Fortnite: Battle Royale is exactly what it sounds like. A PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds-like, copied and pasted into the Fortnite universe. 100 players, all against one another. They loot. They shoot. They kill. Since it's Fortnite, sometimes they build things too. In fact, it would be better if they did more of the latter.
The free mode is being explicitly billed as an alternative option to the game millions upon millions of people already own on Steam Early Access—much to the chagrin of Battlegrounds' developers Bluehole Inc.—but what it isn't taking into account is its strongest asset, something that Battlegrounds can't quite beat. It's available for free on consoles now.
Fortnite's Battle Royale mode is a free standalone title. It's playable now on PlayStation 4, PC, and Xbox One too. The mode is very no frills; you login to your Epic Games account (if you wish), you enter matchmaking with your run-of-the-mill generic white dude character in the line-up (you're not stuck with him though; when you spawn in, you take the identity of a random character). New to the standalone release is the Battle Royale mode now offers squads, so players can squad up in teams of four to take on foes.
I played a few rounds of Fortnite's Battle Royale on PlayStation 4. The most novel thing about it was that here I was competing for my life against 90-something others on PlayStation 4, a console that has not yet been confirmed to even be getting Battlegrounds, due to Microsoft's current exclusivity. Instead, I found a lesser experience than I'd find in Battlegrounds. I found a framework that never seemed to quite fit for Fortnite, nor lean on the core game's strengths: in building things.
Due to my time with Fortnite months ago during the beta, I relied on what I knew best from the game: gathering wood and constructing things. During my second round of Fortnite's Battle Royale (my first round ended with a pickaxe to the skull), I crept into a decrepit house near the center of the circle (and yes, there is an ever-closing circle much like Battlegrounds, only here the wave of blue is called "the storm," akin to the zombie-creating storms of Fortnite itself). I found a room, got some ammo and a shotgun, and carefully constructed walls all around me. One already-existing wall was partially crumbling, so I figured that would be my spot to keep a lookout.
My strategy worked well. Or at least, it kept me alive until the top 15 in that round. Then I had to move, and that's where things went haywire.
Shooting is the weakest part of Fortnite. It's soft and imprecise whereas Battlegrounds works to make you an accidental gun expert. (Gimme that SKAR, baby.) Stealth is nonexistent, with crouching as far as you can go, and sound being nowhere near as integral to the game design as it is in other Battle Royale-likes. In Fortnite's PvE mode proper, the game is about building up your fortress with walls, traps, and other surprises to catch enemies (a.k.a. zombies) off guard. The guns you use to combat zombies are the least of your worries; if anything, your goal is to make zombies fodder for something akin to a shooting gallery where they're trapped in place, because when they overwhelm your base, they really overwhelm you. In Fortnite: Battle Royale, the strategies of traps, building, and more are nearly completely nullified.
Fortnite: Battle Royale's biggest problem is that it hardly feels like Fortnite. It's a mode lifted from games better designed for it, from the familiar Battlegrounds to Brendan "PlayerUnknown" Greene's other Battle Royale-centric projects. Fortnite's Battle Royale, instead of leaning on what the game beyond it does best, retrofits another game model over it, and it clearly doesn't work.
There were moments of potential greatness during my time with Fortnite: Battle Royale. For instance, my spontaneous wall building proved itself as a solid hideout. Later in another match after I had died, I spectated on someone who built themselves stairs alongside a cliff to get a better vantage point. It ended up being a bad strategy after an opponent shot the stairs from beneath their feet, causing the player to plummet downwards as they were shot to death. Building, and making the best of a situation with the tools you carry, is where Fortnite shines. It's where it works best in its PvE modes, and making that leap to PvP seems worthy to the property it shares a name with.
And yet, seeing cases of clever, on-the-fly construction were far and few in-between. In theory, a mass-PvP mode of this scale could work fairly well within the confines of Fortnite. With a bigger map and maybe a smaller player pool that is closer to 50 than 100 players, Fortnite: Battle Royale has the potential to feel singular, not like it's curbing on a trend paved by the developers who created the subgenre themselves. Unfortunately, with a weak emphasis on gunplay, lack of stealth, and a small map, Fortnite: Battle Royale amounts to a mild curiosity, a taste of something you sense has immense potential.
Even then, it still has something huge that Battlegrounds doesn't have: wide accessibility. As of now, the standalone mode is available as a free-to-play standalone game on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC (along with none of the microtransaction bullshit seen in other free-to-play titles). Battlegrounds, even now, remains only on PC, and is eventually only venturing to Xbox One (at least for now).
Maybe it's weird to say PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds has a "soul" or a sense of authorship, but somehow, it does. It reminds me during a panel at this year's E3, where Brendan Greene found himself sitting side-by-side among other independent developers, some with profound reasons for making games. For Greene, he just liked a movie and wanted to replicate it in game form. As simple as that. That's where the sense of authorship comes into Battlegrounds, a game with a backbone aching with anxiety (like the fiction that inspired it). The pitter patter of footsteps, the conspiciousness of open doors; they all feed into the intense experience of Battlegrounds.
In Fortnite: Battle Royale, there is none of that. By stripping the stealth, and not even replacing it with an emphasis on something different like building, the mode instead feels like a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes Battlegrounds itself so monumental.
As we've predicted in the past, this won't be the last we see of Battlegrounds clones. With the existence of Fortnite's direct take, and Grand Theft Auto Online's almost Mad Max-like envisioning of the model, it'll be interesting to see additional copies of the formula that pop up. Will some bring forth a more colorful aesthetic? Will they introduce something new to spice up the formula, as Fortnite sorta has inherently with its building-focused mechanics? I suppose we'll wait and see. The times are a-changin', and it sure is Battle Royale season.
Edit: Story above previously stated Brendan Greene and Bluehole made a comment against Fortnite: Battle Royale, when only Bluehole as an entity issued a comment. The story has been edited to reflect this.