On July 25th of next week, Epic Games’ long-awaited Fortnite will enter early access on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. The term “long-awaited” is most fitting for describing; it was originally revealed in late 2011, only to disappear, re-appear, or stay quiet in the shadows randomly during the course of the next five-and-a-half years.
Post-E3, I’ve had the chance to spend some time with a pre-release build of Fortnite ahead of its early access launch, which actually isn’t the first time I’ve gotten hands-on with the joint project between Epic and developer People Can Fly. I’ve played it a couple times before now, at various points in its development, and the game’s journey over the years has been an interesting one. Now that it’s finally almost here, however, what can you expect if you decide to jump in and give it a shot come next week (or beyond)?
I’m sure at least a few people out there will tell you how much Fortnite reminds them of Minecraft—a comparison every game that offers the building of structures and scavenging of resources in order to do so gets saddled with. Really, though, Fornite is not at all like Mojang’s ridiculously popular open-world builder. Instead, it’s a third-person horde-type shooter that happens to have an extra layer added to it that makes construction just as important as destruction. Things start out simple—toss up four walls around a shield generator and make sure your zombie foes don’t break them down—but the deeper you get into the game, the more your crafting options expand. Fortnite is more about pre-crafted blueprints than building everything block-by-block, so things like stairs are laid down as one entire piece rather than step-by-step. Even so, there was a nice amount of customization in the early hours of the game that I played. For example, each wall can be broken down into nine segments—three by three—and erasing certain segments leaves you with various different structures. Remove the bottom and middle segments from the center column, and a door automatically appears; take off a few segments to form a triangle, and you can make slopes.
While I was only able to play a small chunk of the game for various reasons, the missions that I played usually centered around the central theme of having to protect a key area from incoming hordes. However, those battles don’t usually kick off until you’re ready for them to, so your first objective is to scour the nearby area for supplies, building materials, or survivors. These segments are at their worst, I think, when you’re out in the wilderness, as there’s not a whole lot of the game’s artistry being shown off beyond hills and trees. On the other hand, I really enjoyed exploring around on those missions that took place in a town, and it was really impressive to see the kinds of structures the team had built using the game’s own construction system. And, for whatever reason, I just get a kick out of destroying things and getting building materials for doing so. I’d often find myself kind of lost in that activity, not even worried about carrying out my actual purpose for being there for some time.
Once you set the main objective in motion, it’s time to see if the structure you’ve just built will be up to the test. In terms of the action, it’s not really surprising for a title to come out of Epic Games to have satisfying gunplay. At least on consoles, the controls may take a tiny bit of getting used to, and one third-person shooter can often feel much different from another. Once I got the hang of things however, the shooting was pretty satisfying, as were the selection of weapons that I tried out. The mix of zombies diversified quicker than I was expecting in the early going of Fortnite, and at times some of the designs almost reminded me of the undead you’d see in Plants vs. Zombies. Enemy A.I. could be a little simplistic at times, however, so I’m curious to see how deeper missions in the game work to boost the difficulty and make the hordes harder to manage.
There’s also something I found incredibly fun about Fornite’s building system, as the ease with which you can set down walls, floors, traps, or other pieces helps keep the repetition of that process from feeling boring or tedious. (It also helps when you need to make quick repairs in the middle of battle.) The problem is, for a lot of the missions I was able to play, my structures never ended up getting all that complex. At a certain point—and given the limits you have on how many of certain items you’re able to place—it often didn’t pay to be fancy. While there are a few locations that I’d have to go back to and defend again in later missions, many of my creations felt like “one and done” bases, so putting a huge amount of time and effort seemed like a waste much of the time. That’s something I hope indeed changes as players get deeper into the game, because I still remember that original reveal video for Fortnite that teased the characters expanding and defending a giant base of operations. I’m not expecting Fortnite to go full “community survival simulator” a la State of Decay or anything, but something along those lines would be nice—and it remains to be seen if the game’s “home base” idea will grow into that or not.
I walked away from my time with Fortnite with a much larger concern than that, however: what I felt was an unfortunate amount of bloat. To be fair, it’s hard to really have a solid handle on how much of the game as it stands now was always intended, and how much has been recent additions—but it’s also hard not to feel like there’s been a lot of unnecessarily elements added in the decision to change Fornite to a free-to-play release.
First up are schematics, which you need to obtain in order to know how to craft the game’s various weapons, traps, and potentially more. All of this makes sense—a game about building goes hand-in-hand with blueprints to teach you how to build those things, as does the idea of levelling up those creations with XP to make them more powerful, or have them provide more use as the game goes on. Heroes—the playable characters that you can choose from—also make perfect sense, as this is a hero-based game where different characters offer up different strong points or playstyles. As someone who still isn’t wholly sold on the whole free-to-play idea, though, having different rarity versions of the same character (that offer better stats) feels wrong in a game like this. Maybe it’s unfair of me to expect Fortnite to be different from other releases like MOBAs or whatnot, but in my mind, I’d rather have one version of each character that I can focus on levelling up, versus constantly being on the lookout to replace my favorites with better versions of themselves.
Then, you’ll have to collect Defenders, NPC characters that can be used to help you secure bases when human players aren’t around, and Survivors, characters that will give you stat bonuses when paired up with heroes—both of which also can be levelled up with XP. Added to that are four Skill Tree tiers, which can unlock the ability to use different kinds of Heroes, boost stats, or open up certain items, abilities and skills, as well as four Research tiers, which offers a separate set of unlockable abilities and bonuses. All of this, of course, is governed by progression-focused Resources, which can be won by completing missions or through purchasable loot llama pinatas.
I’m mixed on what this all means for Fortnite in the long run. Playing for the admittedly limited window of time I had as the game was being worked on for final release, I admit that I felt overwhelmed by everything offered up. While it might not all sound complex in concept, the screens and menus that are built into the game to manage all of the above can feel like too much too soon, especially as the game doesn’t really do a great job of explaining the finer details of it all as you play (at least in these days before launch). I think these are things that need to be introduced gradually, so that as you’re getting familiar with the game and starting to reach the point where you feel like you want something more, then they begin unlocking to increase the game’s depth. I’m not even specifically talking about opening up the options to let players use them; I mean showing them in the menus period. As is, new players may launch Fortnite and find everything that’s instantly presented to them maddening—not to mention giving the impression that the game is riddled with options requiring real-world money to be opened in a realistic amount of time. (Which, to be fair, could exactly be the case—I didn’t get far enough to really start to hit any major free-to-play walls.)
On the other hand, another game I was playing recently—Final Fantasy XII—could be accused just as legitimately for also having too much going on, and I loved the game for that very reason. Playing Fortnite years ago in one of its earlier forms, I expected something more arcade-y and not so encumbered by minute details. Yet, maybe the team at Epic Games found that that idea just didn’t last in the long run? Perhaps all of this bulk is exactly what the title needs to keep it interesting and fun once the initial thrill of building has passed. So, really, I’m not sure if my concerns will be justified in the end—and that’s something we might not have an answer to until months down the road.
Being completely honest, at this point, I’m almost more interested in Fortnite’s future than I am its present. How will the game be embraced in the long term? Will what’s currently present give players enough fun and depth to keep them around for months or even years, or will it have trouble establishing a strong player base? And, simply for myself personally, will what I played in these days before the game’s early-access release be a true representation for what awaits once I (and others) get deeper in? I’ve been curious about Fortnite for over five years now, and now I wonder what will await as that curiosity shifts from “what will be” to “what’s come to be.”
If you’d like more of a behind-the-scenes look at Fortnite, check out my interview with a few key members of the development team.