The long-gestating crafting game has evolved, and it’s finally about to release.
By Leif Johnson
The end of the world is at hand in the free-to-play survival game Fortnite, or least it is whenever I want it to be. For now, I’m content to let it wait. I’ve spent the last hour hacking at rocks, trees, and the occasional file cabinet with a pickaxe, because right now I’m more interested in building a building-sized replica of a Minecraft creeper than staving off the apocalypse. It’s not entirely for show; I’ve also reinforced the bottom walls with wall-darts, spike traps, and gizmos on ceilings that zap anything that walks beneath. You see, all I need to do is press a button to make a horde of zombies rush my creeper, and for around five minutes they’ll try to smash down its walls and destroy the storm shield keeping our little compound safe from within.
And that’s the long-awaited Fortnite, which is — well, it’s a little bit of everything. It’s a generally satisfying digital cocktail mixing some do the best elements of Minecraft, survival games a la DayZ, the first-person tower-defense fun of Orcs Must Die 2, and heck, even Epic’s own Horde mode from Gears of War. It kinda feels like it was designed to be the game kids weaned on Minecraft should move on once they want to tackle more sinister menaces than creepers. I like it for that.
Above: Fortnite’s latest trailer (June 2017).
Fortnite is a bit of a relic, even if it now enjoys some polish and tweaks and now has modernities like loot boxes tacked on to the experience we saw years ago.
But that also means it feels trapped in time. Even the zombies feel slightly passé. Announced in 2011 and offered for previews in 2014 and 2015, Fortnite is a bit of a relic, even if it now enjoys some polish and tweaks and now has modernities like loot boxes tacked on to the experience we saw years ago. It won’t even properly be out until some nebulous date in 2018, although you’ll soon be able to slap down $39.99 to play a beta on PC, PlayStation 4, or Mac at the end of July.
Building fortifications, however outlandishly you wish, is the core of Fortnite. Sure, every side activity builds up to the Horde sequences where you blast away zombies with everything from katanas to AR-15s, but those are always quick moments. It’s the big, quick race after the long, arduous training sessions at the gym. The business of resource gathering isn’t even that appealing—just thwack, thwack, thwack again and again—although developer Epic Games wisely injects some variety by sprinkling random events into its procedurally generated maps. Sometimes you’ll just need to find someone calling for help (relying solely on sound cues rather than helpful map markers). Sometimes you’ll need to save some dude who’s on top of his car while a zombie mosh pit paws at his sneakers. But then it’s back to the thwacking, especially since schematics like floor spikes require rare components that don’t always drop from every node. I sometimes found myself thinking Fortnite gets its name because it seems like it takes a fortnight to prepare.
Above: Fortnite in 2015.
The moment of truth means more because the building you’re defending is something everyone had a hand in creating. This is where Fortnite shines.
But if you’re playing Fortnite alone, you’re technically playing it wrong. (It’s possible, though.) Fortnite’s cooperative mode allows it to thrive, and when you’ve brought along a couple of friends or random players for your defensive squad, those moments grubbing for rocks become excellent bonding opportunities. You can chat about defense strategies, what traps or fortifications need to be built next, or you can chat about Ed Sheeran’s tattoos. Whatever. When it comes time to press the button and trigger the zombies, the moment of truth means more because the building you’re defending is something everyone had a hand in creating. This is where Fortnite shines. I especially liked that the business of building felt comfortable regardless of whether I was using a gamepad or mouse and keyboard, and how Fortnite allows for little specifics such as stairs, half-walls or doors I could carve out from by deselecting parts of a grid before construction commenced.
And then, of course, there’s the combat, which plays about as much as you’d expect and with the fluidity you’re expect from a seasoned shooter developer like Epic, but with disappointing enemy animations in which everything from bullets to sword slices seemingly gets shrugged off with a wince at best. It’s fun to smartly lay down roads of traps and watch the zombies shamble into to them.
Above: Fortnite’s debut trailer from 2011.
It’s thus a lot like it was in 2015: a future rooted in the increasingly distant past.
I do adore its silliness. Fortnite could have been much darker, especially with its tale of a purple storm wrapping the earth almost as tightly as chocolate on a bonbon. It’s a lighthearted apocalypse, stuffed with cartoony buildings and characters painted with colors that shine as brightly as those in Sunset Overdrive, even though this storm spits out zombies like a regular squall might spit out rain. It’s a future where baseball must be much more popular than it is now, as I’m constantly charged by zombies in baseball uniforms who toss purple bones at me. It’s a future where rocket-scientists named Lars ascend into the heavens in spray-painted vans fitted with a hot-air balloon. It’s a future that’s distant enough that perky robot assistants comment on our every move, offering quips like, “You’re a talented builder, like Frank Lloyd Wright, or Bob.”
It’s thus a lot like it was in 2015: a future rooted in the increasingly distant past. Then as now, its mishmash of genres sometimes feels a little bloated, especially now that Epic has tossed things like purchasable loot boxes, loot piñatas, collectible cards, assigning NPC defenders, and a sprawling RPG-like skill tree into the already dangerously overwhelming mix. Worse, I got the impression that I couldn’t unlock some of the better traps without purchasing some of the loot boxes. And that may be the most annoying aspect of Fortnite of all—that its most modern feature is also its most egregious. Sorry, Minecraft kids, this is the future we’ve made. At least we haven’t destroyed the planet with a purple zombie cloud. Yet, anyway.
Leif Johnson is a contributing editor to IGN who writes about video games from a remote ranch in South Texas. You can chat him up on Twitter at @leifjohnson.