Fortnite comes close to standing out from the crowded online-shooter fray. Some video games let you hunker down with friends and shoot a zillion oncoming zombies. Other games let you build a giant, personalized fortress. What if a single game let you do both—and made the fort-building stuff a cinch? Fortnite includes a darned good synergy of those game ideas, backed by robust game mechanics, incredible art design, and a base-building system that really finds a good balance between simplicity and depth.
Fitting into a menagerie of genres — survival horror, base defense, and RPG included — Epic Games somehow found a way to successfully make them all work together in a game that takes a huge step away from the glum tones of Gears of War, instead favoring styles similar to Plants vs. Zombies or Borderlands.
The game begins with a ramp-up, tutorial-like series of about six missions. These introduce players to the game’s basic crux: land in a mission; find the key point on your mission’s procedurally generated map that needs to be protected. Build a combination of barriers, traps, and fort-like structures around that point to protect it; and turn on a cloud-destroying device. Doing that gets the husks’ attention, so you and up to three squad mates have to hunker down and fend off however many zombies come. Sometimes, you’ll get one long wave of husks; other times, you get a few short ones, between which your team gets about one minute to repair and fortify your base.
The thing Fortnite gets right is base building, which is boiled down to a few basic structure types: walls, floors, ramps, and roofs. It doesn’t take long to see the building potential of this system, which uses the Minecraft style of simple block-based shapes, then adds just enough nuance via pre-made objects like entryways, curved surfaces, and curling stairwells. Making a cool-looking and battle-functional building has never been easier in an online shooting game.
From there, you receive an arsenal of standard-issue online shooter weapons: shotguns, sniper rifles, machine guns, pistols, explosives, and a range of quick and slow melee weapons. When you’re in battle, the action on these weapons is nicely tuned, and each weapon class has evident power and visual punch. Enemies also react in delightful fashion, particularly with eye-bugging, color-filled headshot reactions that really sell your accurate gunfire.
The only issue with this game is it the ever elusive balancing of the free-to-play model that pervades every element of this game. Should you wish to unlock a high-level hero, for example, you have to earn and open a bunch of piñatas, at which point you can hope for one of a few things: that your dream hero appears or that you collect enough lesser gear to sacrifice to the game’s crafting system. Doing the latter will generate a random hero whose rarity and power potential is determined by how good the loot you sacrifice is. Will your dream hero, weapon, or trap pop out of this crafting exercise? Not bloody likely.
What’s more, every major element of the game (heroes, weapons, traps) can be leveled up, and doing this unlocks a variety of perks and abilities. You might think using these items would increase your level by way of XP. Nope. Instead, you have to collect XP cards, which can then be spent on your inventory however you see fit. You can gather this XP by completing objectives… but you’ll find more of it inside of piñatas.
Fortnite is kind enough to dole out a few weapons and traps to players by default. But weapons deteriorate over time, and every time you lay a trap down, you lose it forever. When you receive new weapons and traps via piñatas, you’re technically only getting their schematics. You need resources to generate new weapons, and it only takes a few days of standard play to realize that higher-level items require serious resources. One of Fortnite‘s worst design decisions is that players are forbidden from crafting weapons and traps—and blocked from determining their exact resource inventory, for the sake of knowing what they’ll need to scavenge—until they’re in the middle of a mission.
Resource fatigue plagues Fortnite. So many types of resources are required for different things you might want to do. Creating, crafting, or upgrading anything in the game requires different stuff at every step. What makes me angriest about Fortnite is the inability to recover and reuse traps. Traps become very expensive in terms of in-game resources, and while the interface to pick them out in a mission is clean enough, accidentally laying down a valuable trap is too easy. Once it’s down, that’s it. You may accidentally lay down a high-level “purple” trap in a totally pedestrian mission, and that’s just a kick in the pants.
Additionally, thanks to this resource-management issue, the actual active gameplay feels very solitary. You’ll spend a lot of time in missions scouring nooks and crannies in search of valuable materials, and this gold rush is silly to take on with squadmates at your side. Treasure chests, ore veins, and other valuable discoveries only pay off for one player (whoever “last hits” them). Thus, each mission starts with players silently going into their own corners of the map to gather loot and knock out the various pop-up objectives that appear, then coming back to a central point to build a base.
Once friends gather together to build a base, a game of chicken begins: who’s going to burn through precious materials to build or drop traps? Building the game’s basic walls is a little easier, thankfully, as these simply require the abundant wood, brick, and iron materials in the game’s worlds. But those sometimes-essential husk-busting traps require too many annoying-to-find materials.
Epic now has a serious problem on its hands. Which path do they take from here, with Fortnite in early access? Leave this game as-is and let Fortnite be forever identified as a case study of “free-to-play” gone horribly, horribly wrong? Or reset every element for the sake of saving the fun stuff from the economic garbage and thus punish every person currently playing the game (since this early access period requires paying at least $40 for a founder’s pack and doles out packs of the game’s piñatas, along with other microtransaction perks, in exchange)?
A great Fortnite could emerge in 2018. For now, it’s lose-lose for everyone who already bought in. Fortnite is now live on PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.