Minecraft Legends review: a colourful RTS limited by its own small ambitions
A right piglin's ear
Surveying the sprawling piglin outpost before me, a plan forms. With a flourish of button presses from my controller, I spawn a sizeable army of zombies. They'll zomble their way up the main path, and with their high health pools they'll cut into the vast piglin forces and buy me time. With another flourish a contingent of friendly creepers scuttles along behind me. I lead them on a flanking attack around the outpost, targeting their spawners while the main piglin army is occupied with my frontal assault. A masterpiece of tactical engineering!
Or it would have been, if my minions weren't so bloody stupid. Half my zombies fell off the staircase they were climbing due to their terrible pathfinding, and burned up in the lava moat below. Meanwhile, I sent my creepers off to explode against the first spawner I found. Only one of them got there; the others relentlessly humped a wall they could easily have climbed, until Piglins surrounded and slaughtered them. I returned to my starting point with what remained of my army, a fair bit poorer in resources, and a great deal poorer in patience.
Welcome to Minecraft Legends, a strange mixture of real-time strategy and open-world adventure which frustrates and impresses in equal measure. There's half a great game lurking here, but it's marred by inadequacies that have nibbled away at me like piglins at my walls. This game could have been so much more.
Minecraft Legends is one of a rare breed of RTS in which you are in direct control of a character in the world. Your character acts as the mouse does in regular RTS games. Instead of dragging a selection box over some units and ordering them to move somewhere, you move your character over to those units, rally them under your banner, and lead them there yourself. The character you control is known as the Hero, and at the beginning of the game's campaign they're visited in their regular Minecraft world by a trio of benevolent creatures
with cringingly fake laughs known as the Hosts. These Hosts created their own idyllic Minecraft world, but they need the Hero's help because Nether portals have began to crop up everywhere, groaning with Piglin forces intent on subjugating the Overworld.
I was dropped into the world next to the Well Of Fate, my base of operations throughout the campaign. It lay at the centre of an open world that was now entirely mine to explore, and this world looks truly beautiful. It's very clearly Minecraftian in nature, but celshading and lighting works wonders at breathing new life into those familiar blocky vistas. As I cantered through forests and across rivers, I placed down chests, ordering friendly Allays to automatically gather particular resources like Wood and Stone while I rode on. No need to manually chop down trees here - a fact that I tried not to be disappointed about as I figured out what I was expected to do next.
The map is divided into 15 or so different biomes, dotted with friendly villages and naughty piglin outposts. There's a real-time day-night cycle in play, and with each night the three piglin clans will expand in some way, either by erecting new outposts or by launching attacks on nearby villages. I was relentlessly encouraged by my three rather pushy Hosts to split my time between attacking outposts and defending villages. So, I set my sights on a nearby outpost and took my first steps into summoning and managing units.
If you've ever played Tooth And Tail, then controlling units Minecraft Legends will feel familiar. You summon mobs of a certain type by placing down spawners and interacting with them. Then you can rally all nearby mobs under your banner, and they'll follow you - in theory. You can order them to attack in a direction (but only up to a few metres away), or to hold position. You can also engage Banner Mode to give yourself extra options, like targeting a specific enemy unit or building. At first, you're only able to spawn two mob types: Cobblestone Golems that are strong against buildings, and Plank Golems that are good against piglins. You soon earn access to more spawner types for summoning Creepers, Zombies, and Skeletons, as well as a couple of new kinds of Golem used for healing or dealing with ranged units.
It's an interesting idea, forcing you to use your character to control your armies. It goes hand in hand with Mojang's and Blackbird Interactive's attempts to simplify the RTS genre and potentially offer young players a new way into it. And I do admire how Minecraft Legends' simplicity means all your commands can be handily mapped onto a controller. But this admiration paled in the face of my growing frustration at not being able to control my units with more precision. Tactics that are utterly simple to execute in a more traditional RTS are next to impossible in Minecraft Legends. Why isn't there a way to control things on a larger scale? I feel hamstrung whenever I play, forced into the most rudimentary tactics and strategies because they're the only ones that I can pull off with this simplified control scheme.
This is echoed in the building, which takes place mainly around friendly villages as you create walls and towers to defend against the piglins' nighttime assaults. What could have been the coolest part of the entire game ended up feeling horribly repetitive after a couple of sessions, because I didn't have anything like the creative freedom I would have expected from any game with the Minecraft name. Walls can only be of a fixed height, and they'll frequently intercept the projectiles from your own towers because, by default, they're too tall. You can't replace sections of wall with a gate, so you either need to place your gates down first, or spend a full minute deleting a section of wall one tile at a time. I mean, come on. What's that about?
It goes on. There are just three basic tower types, and the rest of your buildings are used to upgrade those towers with a faster fire rate, or by converting them from wood into stone, and so on. Every one of my villages ended up looking exactly, utterly identical - just a circle of walls with towers dotted about along the perimeter. I'm sorry, but this just isn't good enough for a Minecraft game with even the smallest focus on building. We were told that instead of building block by block, you would build "thought by thought". It turns out that, translated, this means that you place down whole premade buildings, with no room for the personal touch and freedom of expression that Minecraft does so well. What a spectacular opportunity, squandered!
So I endeavoured to wipe out the piglins as quickly as possible so I didn't have to waste more time building cookie-cutter defences around my villages. The sad truth is that over the course of my roughly 20-hour playthrough of the campaign, I mostly just amassed the same type of unit whenever I wanted to get anything done. The limited control I had meant the best course of action was pretty much always to build up a monotone army and lead them on hit and run attacks to destroy key buildings. At no point did the piglins ever come up with a response to this tactic. Their army would just mindlessly chase after me, never quite reaching me in order to do any damage. The only time I ever got in trouble was when my minions failed to obey my commands, or poor pathfinding meant they shoved each other off ledges and into awkward positions.
There technically is a way to gain finer control over your army, and it's through that Banner Mode that I mentioned earlier. Holding down the right trigger on the controller brought up a new UI overlay where the player can pick exactly which unit type to give the next order to, and they can also choose to give the order either to everyone nearby, or just the nearest unit. In practice though, these commands are incredibly finnicky to execute in real-time, and I'm left once again wishing I could zoom out to a more tactical overview map, from which I could order my units in a more intelligent way.
Because of the various frustrations with building and fighting, I spent more time than necessary exploring the world. There are three important things you can find while exploring: 3 new mounts, 1 new tower type, and 4 unique special units called Firsts which will always remain with you, respawning whenever they die. What's sad is that none of these things are tied to specific biomes, they're just scattered all over the place. In regular old Minecraft, you journey to a biome because it houses what you need. Want bamboo or ocelots? Head to a jungle. Terracotta? Head to the Badlands. Lilpads? Swamp time. In Minecraft Legends, the biomes feel like a superficial skin stretched over the world. The only reason to go to one biome in particular is to pick up the one basic resource there - either iron, coal, redstone, or diamond - which are required to build more units and construct improvement structures back at the Well Of Fate. But all those resources are scattered in clumps all over those biomes in just about the most uninteresting way possible. Not exactly a good incentive for exploration.
It's such a shame that they haven't taken full advantage of the game's connection to Big Daddy Minecraft. It could have been an entirely unique RTS with more of a focus on building and exploration than anything that's come before it. The focus seems instead to have gone elsewhere. In fairness, the amount of polish that has gone into some parts of this game is really impressive. The animations are full of life, the world is vibrant and welcoming, the cinematics look great, the voice acting is... well, not my cup of tea, but it's still done very well. It's a real sadness that the game gets in its own way to the point where I haven't been able to end a play session thinking, "well, that was fun".
Unfortunately I wasn't able to properly try out the PvP mode of Minecraft Legends, which is where Mojang are hoping the longevity lies. I hopped into a training match against an AI base on my own, just to see how it all worked, but didn't stay in there for long. While the developers have said that the PvP mode can be enjoyed as just a 1v1 experience, I feel that'll just lead to more frustration, because barely a minute into a match the piglins will start attacking your base, and you'll find your time split between defence and resource gathering even more jarringly than in the campaign.
I'm sure that won't be an issue if you can get some friends to join you, but I just can't find the enthusiasm for it - not after 15-20 hours of the campaign. The map in PvP is absolutely miniscule, so exploration is even more meaningless than in the campaign. The focus is instead on building defenses and forward bases, and attacking your enemy's Well Of Fate. Controlling my units was enough of a hassle in the relatively stress-free PvE campaign. I'd hate to think how frustrating it would become against a more intelligent player who you couldn't simply trick into an endless game of duck-duck-goose around their base.
I just don't think Minecraft Legends is anything like as good as it could have been. There seems to be an absence of imagination in some areas of the game, and it hurt my enjoyment a lot. This is a Minecraft RTS! What if I wanted to play as the piglins? Nope. What if I want to delve into a cave and dig under the enemy's base? Can't do that. What about towers that throw splash potions, or lava? Nada. Can I summon an army of spiders that can climb walls? No. Can I build a base that's multiple stories high instead of just one flat plane? Well, why the fuck not?!
All of this could be fixed with future updates, but I think the devs have built themselves into a corner with the fundamentals of Minecraft Legends. Adding more content and complexity won't solve the issue of the awkward control scheme and lack of precision - something that all RTS games need in order to be great. I'm fully aware that this game is primarily aimed at a younger audience, potentially as a point of introduction to the RTS genre. At this, it could succeed. If you can get behind the controls and make peace with the fact that the tactics you'll have to employ are likely even less complex than the button presses required to execute them, your minions will frequently kill themselves rather than obeying your commands, and your builds will all end up looking the same... Well, then you're a more patient person than I am, and I'm sure you'll find a fair bit to like about Minecraft Legends - as did I. But even then, I'm not convinced the game has enough staying power to keep its playerbase's attention. Once you've seen one biome, one mount, one piglin outpost, one well-defended base, you've seen them all.