Fortnite, the long-awaited base-defender multiplayer game from Epic, is finally here – kind of. Fortnite is out on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and you can pick it up on Amazon on disc. I even spotted it at Target last night. But it's technically not out until next year. Right now, it's an early-access game. So what is Fortnite? Let's get into it.
The list of games Epic is known for is pretty short. And that's okay, because they've always been huge and, most importantly, excellent. Sitting atop that list for a long time has been Fortnite, a cooperative multiplayer game that has you and your friends facing off against an oncoming horde of somethings, building and defending a base in a post-apocalyptic world.
If it seems like you've known about Fortnite for a while, that's because it was revealed way back in 2011, when Cliff Bleszinski was still with the company. Since then, Epic has spent most of the time with its head down, working on the game and getting it ready for primetime. The game was announced when free-to-play games were just starting to blossom. As it enters early access six years later, in 2017, free-to-play games have flowered fully. It's a different world than it was back then.
I had a few minutes with the game at E3 this year, and talked to executive producer Zak Phelps about the game.
Build'em up, break'em down
Before we dive in, though, what is Fortnite? The basic story of the game is that meteors came crashing down on the world, creating storms that unearthed zombie-like creatures called husks. What's left of humanity after that the extinction-level event has to band together and survive the storms and husks alike.
The core loop in Fortnite is simple: Explore, Build, Defend. Epic founder Tim Sweeney once described the game as "Left 4 Dead meets Minecraft." The game drops you into a procedurally-generated world and tasks you with scavenging materials to craft weapons, build structures and traps, and then fight those enemies off. Different mission types emphasize different parts of that loop, but the main mission type is called "Fight the Storm," and that has you putting all three parts together.
Even though the game is prodcedurally generated, each player has their own persistent base, Phelps told me.
"The home base is persistent for everyone. So you go to your home base, build your outpost, your defense under the Storm Shield, and you can defend that over multiple play sessions," Phelps said. That's where the Minecraft element comes in, and Phelps has seen players build "everything from full-on pirate ships to… amusement parks where players have built different geometric structures, to entire Unreal Tournament levels built with the building pieces in Fortnite."
There aren't any moving pieces in Fortnite a la Redstone and switches in Minecraft, but Phelps "can say for sure this is something we've thought about, something we're incredibly excited about doing. On top of all the upcoming traps and trap iterations the team has planned, a mine cart and track are something the team is working on integrating into the toolset players have available. Right now it's a bespoke item you'll run into later in the game.
Can you survive alone?
One of my big concerns with a game like this is that my schedule often doesn't line up with that of my friends, and I don't really like playing with random people very much. I need to be able to enjoy the game on my own. Phelps says that's not a problem.
"You can play solo all the way through," Phelps said, in addition to random matchmaking and partying up with friends. With games like these, though, solo players are often left feeling like they only got part of the experience. Phelps thinks players should be able to get a full experience with the game even playing solo, at least for the most part.
One key thing they've added to allow solo players to thrive is defenders – AI characters that you can drop in your base for defense, equipping them with guns that you can level up through play. A solo player can have up to three defenders. Your party can be a maximum of four players, with any mix of human and computer-operated characters, so you're not making a decision between having a full and partial party if you don't want to.
Right now, the defenders are pretty straightforward. This is where the game's 'paid early access' status comes in.
"We don't think we have all the answers. we don't necessarily think– we know the game's not done. We want more. We're constantly looking at how we can improve those systems. Our first pass of [the defenders] has been to create something that is simple, that the rules are very clear for the player to understand," Phelps said. You'll be able to plop'em down, see what kind of range they have, and right now Phelps says they're quite accurate, so you're not going to be left doing the heavy lifting all on your own.
Early Access and Free-to-Play
The story with Fortnite is a bit of a weird one. The game is entering early access right now with a plan to go into "free to play" status in early to mid 2018. just as it sounds, you'd be paying now to access a game that will be free later.
There are a bunch of different editions, ranging from $39 for the most basic digital pack, all the way up to $149. The $60 Rare Starter Hero pack gives you eight rare heroes, four rare weapons, a rare trap, and an "exclusive founders pistol." Other packs have increasingly rare rewards accompanying them. If you pick the game up as a physical disc on console, it'll run you the standard $60.
Once the game goes live, though, it'll be free to play, and new players start from scratch. That means that, if you're patient, you don't have to spend a dime. Jump in now, though, and you could help shape the end product.
Epic is making an interesting gamble here. Even just reading chatter on places like GameStop and Amazon, there's some backlash about the game's impending free-to-play status and its always-online nature. Asking people to pay for a game that'll eventually be free is going to raise some gamers' ire, no matter how obvious the publisher makes the eventual change.
Phelps says the game's core loop is ready to go, and the RPG elements around it are fully "baked," and the team is ready to never reset the game again. As a free-to-play game, you'll be completing those missions, as well as things like daily missions and events, collecting in-game currency. There's only one currency for the game, which you can buy with real money or win through play. Phelps says that "pay to accelerate, not pay to win" was core to the team during development.
Through the in-game currency and the "pinata packs" you can earn through play (and buy with currency), you'll unlock weapons, items, and the game's 116 different heroes. The heroes are each different from each other in some minor way, split into classes like Soldier and given a set of three traits out of an available five for their class. Customization elements are coming in the future, but Phelps said that is something not heavily implemented right now.
But there's one more question.
Is it fun?
My time with it has been limited but what's there seems like a lot of fun. I picked up base building almost immediately, and found myself building pieces to my base even in the heat of combat. With a communicating team, you could easily have three people defending while one is shoring up the defenses. I can see tons of potential to build up a pretty respectable base, and then upgrade it as you level up your skill tree. There's potentially a lot of game here, and it's something I could see myself playing with friends long-term. The Fight the Storm mode takes about 25-to-30 minutes, Phelps told me, while the more focused missions will often be shorter. Moving around and shooting felt good from my experience, but I've only had a couple minutes with it. The cartoon-y art style is immediately enchanting, and reminds me a little bit of something like Sunset Overdrive, with its exaggerated features and colorful palette.
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