Fortnite: Epic Games' Survival Title Keeps Building On Itself As You Play

Fortnite: Epic Games' Survival Title Keeps Building On Itself As You Play

There's not much quite like it, meaning you have a lot to learn if you want to play it.

Fortnite is a strange Frankenstein of a game that nonetheless turns out as an enjoyable time-waster. Announced way back in December 2011, the game essentially went into deep stasis, only to pop up sometime in 2014. Now it's 2017 and Epic Games are ready to finally show off everything Fortnite can do.

It's tough to really explain what Fortnite really is and I think that shows in the game itself, given that the tutorial phase extends far past a few levels. A few levels and hours in, Fortnite was still peeling layers off of the game's systems, unlocking features like new hero and enemy types, squads, squad bonuses, defenders, and more. There's a lot to parse in Fortnite and it's a game you really need to give your time and energy to if you want to understand it.

At the core level, what you have is sort of a mix between Team Fortress and Minecraft. No, that doesn't quite track. Most missions in Fortnite can be whittled down to the same idea: destroy everything in sight for materials; build some solid defenses; activate the objective, causing a horde of zombies to rush your fortified position; and fight them off with a combination of weapons, traps, and defenders.

It's easy to say "Minecraft", but the game isn't quite the same. For one, building is far more complex. Instead of simple blocks that you lay in various configurations, the build queue in Fortnite offers another layered system. You open the queue and there are five build types - floors, walls, ramps, corners, and traps - accessible through the F1 to F5 keys. These items can be built on discrete squares of the landscape at the click of a mouse button. Easy, right?

But you can also rotate those items. With another button press you can switch between different build materials: wood, stone, and metal. Higher materials are more rare, given the ample wooden areas in the game, but their structures last longer. Entering edit mode by tapping G, you can turn on and off bits of a planned structure. Say you only need a wall one block high? Select the wall and enter edit mode to see a 3x3 grid of the wall structure. Click the top six blocks to turn them off and then leave edit mode, allowing you to build you new squat wall. To build a door, you click the middle block and the one below it: the game will automatically assume you want a door in that wall.

It's a lot to take in. I admit that Fortnite has a fairly high learning curve to it, but I found that once you understood the system, it actually becomes fairly easy to build complex structures. There's nothing quite like this game's building system in my recently memory, and I've played a number of survival games like Minecraft, Terraria, and Astroneer. Part of those early hours is Fortnite giving you a chance to familiarize yourself with the controls.

Once you have a structure, you can add traps to it. Traps are the last part of the build queue and each trap goes on a specific piece of the building: floors, walls or ceilings. Walls that shoot arrows, spiked floors, ceilings that shock zombies that walk under them. Traps aren't just offensive though, you can have boost pads to jump to higher areas, floors that can spawn AI defenders, or healing sections of your base.

Everything costs resources. These resources are the basic wood, stone, and metal, alongside a host of random smaller material which feed into trap creation and weapon crafting. In any level, the building and exploration phase is also where you need to collect resources. You head out with your hefty pickaxe, destroying trees, fences, houses, and cars in order to collect what you need to defend yourself. Epic Games eventually adds an excellent pickaxe mechanic, wherein you attack a moving point in order to deal extra damage to a structure. As you hit subsequent points, there's a sing-song tone that plays in ascending order. Once you grok it, it feels great to bash a car into pieces in a few quick hits instead of ten or more.

It's here that Fortnite also needs a bit of tuning, because the material collection phase feels a bit longer than it should be. In fact, you have to do a a significant amount of collection in order to build traps. It sometimes feels like you're doing a ton of work just to build a simple spiked floor, something that I think Epic Games needs to take a look at. At some point, I started beelining towards mechanical things to destroy to get the valuable nuts and bolts I needed for my traps.

You also need the resources to build better weapons and ammo. Ammo is a fairly constant need and you can craft on the fly during the defense phase of a mission if you need to, but it's best to have a stockpile of ammo so you can focus on the fight. There's different ammo for different weapons, so it's matter of knowing what you (or your AI defenders) need ahead of time.

Once the defense phase is active, zombies of all shapes and sizes will rush your main objective. Prior to this, the game will offer you a vague idea of which direction the zombie horde will come from to focus your build efforts. You'll start with basic husks; relatively weak creatures that rush forward and die. Then there are smashers, which are larger wall-destroying husks you need to focus-fire. Flingers are baseball-themed husks that throw glowing bones at you from afar. Screamers lob volleys of burning skulls at your structures, softening them up for the rank-and-file.

As you get deeper into Fortnite, the various enemies offer more challenges. My colleagues received additional items to boost them ahead of the curve and get into the deeper parts of the game quicker, but I played through as intended from the beginning. (Apparently, I had been in the Alpha this whole time.) Defense phases start easy, but later ones have you bouncing around your defenses, softening up basic husks, taking down stronger enemies, and repairing or rebuilding any sections of your defenses that are taking a pounding. When you're in a pitched firefight and it looks like you might be overwhelmed, this is when Fortnite is at its best.

In fact, in defense mode, Fortnite reminds me a lot of Sunset Overdrive's multiplayer Night Defense mode, with up to four players bouncing around, dropping traps, and repairing defenses. Or maybe it's like Orcs Must Die, but with building. Again, hard to classify.

There's another strategic element to building defenses though. You have a persistent base level that slowly grows over the course of the game. The resources you find in missions also feed into this persistent base. This means you want to use the collection and exploration phase of each mission to gather the parts and materials needed for the current mission, while also minimizing trap and structure building so you have more resources for the main event. Some missions even have minimizing your mission build as a side objective.

As I said before, in between missions outside of your base and base-expanding missions, there's whole other layers to the game. Fortnite is free-to-play and you draw more heroes, defenders, survivors, and experience chips from mission chests and llamas. Mission chests scale upwards depending on how well you did in a level. Llamas are pinatas rewarded to you for completing quests or purchased directly through the in-game store. Both have multiple levels, with better versions offering more stuff.

Heroes are the primary draw and fall into different classes. There's your basic Commando, who has a bonus in damage above most classes. There's the Constructor, which has the slowest movement speed of any class, but is faster at building and repairing. The Outlander is all about exploration, foraging farther afield to gather materials for the team. Finally, there is the Ninja, which is focused on melee combat, heading outside of base to clear out groups of enemies. The various hero cards drop at random, in male and female versions. Outlanders and Ninjas also have to be unlocked via the skill tree.

Skill tree! See? Another layer deeper! As you level and complete missions, you'll gain skill points to unlock improved abilities and all-new features, like defenders, survivors, and the aforementioned extra heroes. Once you unlock the research queue, you'll also accrue research points at a steady rate, which you can then spend on other improvements like more health, better offense, or speedier building across all your heroes.

Experience chips are used to level up your heroes, unlocking class-specific abilities, or improve your weapon and trap schematics, increasing damage, reload time, or other stats. You'll want to seek out schematics with multiple stars though: a one-star sword schematic is stuck at a fixed level, while a three-star sword schematic can be upgraded twice. The star system also extends to survivors, who are non-hero cards that can be assigned to squads to improve your persistent base stats, help you defend in missions, or even go hunt for resources. Squads can be assigned to a heroes to boost them and survivors have traits, meaning they work well with other survivors who share those traits.

And on, and on, and on. Fortnite feels like it keeps going forever. I have no clue what the endgame looks like or what you do once you get there. Perhaps you keep leveling. This is a deep game that's doing its own thing. While the early levels are all about teaching you how you play, later levels are about adding more mechanics and ideas on top of what you already know. It's about improving your weapons, resources, and schematics. I never felt like I hit bottom.

Despite all that, I found myself enjoying Fortnite's unique offering. There's nothing quite like it on the market today, and once your get everything down, you'll become a base-building, gun-toting whirlwind. And it's even better once you find a good solid team, with everyone wandering the world, getting the resources to use on your current shared objective. It can become easy at times if everyone has overwhelming firepower, but the run up to that, with everyone building a structure and laying traps together, or simply collecting materials? That's a real kicker. I like it.

I don't know if Fortnite is for everyone. I don't know if it hooks me enough to stick with it forever. Epic Games still needs to tweak some values and maybe offer up more ways to collect heroes. But I am liking it now. I love wandering the world, smashing it to bits, and whistling while I work. I love building a ramshackle base on the fly and using it to punish zombies. Epic Games has built a Frankenstein in Fortnite, but it's not an ugly monster.

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Mike Williams

Reviews Editor

M.H. Williams is new to the journalism game, but he's been a gamer since the NES first graced American shores. Third-person action-adventure games are his personal poison: Uncharted, Infamous, and Assassin's Creed just to name a few. If you see him around a convention, he's not hard to spot: Black guy, glasses, and a tie.

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