Fortnite is dense. That’s really the best word I can use to describe this game. Developed by the legendary studio People Can Fly and published by Epic Games, Fortnite is the latest in a recent line of multiplayer shooters trying to capitalize on the “Hero Shooter” sub-genre kicked off by Overwatch. Instead of being a subscription-based competitive FPS, however, Fortnite is taking a largely different approach as a cooperative PvE tower defense game, which will eventually go free-to-play on full release. With Gearbox’s Battleborn dead and all but buried, and Epic’s own Lawbreakers’ player base dwindling, Fortnite might be Epic’s last stab at getting a piece of the hero shooter pie.
Even in early access Fortnite is already a solid game. The problem is that it’s all over the place. Its base gameplay is already a three way split—co-op shooter, crafting survival, and tower defense—and the variety of systems and features branching out from each of these core elements only serve to make the game more difficult to get into. I will say that Fortnite makes a strong first impression. The premise is straightforward: the world has been enveloped in a purple storm that turns people into—what else—zombies. You play as a nameless survivor who stumbles into a safehouse populated by cute robots. The safehouse is on the brink of collapse, so the robots recruit you to be their commander, a coordinator who can organize the other human soldiers fighting to protect the safehouse.
I like the game’s tutorial robot character, Ray. Her bubbly enthusiasm, general cluelessness, and somewhat naïve but earnest can-do optimism give her a soccer mom personality that is hard to not find endearing. Her dialogue is a heck of a lot less annoying and isn't “trying too hard,” like Claptrap of Borderlands infamy. Ray is generally easier on the ears, which makes running through tutorials considerably less frustrating. And boy, are there a lot of tutorials. To begin, you command one of the game’s core heroes—big, flashy characters that represent the various classes and their attendant specializations and skills. You and up to three other players can control heroes and take on missions in the field.
Fortnite has a quest progression system of sorts. You start the game with an over-arching base that you will defend and upgrade periodically, and a cluster of branching missions that progressively move you farther out into the world map. These missions might sound like they have a lot of variety: launch a satellite, rescue a specialist, or gather vital supplies. However, they usually boil down to one gameplay loop: gather materials, find the defend point, build a fort, and defend the fort from hordes of zombies until time runs out. This is a surprisingly enjoyable and repeatable gameplay loop, especially if you have some friends along, and it emphasizes the game’s fairly intuitive resource gathering and crafting interface. Before too long I was quite comfortable and efficient at throwing up walls, laying traps, and fabricating enough guns and ammo to hold out until the end of a round.
This system does let you build pretty elaborate forts once you have a healthy stock of resources, but I’m not exactly sure why. Matches are relatively short, and once you complete an objective and the round is over, that meticulously crafted fort evaporates. Then it’s on to the next mission. Maybe I didn’t get far enough in the questline to really build out my main base—which is persistent—but Fornite seems to have an awfully robust building mechanic for a multiplayer game. I started to get suspicious when I saw the sheer amount of effort that when into the game’s multifarious upgrade trees, which is where the free-to-play emphasis began to rear its ugly head.
Put simply, Fortnite has an extensive and tedious focus on unlocks, perks and upgrades. Everything here can be leveled up with a variety of XP points, tokens and in-game (or real) currency. Your heroes can be leveled, given new skills and follow any number of paths through a winding upgrade tree. You can recruit and level up non-player survivors, but they only serve to buff certain skills and abilities for your hero characters, or to bolster general defense and firepower for structures and weapons. Guns can be built out with blueprints that increase their durability, damage and ammo count. This quantity of options goes far beyond anything like the leveling or prestige system that has infested shooters since Call of Duty 4 came out a decade ago. It’s extensive to the point of distraction, where I’m spending too much time between matches assigning points, building guns and rebalancing stats for everything.
Of course Fortnite will be free-to-play after it leaves early access (you can buy the game for a reduced flat fee right now) and there’s definitely a system in place for that. The game has a requisite loot box system, represented by talking llama piñatas, of all things, that you bash open for random goodies. Naturally you can grind for these llamas, receive them for special promotions like holidays, or just plunk down some real American dolla dollas. The problem is that I never felt inclined to do so; with the heroes, weapons, construction blueprints and skills I unlocked through normal gameplay, I was doing just fine. In fact, I wasn’t even breaking a sweat. I predict Fortnite is going to see some drastic nerfing and rebalancing in its first few months out of early access, because, at the moment, it’s pretty easy to play solo, and an absolute cakewalk with a half-competent team. There is very little incentive to spend extra money on it.
At this stage I’m not sure what to think about Fortnite. I like its personality, charm and art style; it doesn’t have the embarrassing, trying-too-hard affect of Battleborn or the cringey fan-fiction feeling I get from Overwatch. Its core gameplay is solid and fairly habit-forming, and none of its secondary gameplay systems feel broken or entirely out of place. The main concern I have is that a great deal of Fortnite feels superfluous. Overall the game lacks focus, with too many bells and whistles that distract from a foundation that really works quite well. For this reason I enjoyed my time with Fortnite and I’ll probably return to it as it nears final release. But it doesn’t have that indelible quality of truly great multiplayer shooter—the magic that makes me think, “Oh man I can’t wait to get off work so I can get home and play this.” Fortnite might get there, but for now it needs some fine-tuning.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
Sean Colleli has been gaming off and on since he was about two, although there have been considerable gaps in the time since. He cut his gaming teeth on the “one stick, one button” pad of the Atari 800, taking it to the pirates in Star Raiders before space shooter games were cool. Sean’s Doom addiction came around the same time as fourth grade, but scared him too much to become a serious player until at least sixth grade. It was then that GoldenEye 007 and the N64 swept him off his feet, and he’s been hardcore ever since.
Currently Sean enjoys a good shooter, but is far more interested in solid adventure titles like The Legend of Zelda or the beautiful Prince of Persia trilogy, and he holds the Metroid series as a personal favorite. Sean prefers deep, profound characters like Deus Ex’s JC Denton, or ones that break clichés like Samus Aran, over one dimensional heroes such as the vacuous Master Chief. Sean will game on any platform but he has a fondness for Nintendo, Sega and their franchises. He has also become a portable buff in recent years. Sean’s other hobbies include classic science fiction such as Asimov and P.K. Dick, and Sean regularly writes down his own fiction and aimless ramblings. He practices Aikido and has a BA in English from the Ohio State University. He is in his mid twenties. View Profile