First off, for some reason it's a lot more fun. It's the same game, but for some reason it's more fun. It's hard to say why, but I think it has a lot to do with having a goal this time around, which is similar to how I was playing hardcore (FYI, never finished my hardcore, I beat the Bronze, but then started playing online on a public server).
The goal in 1.8, at least to me is to find and clear out a stronghold. A stronghold is essentially a very large dungeon that is randomly located somewhere on the map, beyond 500 blocks from your initial spawn location. But here is where it gets tough, as of right now only 3 of them spawn, so in order to find one, you're going to need to do some exploration. Notch said that the game would require you to explore, sign me up! I've heard that in 1.9 the stronghold will hold a boss, we'll have to see, I guess that would be a good indicator if you really finished off a stronghold.
So in order to find a stronghold, it's going to take a lot of exploration, with hunger now a requirement, I'll need food, hence my base needs to become an actual supply station. Animal spawning has also changed so there isn't a limitless number of pigs to be found and eat from, to counter this, I built a large wheat farm. I was in a little bit of luck with my spawn location, I spawned in a swamp and there were mushrooms everywhere so food has not been an issue. I wasn't really sure if I was going to need a large wheat farm, but not really knowing how the animals were going to work, I figured it was probably a good idea to make one. And one final note on food, cows are like hitting the jackpot for meat!
Speaking of cows, here is one of the real problems that I have with the update, there cows are too rare. Normally I use leather armor to get me going in the game, then upgrade to iron once I find enough, but in order to get underground and get that iron I will make a leather suit, that's not an option now. At my spawn there were 0 cows, only after I did some exploration did I find 3 of them. By the time I found the cows I was already up to about 15 iron, just from finding some near the surface. With cows not respawning, the ability to get a leather set of armor is almost impossible or at least pointless because you'll have iron by the time you find enough cows anyway. This is a serious balance issue.
Exploration and the biomes. I was lucky and spawned in a swamp, now while that doesn't sound like a good thing, swamps are flat, have lots of trees, lots of sheep (useless except for a first night bed), and mushrooms. Finding coal in the swamp was a little tricky but overall it was a good starting location. I was also at the intersection of 4 different biome types, a forest, a desert, and a mountain biome were all bordering me. I took a quick look at the desert and it was vast, just huge, I figure that my stronghold will be in there, just because. The forest is dense with trees, it will be very hard to cut through there and do some serious exploration, can we say fire coming.... Finally there was the mountain, it's large and pocketed with caves at it's higher elevations, I didn't bother to explore in those caves as of yet because I figure there is probably only monsters and coal up there so why bother.
A couple other neat geographical features were the stream that separated the forest/swamp and the mountain. It wasn't a full on river, just a thin stream that ran along the side, the effect of it was great. Later on, on the other side of the swamp I found a large river that separated the swamp from some planes on the other side, that had the 3 cows. And finally there was the ravine, a deep gorge that ran under the swamp. The gorge went from the surface all the way to exposed gold, I'm not sure what level it is down there, but in having gold exposed to the surface, that's deep. With vines from trees dropping down in to the gorge and the river flowing in from various points, it was a great piece of landscape, just begging to be explored.
Naturally the gorge was where I decided to start my underground escapades, through various side tunnels I was able to get about half way down before it got late and I needed to get off. I was still without armor as well so I didn't want to be down there after it had gotten dark. (I'll get to the lighting in a minute) Being unprepared I didn't test my luck too much, but the mobs are the same as usual, skeletons are Olympic archers, zombies are idiots, and spiders are loud and annoying. But what is this black mob with purple nether stuff sparkling off him???
The Endermen, overall I have to say I'm not really that impressed, but I don't dislike them either. I found my first one in a small little cave, it was just doing it's thing not taking notice of me. They look great, the tall skinny black figure and those glowing purple eyes, they really do look great in the dark. But they're kind of pointless too. On the forums A LOT of people are bitching about the Endermen, because they break their buildings, honestly I was disappointed that they weren't more aggressive in that regard. Before I got off, it was night time and I decided that I'd get up on my roof and see if any Endermen would spawn so I could learn a little about them, watch them build. Just my luck, one of them spawned on a hill near my house. He picked up a dirt block and and... and just walked around aimlessly carrying it the whole time. Now I know that they have very limited AI, but I never saw him place it or pick up another block, he was a tall zombie with a block in his hand, that I better not look directly at. When day came the Endermen burst into flames just like the other undead, I decided that this was a good time to look at one of them. While on fire, he turned and looked at me, getting all smoked up and pissed off that I was looking at him, and just when I thought that I might shoot a charged arrow at him, he fell over dead. I really didn't want to fight him, I was just messing around to see how the mechanics worked so that I'd know in the future.
Speaking of charged arrows, I love charged arrows! I only had 3 arrows that I had found from a couple of random drops but there was a creeper outside my house that just wanted to blow me up. I decided that this was a good chance to test the new bow mechanic. I charged that puppy up and shot him right through my door, it was great the arrow stuck in the side of his head and the impact that it had sent him back a few blocks, it was very satisfying. The second shot, killed him, yes two shots kills a creeper, that is awesome! Swords will also do double damage if you jump and hit with them as well, useful for sure, but the bow is now OP in my opinion, but I like that too.
In my couple hours of play I did take some damage, no longer are you able to just eat and be healed, nope, healing is now over time. A LOT of people are complaining about that on the forums, after all it is the internet, but I like the way it works. The hunger bar doesn't deplete that fast, in fact I hardly noticed it until it got to about half way. When the bar is full, you heal over time, so taking a stray arrow or some light fall damage gets healed up automatically if you're full. For me this worked great, before if I were down a heart or two I'd just let it be, now those are healed up for me, fantastic.
And finally, the lighting. The new lighting system is amazing! The transition from day to night is so subtle that you don't even notice it if you're working in a lit area, and it looks great. Torches have a soft orange glow to them, the moon give everything a slight blueish hue, it all looks very nice. But I can't say enough about the day/night transition, it's phenomenal.
Overall I was very happy with 1.8, I never found a village or abandoned mine, but I'm sure I will. The new small features like the hunger bar and the strongholds are great additions in my opinion, the game now has a sort of purpose to it, we'll see if that holds up once I get going.