Coming away from this year's E3, I had a hard time saying which trend appeared more frequently: Online cooperative play or open worlds. Both stand as frontrunners for the hot trend of 2014, and no game will be complete in 2014-15 without one or both bullet points on its marketing one-sheet.
Epic's Fortnite wasn't at the show this year, but it would have fit right in. The free-to-play adventure manages to combine both of gaming's hot trends into a single package that resembles a lot of other popular games without feeling wholly like repackaged ideas. There's a bit of Minecraft. some Left 4 Dead, a splash of Team Fortress 2, and an awful lot of DOTA; the overall effect, however, feels distinct from all those other titles, primarily because it revolves around teamwork in a way that sets it apart from its predecessors — yes, even Left 4 Dead.
Teamwork in Fortnite takes on a far more complex nature than the usual "here comes a bad guy wave, oops someone help, I need a heal" shouting of most co-op shooters. Certainly there's plenty of that to be found, but it only shows up as any given level's climax. Until an area becomes overrun with monsters (an event players trigger themselves as a deliberate choice), cooperation instead centers on the construction of a makeshift fortress, digging in behind man-made defenses to weather an onslaught of otherworldly creatures.
You can see the Minecraft influence at work in Fortnite's construction phase, as your team enters a given region (which could be a forest, an abandoned town, desolate industrial zones, or caverns) and immediately sets about gathering resources. The bulk of your collection consists of gathering three fundamental raw materials — wood, stone, and metal, each progressively more durable than the last — while digging up and gathering specialized materials open the door for sophisticated crafting. The raw materials are the most important, though, as they allow you to construct the bulk of the fort from nothing.
Each level — or the half-dozen I played, anyway — hinges on a simple premise: You need to push back an alien (or zombie?) invasion by locating and securing an artifact in each region of the massive game map. Unfortunately, the artifact functions as a sort of beacon, so the process of claiming it involves a brief period of vulnerability in which it draws the invaders through their dimensional portals or whatever in an attempt to destroy it and prevent you from reclaiming the area. In other words, it's much like a tower defense game, except that the "tower" is the hodge-podge assemblage of structures and traps you build up to protect the beacon during the enemy assault, and instead of just setting up turrets — which you can totally do! — you're running around gunning for the aliens while shoring up damaged patches of the fortress and laying down fresh traps in response to the enemy patterns.
So how is this not just Minecraft, you may ask? You run around gathering resources with a pickaxe, you build a structure to keep yourself (or more properly, your artifact) safe from marauders, you craft goods. Fortnite clearly began life as something much more derivative than its current form. The clue is right there in its name, which emphasizes the approach of darkness as much as it does the central mechanic of building defensive structures. The build I recently played at Epic's office still included announcements of the impending darkness; and yet, unlike in Minecraft, nightfall in story mode had no material impact on the basic game.
Because you trigger the enemy attack on your own schedule — there's literally no limit to how long you can build your structure before they arrive, save the finite resources in a given map — Fortnite has a very different pace from Minecraft. You're on your own schedule, not the world's. You're also greatly limited in just what, precisely, you can build. The prospects of crafting, say, an accurate scale replica of the U.S.S. Enterprise seem far less likely than in the wide-open world of Minecraft. Maps are smaller, contain fewer resources, and have a definitive objective in Fortnite.
These limitations make the game interesting. It's less of a sandbox and more of a structured genre adventure than other works in the bourgeoning field of Minecraft-alikes; while you and your teammates are welcome to wander around smashing up everything in sight and building whatever you like, at the end of the day you're ultimately responsible for preventing zombie hordes from overrunning the artifact. Everything builds up to the rush at the end of the stage, and whether you get to that point in a matter of seconds or dawdle for an hour is left to your team's discretion.
The process of building a proper fortress is no simple task, hence the need for cooperation. Construction works on an invisible grid to guide players, but that's really all the guidance you're given. You can lay down walls, floors, ceilings, stairs, add windows and doors, reinforce structural elements, enhance them with automated traps, and more. Your fortress can be as tall or wide as you like; an early mission forced my team to build upward to reach the goal. Ascending to the heights comes with certain risks, though; buildings can defy physics quite determinedly, but if enemies manage to destroy every panel on the ground, the entire thing will collapse. Roofs are essential but potentially vulnerable, too; certain enemies can launch smaller ones high into the air and will fling them atop your building, where they'll bash away at your exposed points.
Fortnite uses procedural generation to determine level layouts and object placement, and this can either work to your advantage or leave you reeling in dismay. In one case, our target spawned in the thick of an industrial complex amidst a tangle of machinery, adjacent to a short cliff. The cliff provided a natural back wall for our structure, but it also became a disadvantage when certain enemies found their way around back and began attacking by dropping onto our structure from behind. The machinery, on the other hand, was a complete mess, leaving all sorts of exposed openings. We had no choice but to thoroughly dismantle most of the existing structure in order to prevent leaving accidental openings; once monsters figure out a way in, the entire swarm heads that way.
This is where teamwork and communication most come into play. You can bumble through the enemy rush phase by running around and shooting things if you like, but without a properly coordinated fort even the best action team will find themselves overwhelmed by the zombie hordes in short order. Raising a defensive structure from essentially nothing proves to be a surprisingly complex task. Sure, you can erect a clumsy, ramshackle mess by slapping walls wherever they fall, but to establish something capable of weathering the alien zombie masses that make a beeline for your objective and batter your defenses with a combination of brawn and artificially intelligent cunning? That requires a more concerted approach.
Fortnite's limited class system allows players to specialize for different phases of the game. Commandos and ninja perform effectively in battle — ninja are especially great thanks to their ability to double-jump up to rooftops that other players can't reach — but the real star of the game comes in the constructor class, who serves a vital role in both the building and combat phases of a map. Constructors move slowly, but their unlockable perks make them extraordinary scavengers. They're the only class capable of reinforcing a structural element twice (other classes can only perform a single upgrade) by applying additional raw materials to a wall or ceiling. They can create trap zones inside the fort to damage enemies that come too close to the delicate artifact in the center. And they can unlock numerous perks to speed up their ability to repair or reinforce the fort in the heat of battle, making them an essential recruit to man (or woman — all classes will have both male and female skins) the fort during the zombie attack.
The other classes are by no means slouches, of course. Ninja excel at close-quarters fighting and can take the fight to knots of enemies that slip past the fort's outer defenses. Commandos, on the other hand, are champions for crowd management and pushing back the ravening hordes with ranged and area-of-effect attacks.
Still, the constructor feels most unique to Fortnite — and most capable in turn of emphasizing what's unique about the game — thanks to the way the class straddles both the building and combat aspects of the game. Unlike many support classes, constructors don't enhance the performance or well-being of other players so much as shoring up and improving the fort. They're especially valuable in player-versus-player, the one aspect of that mode that feels distinct from countless other team-based combat games. PvP feels very much like a throwback to Epic's original vision for Fortnite (the nightfall warnings actually do matter in that phase of the game, since darkness automatically triggers a seemingly endless onslaught of zombies), but the efficacy of constructors in keeping both human and AI enemies away from the team's fort helps make even the less uniquely defined PvP sequences a different creature from other shooters.
Love it or hate it, cooperative play is the in thing right now. Fortnite puts an interesting spin on the concept, turning it into something more than simply coordinating with your teammates to figure out how to kill some other people more effectively. It neatly balances constructive creativity and twitch-reflex panic to stand apart even as the rest of the industry rushes in to occupy the space Epic has been carving out for itself over the past few years. And yeah, you can show off your forts to other players. Be sure to drop me a line if you figure out how to get that full-scale replica of the U.S.S. Enterprise working.