Hands-on with Minecraft Dungeons, Xbox Game Studio's most important E3 2019 reveal

At E3 2019, Microsoft unveiled Minecraft Dungeons gameplay for the first time, showing us that it takes stronger cues from the likes of Diablo than any other similar game. The earlier teaser from a few months ago made me wonder if it was more of a Left 4 Dead-style game, but the isometric 3D action RPG combat in the latest trailer is unmistakable in all the right ways.

As good as Minecraft Dungeons looked on-screen, it felt even better. A small team at Mojang is working on the title, and even though the game is almost a year away from its launch window, the demo I played already had all the depth, polish, and addictive loot to leave me quite honestly desperate for more.

Here's a little glimpse into Minecraft Dungeons, from our hands-on session at E3 2019, ahead of its targeted Spring 2020 launch window.

Minecraft Dungeons nails the ARPG combat feel

Minecraft Dungeons

Minecraft Dungeons (Image credit: Microsoft / Mojang)

Minecraft Dungeons closest possible comparison for Xbox owners is likely Diablo III, with familiar control schemes and even UI elements across the board. However, some key differences help Minecraft Dungeons stand out on its own.

There is no building mechanic in Minecraft Dungeons, instead, the team has focused entirely on its combat systems. Even with a year of development to go, Dungeons already simply feels awesome.

Minecraft Dungeons already illustrates exactly how an ARPG should feel.

There's no hard class system. Instead, you'll build up your own "class" picking and choosing from an array of Minecraft-inspired weaponry, including pickaxes, fishing poles for hooking mobs, swords, shields, lances, and so on. On top of that, there are also unique artifacts that grant spell-like powers. The sheer variety of options should ensure nobody feels like their personal favorite playstyles are uncatered for. You can be a magic-wielding wizard, prioritizing artifact spells, a heavy warrior with plate armor and a two-handed weapon, or an archer, complete with a personal wolf pet with an emphasis on dodging and agility.

In practice, every weapon and ability we tried already felt polished. Built on the Unreal Engine, Minecraft Dungeons looks stunning, despite its blocky aesthetics. It sports gorgeous HDR lighting and smooth frame rates, with various classic Minecraft environmental biomes represented.

You'll plunder abandoned mines, ancient oceanic temples, and ruined desert tombs, brimming with traps and all sorts of monsters. With fully-realized physics and dynamic lighting, smashing into enemies with a lightning bolt, sending them cascading across the map and into walls or off ledges gives collision a real sense of physical impact. Again, Minecraft Dungeons already illustrates exactly how an ARPG should feel.

In our gameplay demo, we spent the bulk of our time in one of the game's desert-style ruins, which came with all the types of mobs you'd expect. Mummified zombies, vanquished soldier skeletons, and web-spewing spiders stood between us and the procedurally-generated end-goal, with plenty of room for exploration off the beaten path. The game also has unique puzzles and events, which adds variety to the frenzied battles.

Minecraft Dungeons

Minecraft Dungeons (Image credit: Microsoft)

Minecraft Dungeons does have a narrative, which revolves around defeating the Arch-Illager leader, representing a faction introduced in Minecraft's Village and Pillage update earlier this year. The story is very light, though, and just adds context to what your heroes are up to. The objectives of one map might be to rescue some villagers, while another might be to vanquish a boss. And oh boy, we caught a glimpse at some of those.

Endermen are already feared combatants in Minecraft's base game, but in Dungeons, they take on a new dimension of danger. Endermen now screw with your visibility using psionic power, in Minecraft Dungeons, and take far more damage than any regular mob, while also teleporting away from all of your abilities. Alongside Endermen are new Necromancer mobs, that can spawn masses of skeletons and zombies, and Wraiths, which spread torrents of fire in an area of effect. Owing to Minecraft Dungeons' procedural generation, these monsters could show up at any time throughout the map, and could also come as a much larger boss variant, complete with unique tactics and special loot. Speaking of which ...

Minecraft Dungeons All that loot and progression

The Dungeons team were keen to stress to me that they aren't going to include any form of "pay to win"-style microtransactions in Dungeons, nor are they adding gambling-style loot boxes. Instead, everything you earn will be found in-game, as it should be, plundering tombs and mines. Minecraft Dungeons has a few interesting RPG mechanics to that end, which fall into multiple categories.

As you ascend in power and complete the story, Dungeons will open up its end-game difficulty scaling options.

Damage numbers in combat reveal your progression as you grow in power, but additionally, your character sheet also shows your accumulated gear score. That "Power" level also dictates the difficulty of procedurally-generated dungeons, when you're selecting them from your encampment base. A more difficult map for your current Power will yield better rewards, but if you want a more relaxed experience, those will be on offer too.

Minecraft Dungeons has a huge range of weapons and artifacts planned for launch, roughly around 20 per type we were told, for melee, artifact "spells," and ranged weapons. On top of all that, you can also enchant your abilities with unique modifiers. Similarly to the base Minecraft game, you can spend your accumulated levels (not your gear Power) to increase the strength of these enchantments. One such enchantment we tried added chain-lightning effects to melee strikes, while another added homing projectiles to our ranged attacks. Many of these abilities can be charged too for additional variety. One ability added additional projectiles to an artifact that turned our bow into a firework launcher, creating doubled-up explosive arrows.

Each biome also comes with unique named loot and armor that can drop anywhere, either from regular mobs or chests, but is more likely to appear from mini-bosses like the Endermen or map-end bosses, like giant Wraiths. One weapon we got looked like a jagged lance, which when enchanted with the "Echo" ability, gave us additional slashing hits for each trigger pull. And I keep saying this, but again, it just felt so damn good.

On top of regular loot, Minecraft Dungeons will also have consumables like food to keep your health up, as well as a potion on a cooldown recharge. Dungeons will also have unique puzzle mechanics, including a cute Key Golem, which can unlock doors. However, dropping him will cause him to flee back to his spawn point. There also "Piggybank" mobs which serve as loot pinatas, similarly to the treasure goblins from Diablo.

Minecraft Dungeons Key Golem

Minecraft Dungeons Key Golem (Image credit: Microsoft)

As you ascend in power and complete the story, Dungeons will open up its end-game difficulty scaling options, adding all-new challenges and loot tables for hungry adventurers. Although Mojang refused to comment with a coy smile when I asked, it certainly seemed to me as though there are plans for the Ender Dragon to make an appearance in Dungeons at some point, too. I don't think Minecraft Dungeoneers will be short on content to devour once this game hits store shelves.

Extremely promising Minecraft Dungeons future

Minecraft Dungeons Bow and Arrow

Minecraft Dungeons Bow and Arrow (Image credit: Microsoft)

The sheer volume of variety in the core gameplay, biomes, mobs, progression, and equipment in our brief 30-minute hands-on session was simply staggering. One thing I've kept hearing since the E3 2019 reveal has essentially boiled down to "I'm not a fan of Minecraft ... but Dungeons looks cool," and I think therein lies how well Mojang has nailed the presentation of this game. It's clearly Diablo, complete with the charm of Minecraft. It's simply a winning formula, if, of course, they land the full game as well as they have this demo build.

Mojang is already planning post-launch support for the game, adding content via paid expansions and free updates too. The game will launch for just $20, or $30 if you fancy the mini-season pass the game is launching with, which will contain two chunks of DLC.

Minecraft Dungeons has the very real capability to be your future big game addiction.

It'll have cross-play between Xbox and PC, with other platforms being explored, and launch on PS4 and Nintendo Switch as well, catering to the broader global Minecraft audience. Microsoft could also very rapidly expand Dungeons across to mobile devices, leveraging the Project xCloud APIs to create touch controls and mobile-friendly user interfaces. Four player co-op, either locally or online, with an unlockable end-game with gradually increasing difficulty, Minecraft Dungeons has the very real capability to be your future big game addiction.

Minecraft Dungeons broad potential appeal and platform ubiquity could see it build up a fanbase far larger than the likes of Halo, Gears, and Forza, which typically steal the headlines from E3 shows. I'd advise you to keep an eye on this one. It could end up being a bigger deal than any other game Microsoft unveiled on stage this year.

Awesome Minecraft merch

We love Minecraft just as much as you do. These are some of our favorite Minecraft accessories.

Minecraft Guide Book Collection ($25 at Amazon)

Want to learn more about the intricacies of Minecraft? These awesome books make for a great gift, or learning experience for a younger loved one!

Minecraft Creeper T-shirt (From $7 at Amazon)

For the creeper in your life!

Creeper Hat ($14 at Amazon)

The spookiest hat of them all. Thankfully, it doesn't explode.

Minecraft Pig Plushie ($18 at Amazon)

Creepers too ugly? Try this cutesy plushie instead!

Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden is 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 tea. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his XB2 Podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!