Can we fix it?
Even though it was first announced six years ago, there’s a good chance that this is the first you’re hearing of Fortnite, Epic Games’ internal-game-jam-darling-turned-free-to-play-build-em-up. Which is a shame, because having played through much of what the game’s Early Access build has to offer (we got code for free, for the sake of disclosure) it’s shaping up to be something really quite good.
Of course, at a price ranging from $39.99 to $149.99 depending on which package you’d buy, you’d be right to think twice before laying down your cold hard cash for something that’s still in Early Access. And when you hear the game has microtransactions, you’d be right to feel doubly concerned. And that’s before – you know what, I’m getting ahead of myself. There’s a lot to love in Fortnite. Let’s start there.
Fortnite is a game that will be unlike anything you’ve ever played, unless you’ve played Orcs Must Die. The premise is a neat twist on and old classic – massive electric storms (collectively referred to as “The Storm”) have wiped out almost all life on Earth and are spawning zombie-like creatures in endless hordes for reasons nobody seems even slightly interested in figuring out. You play as…well, yourself, presumably – a random citizen of Earth who gets found by a group of malfunctioning robots and gets automatically promoted to leader of the survivors, largely because there’s no one else available. It’s a nice change from the industry’s endless deluge of Chosen One stories, and the opening cutscene establishes something important up front: despite the grim setting, Fortnite has absolutely no interest in taking itself seriously. For me, that was a big part of the game’s appeal – I found myself laughing at loud at a few of the dialogue lines, although your mileage may vary depending on how tired you are of the “helper character who’s actually completely incompetent trope.” I think it works here, in large part because Ray – the aforementioned helper and half-crazed robot companion – is voiced to perfection by Ashley Burch, who Epic Games has kindly deigned to pay a living wage (cough, cough, Square Enix.)
The actual gameplay is a mix of third-person shooting and base building. Each level plays out the same way. First, you arrive at the mission location, a vaguely Pacific-Northwest-y area with lots of pretty pine trees and, more likely than not, a Purple Storm O’ Doom brewing in the background. Ray will then direct you toward your mission objective, which you will completely ignore in favor of breaking up all the rocks, trees, cars, and anything else that isn’t nailed down for scrap and spare parts. The levels reward exploration nicely here – not only are there valuable materials to be found, but there’s often a loot crate stuck somewhere for only the most dedicated of players to hunt down and open.
After awhile, someone – probably me – will get tired of this and activate whatever the MacGuffin Machine du jour is – a flying machine, a cloud-splitting gun, a van, etc. Your job is to protect this device for a specified period of time while it charges up to do whatever it’s supposed to do through a mixture of third-person shooting and base building. Both are good – though initially you’ll be horrified at the amount of keyboard keys required to construct a basic fort (supposedly this game is playable on Xbox One and PS4, but I can’t imagine how that would work), it all becomes very intuitive very fast, and there’s a fun array of traps, stairs, walls, etc. on offer. What’s more, each piece is ridiculously customizable – you can build walls in L shapes to give yourself a space to shoot through, or build low walls for cover-based shooting, or just about any shape and size of wall you can think of. We once had a sniper who built just stairs connected to other stairs, resulting in a gravity and physics-defying pillar from which she could rain down death on unsuspecting foes. It looked like something out of Pathologic, and that’s awesome.
The shooting is a lot of fun, too. There’s not a ton of options available regarding movement or skillshots, but there’s lots of different classes with interesting abilities, and combat is visceral enough to be entertaining. There’s a good variety of weapons, too, from rocket launchers to katanas, so you can very much pick your playstyle. Unsurprisingly, my weapon of choice was the double-barrelled shotgun, and I built my hero to get up close and personal with the writhing hordes of evil.
Ammo is crafted from materials, too, which adds a fun extra level of strategizing to gameplay. Even if you’ve been playing with a group of friends who’s figured out all the best forts and weapon loadouts, you’re not always going to be able to put those plans in place unless you happen to have been dropped in a level with the exact gear you need. For example: I had to set aside my trusty double-barreled shotgun for a few levels while I scrounged up the parts to build shells, which meant that I had to try out some of the other weapons. It’s a good way to force variety, unlike the aforementioned Orcs Must Die, which always inevitably devolved into building the perfect trap layout a couple seconds faster than you did last time.
And that’s variety Fortnite desperately needs, because in its current Early Access state, there’s not too much going on here. In fact, some players have reported that past the 50-hour mark the game is essentially unplayable unless you’re willing to drop some hard-earned real-world cash on loot llamas (which shouldn’t be in a $40 game in the first place.) The progression system in general is messy – I found it hard to keep track of the differences between all the V bucks, skill points, research points, PizzPoints, and every other type of point you can think of, not to mention the deeper intricacies of the out-of-game crafting system and the terrible squad management. Personally, I still found the game engaging on its own merits as a tower defense game slash shooter – but then, I love these kinds of games, and I’m always excited to see a new entry into the genre. I honestly can’t say I would’ve been quite so gung-ho if I’d actually had to pay for the product.
If the game was free, I’d be urging everyone I knew to pick it up and play it. If it were $20 or less, I’d probably feel the same. But in its current state, I’m just not sure the game’s worth the $40 to $150 Epic Games expects you to fork over for the thing. And that’s a shame, because it really is good – brimming with charm and a level of polish and imagination we don’t normally associate with Epic. I know I personally will be playing it for weeks to come and keeping an eagle eye out for any new updates. And if the developers continue to support the game with new content – and early reports are promising in that regard – Fortnite will be something you won’t want to miss when it comes out in 2018.