Hello again and welcome to this installment of Poor Man’s Gamer. This week we’ll be talking about the survival/building genre of games.
To start off let me bring up the one game that defines the genre: Minecraft. Minecraft is a good game that is highly influential, but I will say that Minecraft does have a variety of flaws (flaws that do not appear in other games of the same genre) that keep it from being a great game. Allow me to explain. Now I’m going to split my explanation into two separate categories: problems I have with the game itself and problems that exist outside of the gameplay.
Think back to the first time that you ever played Minecraft and the first thoughts that went through your head. Now unless you had someone guiding you along the way or you had seen a video on what to do when you start, you probably had no idea on what to do. You’d probably figure out that you could move with WASD, look with the mouse button, jump with the spacebar, and punch stuff with mouse button, but it would probably take you a while to figure out how to actually break stuff, let alone craft things. Now suppose you were able to go out exploring, well eventually it would get dark and you would most likely die to monsters if you hadn’t fallen to your death or gotten lost in a cave. Well how was that for a first experience? Being confused and dying? I’ll tell you! IT’S NOT FUN! Now you may argue “what about the feeling of accomplishment once you figure out what to do?” Well I’ll never reach that moment if the game has such a ridiculous learning curve that I’m turned off from playing it at all. But let’s say that you keep playing after the initial shock and that you figure out how to break stuff and how to build stuff, well eventually (unless you play on Peaceful mode) you will come across a monster and then you will be forced to fight it. Well combat in Minecraft is like fighting a speeding car with a baseball bat you hold with one arm, which is to say highly inaccurate and ineffective. To kill something you need to get it alone and then spam the mouse button hoping that it dies before you do. So it’s nearly impossible to survive a zombie horde, let alone a group of skeleton archers, especially not a group of creepers. But let’s say that you master the mechanics and the combat there’s still the question of what to do with your time. I mean what’s the point of mining if you aren’t going to use the resources for anything? Here you are forced to create tasks for yourself in order to keep the game interesting and meaningful. Now I will say that this may be one of my weakest arguments because although initially the lack of direction may hinder the game, once you do have direction you can do amazing things, things that may seem impossible until someone builds a scale replica of the Taj Mahal without using any cheats. It’s truly remarkable what I’ve seen people do in this game.
Now onto the problems which do not arise from the mechanics or gameplay, the problems inherent to the game’s design and technical aspects. I’ll be honest there are more than one problem that arise when you try playing a game like Minecraft on a lower-end computer. A few of you may be getting mad at me, asking how I could bash a game based on the technical specifications of my own computer, well I think Minecraft allows me this privilege based on the fact that it is just so poorly optimized (and remember that the whole PMG series of posts is about gaming for people with crappy computers and barely any spending money). I’ve played countless game that are much more impressive than Minecraft on my crappy computer and all of them have worked a whole lot better. Minecraft is just graphically and technically poorly optimized, the flaw is so apparent that modders have gone out and made mods like Optifine which increase the FPS, decrease the lag, and make the gameplay noticeably smoother and more coherent than without. I’ve been playing Minecraft for about 2 years and throughout the countless updates there has never been any noticeable change in performance on my end, which is ridiculous in my mind. I’d much rather have some optimization than horses and carpets. I will say that even with the poor optimization I can still manage to make Minecraft work on my computer, but just barely and with a good deal of lag. Now this fact alone has made multiplayer (when I can get it to work) a horrible experience. First of all Minecraft does not make starting multiplayer games an easy task. I’ve never been able to set up a server, the computer-know-how evades me, and I’ve never had the money to buy my own server through one of the countless hosting companies, but when I’ve managed to access a friend’s server or one of the many community ones I’ve been overridden by lag and been left unable to play. So because of this whenever I’ve played Minecraft it has been in singleplayer with the graphical setting set to their minimums and peaceful mode turned on. Let me tell you that this is no way to play when you are bombarded with countless videos on YouTube showing groups of five or ten people playing together flawlessly, it’s highly disheartening. I now come to my last fault with Minecraft before I provide some other games which exist in the same genre as spiritual successors as some might call them. My last fault deals with the fact that Minecraft never has been and, most likely, never will be a finished product. Now I have not always been a PC gamer, I grew up with consoles thinking that a game could only be released if it was (for the most part) finished. Minecraft is one of the first games I can think of that really challenged this by releasing a constant stream of updates since its release. But these constant updates can sometimes be detrimental to the gameplay especially when an update comes out that adds some groundbreaking development to the game, because very often it happens to be that to access the new features you must create a new world. If you’ve placed a large amount of time and effort into building a temple or something, then having to start again from scratch can be heartbreaking.
As you will soon see, Minecraft has been highly influential in the way that most every game of the survival/building genre has copied some large chunk of Minecraft’s gameplay and functionality without any attempt to fix the problems that Minecraft has. I will now present you with three games of the same genre, one which is worse than Minecraft, one which is on par, and one which far exceeds it in almost all fronts. So let’s start with the bottom of the barrel: Towns.
Towns is a game that equates itself to the spiritual successor of games like Diablo, Dungeon Keeper, and Dwarf Fortress, but as far as I can tell from my time playing this only refers to a fairly late game feature of dungeon exploration. The game starts off with a dozen or so villagers dropped into the middle of a field. You can make them cut down trees, mine stone, pick fruit, or slaughter animals. You go through the game building a carpentry station, a masonry station, kitchen, dining room, etc. etc. You pretty much just build stations in the order that they appear in the menu. As you go you build up a little town that you can make look however you want with special doors and windows and roofs. Eventually you can build armor and weapons and outfit your villagers for exploration in the dungeons and then you get treasure and then… Well then you have treasure which you can horde and… Well you can always watch badgers fight, right? I’ll be honest Towns is a neat concept it’s like a RTS Minecraft meets the Sims, but it lacks the customization and originality. It has the same blocky style of Minecraft, at least in the terrain, but you can only view one layer of blocks at a time and it’s hard to get a good sense of the terrain around you. The game also features a strange array of enemies to fight, but the combat is very boring. You just watch your villagers spaz out at a frog for a minute or so before one of them disappears in a scream of despair. Towns isn’t much in terms of creativity but it’s cool to mess around with once or twice, but you shouldn’t buy it for full price. This game isn’t worth $15.
Next is a game called Don’t Starve. Don’t Starve can be thought of as Minecraft without the precision of the voxels. Before you begin your game you are given the choice of a character, each of which have different capabilities and skills. To begin with you only have Maxwell the Gentleman Scientist unlocked, but by playing and surviving longer you can unlock more. You start off the actual game with very little information, in the middle of the randomly generated world, confronted by a strange gangly man. You start off with a map and a clock which shows how long you have until nightfall comes. Like Minecraft you start with no direction and you have to discover everything for yourself. Unless you have some prior knowledge you will have to figure out how to craft everything and, as the title says, don’t starve. The world is large and expansive and filled with loads of strange creatures and elements, strange things that I’ve personally never seen before in any other game. The focus in Don’t Starve is not so much on crafting or building, but on survival and preparation. You are forced to horde resources and build farms or else you will die horribly when the seasons change. Beyond the survival there are other goals that you can accomplish like following the trail of the tall, strange man who greeted you at the start. Exploring is a little more fulfilling than in Minecraft because of the isometric perspective. Where in Minecraft you can search the horizon for new, exciting biomes, and drive your exploration through sight, in Don’t Starve you just have to wander around hoping you find the biomes and resources you are searching for, which makes it a little bit more exciting when after crossing two forests and a swamp you finally find a stone quarry. The combat lacks a little, you’ll oftentimes be running up to a monster clicking on it and then running around until you get a chance to click on it again. You can kite enemies, but besides that there isn’t much technique to fighting. Throughout its release, Don’t Starve has been under a constant stream of updates, much like Minecraft, but unlike Minecraft which has both large scale and small scale updates, Don’t Starve mostly strives to release larger ones. For its price, Don’t Starve is a pretty good deal which will offer up a good deal of fun if you dive into it, but it is relentlessly hard. Don’t even think about save-spamming because the game uses an autosave feature at the end of each night and doesn’t allow any other saving. If you’re looking to pick it up you can get it for $14.99.
Next is a game near and dear to my heart, a game that I have wasted close to 200 hours on: Terraria. Terraria is on first sight a 2D Minecraft clone, but if you take a closer look you’ll see that there is much, much more. Terraria is Minecraft mixed with the original Metroid and Castlevania. Terraria loses one dimension in favor of better gameplay and a better experience. Terraria is a game that hits the ground running. Once you load up a new world you are placed down with a handful of things: a pickaxe, an axe, a shortsword, and a guide. Simple game design tells you that since you have a sword there will be enemies; since you have a pickaxe you should dig into the ground; and since you have an axe you should probably cut down some trees. For most people this will be enough to give them a well-guided start in the game. If that isn’t enough for you there is always the guide who you can talk to for useful advice on how to progress in the game. And thus the cycle of Terraria starts. The cycle can be put simply: Mine, Collect, Forge, Upgrade, Repeat. You start mining so you can build better weapons, tools, and armor. Once you upgrade these things you will be able to dig deeper, survive longer, and do more, which allows you to progress even further towards upgrading your stuff. But Terraria is not simply a grind, it is much more. Eventually you will be attacked by the game’s first boss: the Eye of Cthulhu. From then on the game starts to fan out. You will find that not everything can be crafted with ores dug deep underground, some items can only be collected from defeated bosses. From this point on you will upgrade yourself so that you can kill even greater bosses and enemies. The game drives you to become stronger and stronger unveiling all sorts of items and armors and monsters and environments. Even then the game just keeps going and going, it seems almost never ending. The bosses are difficult to kill with each boss being more difficult to kill than the last, which makes the game challenging yet fun. You will aim at getting stronger and stronger and through the struggle you will feel as if you truly achieved something great. Terraria has a variety of features which make it fun and interesting. There are a dozen or so NPCs who you can build a village for and lots of random events that make the days interesting. There are a variety of biomes to explore and discover as well as secrets hidden everywhere. You can design your own character and build fantastic structures. The buildings are cool (but in 2D they’re nowhere near as impressive as the kind of things you can build in Minecraft). In terms of how it compares to Minecraft’s detriments, Terraria has a great combat system which makes fighting fair and interesting; it is well optimized for almost every computer; and it is a finished product, you will never have to worry about creating a new world because another update came out. Despite all these improvements, Terraria is not without its flaws. For no apparent reason I have continued to have troubles with getting multiplayer to work. Sometimes it will work and work exceedingly well, but other times it chooses to not connect, despite doing it countless times before. Still I will say that the few moments when you can get multiplayer to work are magical. This game is something else, something that everyone should experience. It’s $9.99 and well worth it. I cannot say enough good things about this game.
As a final note I’d like to tell you about a new game, a game that has not yet been released, a game that I’ve been awaiting for about a year now: Starbound, the spiritual successor to Terraria. Now up until about a year ago I had lost interest in Terraria. I had beaten Terraria’s hardmode and done as much as I possibly could in the game. I stopped playing it because its developers had publically given up on it, they said that they wouldn’t ever release another update for Terraria. They said the game was finished. So after I beat it I heard about another game, a game in development that was meant to be an improved version of Terraria, aka Starbound. Even from the original concept it improved Terraria in countless ways with more diverse worlds and gameplay all centered around randomly generated enemies, weapons, and worlds, taking the monotony out of Terraria’s repetition in world generation. But since then Terraria has been updated and the update is amazing, the game feels as if it has doubled in weight and content. I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the new developments in my playthrough, but I can’t help but love what I’ve seen so far. Still Starbound is well on its way to being a better game than Terraria and you would be stupid not to give it a look.