’s constantly trying to guess where you want to place an object, and it doesn’t always get it right.

It’s not that building anything good is impossible, just that it’ll probably take a fair amount of trial and error as you struggle to pick up the exact block you want or put it where you intended. There’s no easy way to rotate objects and while all this is going on the AR does have a tendency to glitch in and out, as it gets confused over real-world objects in the background.

The size and number of build plates is directly related to your current level, so there are some traditional game elements, even though the emphasis is squarely on building. Although that does mean that you start off with just an 8×8 square plate, which is obviously quite small.

The most gamified element though is Adventures, which will apparently involve you completing pre-set tasks and puzzles. That part isn’t in the beta though, so we assume it also won’t be available at launch. But that’s perfectly understandable, as when Pokémon GO launched you could barely do anything except throw a pokéball.

The lack of Adventures is not the only area in which Minecraft Earth feels rather bare bones. The main view of the world around you, when you’re looking for tappables, is straight out of Pokémon GO, except everything is turned into Minecraft style blocks. It’s all very bland and featureless, with even prominent landmarks seemingly turned into random shapes so that everywhere you go the map looks essentially the same.

This feeling of emptiness is exacerbated by the fact that there’s no equivalent of Pokémon Stops or Gyms, just endless tappables. Although presumably once the app is out for everyone you’ll be able to come across plates that other people have made and interact with those.

There remains a lot of unanswered questions about Minecraft Earth and it’s not clear whether they’re being kept secret or if Mojang just hasn’t decided what to do about them yet. Play mode is a particular mystery, as it has a large but currently empty inventory space which is presumably for swords and axes and that type of thing – but at the moment it’s impossible to tell.

What you can do though is view your and other people’s creations as if they were full-sized real-world objects and that’s where the AR gets really impressive, as you walk through doors and look up and down at different floors and levels. Although the interaction does seem inherently limited as you can’t actually go up and down, unless you’re able to levitate or you build near some stairs. It also needs a lot of space to work properly – much more so than building.

On top of all this is the question of how Minecraft Earth is going to work with other people, since we only had one version of the app and naturally didn’t meet anyone else with it. If it really does take off and you’re constantly bumping into other people’s creations – or actively helping them build them – then that immediately becomes a much more interesting prospect. Although the other unanswered question is what microtransactions will be in the game, and that we don’t know either…

The limitations and awkwardness of build mode are an issue that needs to be addressed but considering how much Pokémon GO and other free-to-play games have changed over time there seems plenty of reasons to give Minecraft Earth the benefit of the doubt. Although to be honest we expect that even as it is now, it’ll be a massive hit the instant it’s released.

Formats: iOS (previewed) and Android
Price: Free-to-play
Publisher: Mojang
Developer: Mojang
Release Date: TBC

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