Minecraft Legends is a true strategy game, that even non-strategy fans may fall in love with

Minecraft Legends
(Image credit: Microsoft)

Minecraft Legends gave me some familiar feelings. And not just because of its iconic blocky world or characters — that feeling is one of confusion.

 I recall feeling similarly about Minecraft Dungeons when that was announced. “What exactly is this game?” I thought. I noted the four players, the hordes of mobs, and made an assumption that it was something in the vein of Left 4 Dead or Vermintide, where teams run a gauntlet through swarms of enemies. It wasn’t until the actual gameplay reveal that I realized it was more in line with Diablo and other action RPGs, putting an end to the haze. The difference between this and Minecraft Legends is, that even with gameplay footage of Legends, I still wasn’t exactly sure what kind of game it is. As I found out at Gamescom, the reason for that is there’s simply very little out there like it.

Minecraft Legends is a unique strategy game which, despite the ability to run around and swing a sword, is very much rooted in building, resources, and commanding armies than it is hack n' slash. During the show, I caught up with the game's creative director Magnus Nedfors and executive producer Dennis Ries to find out more about how it plays, and I would discover its ascent to the top of my most anticipated upcoming Xbox games list.

Minecraft Legends: A true strategy game

Minecraft Legends

(Image credit: Microsoft)

I am perhaps guilty of not doing enough research (hey, it’s been busy here), but from the initial gameplay trailers for Minecraft Legends, I perhaps put a bit too much stock in the appearance of action-oriented combat. After seeing it up close at the show and speaking with the game’s developers, it became immediately clear that this is a full-blown and true strategy game, with the player character acting like something of a highly advanced cursor for controlling units and erecting buildings. Magnus Nedfors described how Minecraft Legends immediately skirts genres and ends up being something uniquely special. 

"The fact that, when they described [Minecraft Legends] to me, and I didn't get it — that made it super interesting. That meant that there's something special here. It's something new, it's something fresh. And as a guy in creative, that's something that you seek." Minecraft Legends Creative Director Magnus Nedfors.

For our demonstration, we were treated to an early play session that showcases some of the game’s general flow. The primary enemies in Minecraft Legends are the Piglins, who were revamped as part of Minecraft’s Nether Update a little while ago. Piglins are essentially pig-men who are perhaps analogous to orcs and the like, swarming in hordes in barbarous (albeit cute) raids on villager settlements for reasons not entirely understood. The player’s goal is to essentially establish defenses, weaponry, and armies that can gradually work their way up the chain of various Piglin invasion points, which dot a procedurally generated open world landscape. Indeed, Minecraft Legends is entirely based on the Bedrock engine, unlike Minecraft Dungeons which was based on Unreal Engine. It’s a truly impressive feat to see an entire spin-off built in the base engine of Minecraft, to the point where its recognizable in style only.

The player controls a hero, who is customizable aesthetically to some degree. You ride atop a steed and have a basic slash attack helping you contribute to battle, but that’s where the action combat essentially ends for your main character. Minecraft Legends is intended to be strategy first, albeit through a familiar Minecraft lens.

Initially, you’ll be tasked to take down a Piglin outpost, which protects a dark portal bringing in swarms of reinforcements from the Nether. However, this is a true open world sandbox. After the initial tutorial, you can simply bypass earlier outposts and try to take on some of the bigger, and more dangerous fortresses. But you will most likely be squished into blocky goo. Gameplay progression in Minecraft Legends revolves around resources found in the field. You can send out allay minions to quickly deconstruct regions of lumber and stone, to save you from having to get into the busy work yourself. You can also participate in quests and other events in the open world for resources and other rewards. 

Groups of friendly villager zombies (who have invented hats to avoid the dangers of sunlight) might ask you to defend them from a raid, and reward you with a chest of resources, for example. You can use these resources to upgrade your capabilities. You’ll get more advanced commands for directing your army, as well as more advanced buildings and structures to defend your own outposts. The Mojang and Blackbird teams were a bit coy about how advanced your buildings could get since they wanted to leave as many surprises in the game for players to discover as possible. They did tease some examples for us, however.

"What we showed here today is very basic early building. At the beginning of the game, we have the wellhouse, as we call it. That's kind of like the centrepiece of your ability to build new places in the world. It's a fast travel point, and a respawn point if you die. So if you build one next to a base you are attacking, if you die, you will get back into the action very quickly. That's a relatively early type of building. We saw some towers today too. I don't want to tell you exactly, but upgraded towers might be more powerful... perhaps what kind of missiles they shoot, and so on, could possibly get upgraded." — Minecraft Legends Creative Director Magnus Nedfors.

After acquiring some fresh materials from helping some not-so-fresh friendly zombie villagers, our character embarks on a mission to eradicate that initial dimensional breach. Minecraft Legends treats you to some high-quality context-setting cinematics to introduce the generals in charge of those major bases, this one led by a gigantic hulking Piglin adorned with spiky armor and looking a little like something crossed between Peppa Pig and Lord of the Rings. The juxtaposition of styles works in that uniquely charming Minecraft way, with fairy-tale accents and cartoon-style outlines that give Legends its very own identity. Where it really diverges from Minecraft can be found in the ebb and flow of its strategic combat.

Taking on the Piglins

We got a view of an initial player assault on a Piglin base, and this is where my intrigue morphed into excitement. The UI is familiar to Minecraft albeit with some strategic flavor, showing you your available resources as well as your available unit pool. Minecraft Legends progression involves boosting the power of your units, improving the strength of your buildings, and gaining access to more advanced structures too.

For this early mission, we were shown how the player can send allay mobs to construct a bridge across the game’s procedurally generated terrain, helping to connect two sides of a ravine. The game cleverly adapts to the terrain regardless of how random it might be. Although it’ll be intriguing to see what kind of challenges may arise for some of these systems as they overlap and intersect. You can set both ends of the bridge, and then the allays will float across and start construction, giving your budding army a means to cross and get into battle. But how exactly do you build your army?

As you spend currency on upgrades, you can increase the population of your army. In our demo at the start of the game, we were shown what it was like with 80 units on screen, although Mojang and Blackbird are still tweaking just how many the engine can handle before performance issues might arise. Units are generated by crafted spawners, similar to Minecraft itself. Here, we got to see some of the new creations Blackbird and Mojang have created for Minecraft Legends.

Minecraft Legends

(Image credit: Microsoft)

There are standard units like tanky cobblestone golems, which charge into battle and start slapping things and dealing siege damage, but you can also use ranged golems to attack units, and mossy golems, which can heal nearby friendly allies. Having a good spread to counter specific enemy threats forms the basis of strategic play, and Minecraft Legends has paid careful attention to furthering these sorts of expectations.

Minecraft Legends takes place in a continuous sandbox and isn’t level-based or mission-based with new maps like other similar strategy games (if you can even call anything similar at this point). As such, the sandbox evolves over time with new events and enemy behaviors. Making a spawner outpost so near to an enemy stronghold may provoke the nearby Piglins to attack you, for example. Different factions of Piglins also have different AI responses and strategies, forcing you to further evolve your response to each emerging threat. 

You can also draft up to three friends in co-operative play to join in the fun. In combat, I saw how the player was able to direct groups of golems to attack specific enemies or target specific buildings on the fly, with an intuitive interface designed for both controllers and mouse and keyboard play. As you get further and further into the 18-hour-long story campaign, your growing power and strategic options will be met with similarly powerful new enemies who will join the field, forcing you to adapt to new situations on the fly.

The game gives you an array of tools to combat the Piglins, and I feel as though the demo we were shown barely scratches the surface of the full potential of what we could see hit this game. We've seen basic archer towers, for example, make life difficult for invaders, but we haven't yet seen siege equipment or mobs beyond the fairly basic trifecta of archer, healer, and melee. It's easy to let your imagination run wild trying to think where they could take Minecraft Legends, and perhaps that's part of the point here.

Don’t sleep on Minecraft Legends

Minecraft Legends

(Image credit: Microsoft)

Minecraft Legends still has many, many secrets hiding beneath its blocky exterior. The main menu sported a challenge mode section as well as a PvP versus section, although Mojang and Blackbird are leaving these surprises for a later date. I asked the team just how difficult Minecraft Legends would be, given that strategy game players are often seeking specific levels of challenge within this genre. Thankfully, you can tailor the difficulty to your preferences, although the team were reluctant to describe it as difficulty modes per se, perhaps hinting at more granular customization that we often see in games like Stellaris or Civ — but that’s just speculative for now. One thing is for sure, the team wants Minecraft Legends to be accessible for younger gamers, while also sporting the depth that could give it some serious longevity the likes of which we’ve seen in Minecraft Dungeons and Minecraft itself.

"We saw it like — let's try to think about [Minecraft Legends] as a person's first strategy game, right? So, it was about building that approachability, for less experienced players. But then we're in a strange place, given that traditionally strategic games are a little bit more hardcore, and so on. Blackbird Interactive is very good with that. So then it was kind of easier to build on top of that. So we have a good range of — well, I don't know what we will call it in the game — but let's call it difficulty levels right now. In the same way we have in Minecraft vanilla, you have peaceful through to hardcore? Right? I think we can provide a challenge for a whole range of people." — Minecraft Legends Creative Director Magnus Nedfors.

Mojang and Blackbird gave me just enough information to fully understand what was being put on offer here, while also leaving plenty of questions on the table to maintain my intrigue. Will I eventually be able to build siege equipment? What about Minecrafty trebuchets? What will late-game play look like? What will the unit cap be? Just how big and crazy will these mob battles get? Will mods and custom games be supported on the marketplace? What kind of DLC and future content will it get?

We’ll have to wait to find out the answers to some of these questions — but I’m far more interested in Minecraft Legends coming out of Gamescom. Whether you’re a typical strategy game player or not, I think you should keep your eyes firmly trained on this one.

Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!