If you asked me to name two mega franchises that I respect, but never got into, Minecraft and Diablo would top the list. Now they have come together. Xbox Games Studios and the small team at Mojang developing Minecraft Dungeons don’t shy away from the comparison; it’s an easy and apt elevator pitch for their procedural dungeon crawler. And while Minecraft nor Diablo are for me, I can see myself sinking many an evening into Minecraft Dungeons.
Everything about Dungeons proclaims Minecraft. It’s a spin-off, but it’s not an outsourced cash-in. It’s a genuine Mojang product and that’s reflected in its look, feel and authenticity. That iconic style will initially draw in millions of kids, and now young adults, who grew up with Minecraft; but like the countless Pokémon spin-offs, it’s opening its doors to a very different audience compared to the core game.
Action-RPG and dungeon crawling fans who have always been bemused by Minecraft’s gargantuan success may finally give it more than a passing glance. It might also be the gateway for younger fans to branch off beyond their regular Minecraft > Fortnite rotation. Two very demographics that will just as easily gravitate toward’s Mojang’s side project.
We saw a hands-off demo that suddenly became hands-on with a vintage ‘pass the controller’ mandate at E3 2019. The level was Desert Temple, the objective was to find the Necromancer’s Tomb and there was always a clear waypoint to the next objective. But don’t bother trying to memorise somebody else’s playthrough on Twitch, because each time you play it’s going to look very different.
That’s because Minecraft Dungeons is procedurally generated. The layout, enemies you’ll fight and items you’ll find will all be randomly generated, and therefore quite different every time you play. Even though the game itself will be quite short, smashing through the main campaign, each playthrough will be unique, potentially providing plenty of replayability.
We saw this level played both solo and in co-op, where we were best served sticking close to an ally who provided a couple of crucial revives. With drop in and out play, Dungeons seamlessly switched from a single-player venture to a team effort.
As this is Minecraft, there are no classes; you are what you wear and wield, with new weapons, outfits and abilities acquired by playing. All characters have both melee and ranged combat and the enchantments attached to weapons are initially randomly assigned, but more can be unlocked with enchantment points acquired by levelling up; valuable points can then be salvaged from old weapons and reassigned when something better comes along.
From the single level we saw, Minecraft Dungeons is certainly taking a more simplistic view of dungeon crawling. Stats and unlocks are still very important, but I was able to pick up a controller and intuitively play, something that can’t be said for most games of a similar genre.
Combat against a range of enemies, including those already entrenched in the world of Minecraft and some newcomers, is fluid and instinctive. Exploration isn’t mandatory, with linear progression most of the way through, but there are advantages to wandering off the obvious path, which may be protected by more challenging traps to conquer, beyond staples like the age-old giant spike.
I liked what I saw from Minecraft Dungeons. It’s clearly targeting the same young audience, but offers something on a gameplay level that’s totally different, while retaining a reassuringly familiar style; I’ll be very surprised if that isn’t a strong recipe for success. We still have plenty more to find out, like how big of a role will the narrative play and what will the incentive be to replay the levels, though procedurally generated, several times? Playing with friends seems to be the sweet point and a harder mode, unlocked by finishing the campaign, will likely entice dungeon crawlers more experience than me to keep playing.
Then again, with a launch on Game Pass significantly reducing players’ investment, perhaps ‘procedurally generated’ doesn’t necessarily have to equate to a minimum replayability and one unique quest in Minecraft Dungeons is all we will need; sorry, PS4 and Switch versions.
Minecraft Dungeons heads to Windows PC, Xbox One, PS4 and Switch in 2020.
Ben Salter traveled to Los Angeles to cover E3 as a guest of Ubisoft. The arrangement does not impact our Ubisoft coverage, nor limit additional E3 2019 coverage.
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