Representations of the zombie apocalypse are rarely a light-hearted affair. Fortnite, by Epic Games, is much closer to Plants vs. Zombies than it is to the gloomy and hopeless world of The Walking Dead. But, don’t let the bright colors, cheerful heroes, and surprisingly adorable enemies fool you. Fortnite is a complex building/action title that presents dedicated players with enough depth to keep you coming back for more, with a core building mechanic simple enough to pick up quickly and enjoy thoroughly.
Fortnite takes place after a catastrophic event causes the majority of the human race to vanish. Massive storms now cover the earth. The lightning summons monsters, called “husks,” from the soil. These enemies, as one might expect, come with ill intentions towards you and your fellow survivors, along with an unstoppable need to destroy anything in their path. Thankfully, Fortnite provides you and your team with everything you need to build up defenses against the coming hordes, and it is this element of the game that makes the sometimes mundane missions and the complexity of the between missions menus worthwhile.
The tutorial section of the game quickly introduces players to their trusty pickaxe. You can use it to gather materials such as stone, wood, and metal. Each material has a different level of durability. When scouring environments for materials, the pickaxe can harvest trees, cars, and even entire structures. Cars and other machines will also give the player nuts and bolts, which are used for crafting traps that can be placed on the floors, ceilings, or walls of your fort. Smaller flora and various types of containers scattered around the environment can be searched for crafting materials and sometimes, even bullets.
Something I discovered early on in my play through is you can use the pickaxe to break through ceilings or floors of certain buildings, revealing hidden treasures. In other words, explore everything and, unless your mission is timed, resource grinding will give you more materials to work with at the onset when you build your first fort at your home base. Of course, you won’t need to build an elaborate fort from the get-go. The learning curve is slow at first, and fending off the husks will seem like short work compared to learning the menus used for leveling up, upgrading, and building squads.
After becoming acquainted with your pickaxe, the game thrusts you into the building mechanic, which aside from an unusual use of the triangle button on the PS4 (the console we used on this preview), is fairly simple. You tap the circle button to open build mode, then choose what you would like to build: walls, floors, stairs, turret tops (a pyramid-like structure for capping turrets), or traps. You use the triangle button to select the type of structure, something I had to get use to. The shoulder buttons are used for choosing the type of material: wood, brick or metal. You then see a hologram of the structure floating in front of you and can easily place the wall, stairs, floor, turret topper, or trap where you want it. You press R2 to start the building process and watch your materials float into place.
Structures snap into place easily, ensuring that building a fort with limited time, as you will need to do on missions, is fast work for you and your team. You can edit walls, floors, and ceiling sections by looking at the structure and holding down circle. This will allow you to create doors and windows easily. Due to the ease of constructing make-shift forts, I found working with people who I had simply been dropped into a mission with was a breeze.
You will have a home base where you will build an increasingly complex fort around what is called a “storm shield.” The name is fairly self-explanatory, but it keeps the storms, and baddies, at bay. After several missions you will be sent back to your fort to take on more waves of husks, requiring a more elaborate defense structure. Be careful not to overdo it too soon, though. Unlike building structures, traps must be crafted and therefore are easy to run out of early on. That is why it is important to try to keep your base at a manageable size at first. I made the mistake of being a bit too overzealous on only my second trip back to my base, and I was then stuck with no more traps. I had to start resource grinding again just to get me back to where I needed to be to fulfill future missions.
The missions themselves are fun, but can become a bit redundant. On the positive side, the fact mission maps are randomly generated helps make each mission feel more unique. Levels look well developed and do not appear random, except for a small level of repeatability you will see if you play long enough. Missions are straightforward: mine resources, rescue survivors, and most of the time you will also be asked to defend something (a weather balloon, a small storm shield, etc.). Even though this can get repetitive, I found the thrill of the fight and the urgency of having to build a defense on the fly remained enjoyable. You can play with strangers, or you can play with friends simply by changing your settings. You can also play solo if you want, though co-op tends to be much more fun, unless you find yourself with someone who is more interested in mining resources than helping defend the fort (and you know who you are).
Thankfully, mining resources gets much easier over time. You will unlock “Squads” several hours into the game. You can create an Expedition Squad that will go out on quests and can gather resources for you. These squads are comprised of heroes, rather than survivors, and therefore keeping a strong list of heroes is one of the major goals in Fortnite. This will ultimately allow you to gain enough resources to build up your home base to epic levels (who doesn’t want to own a castle, after all). It will also provide material for crafting traps, bullets and weapons.
Oh, and weapons break in Fortnite. This means even once fully upgraded, you can lose them. Be certain to recycle weapons right before they break in order to keep the parts needed to craft them. And speaking of crafting, you cannot do it between missions. You can only craft during missions. Since you might need to spend time during missions doing other things (building, locating survivors, mining resources), this seems to be a major oversight on the part of the developers. At least, crafting is simple and quick, but adding it as a function between missions would be a major asset to the game.
Upgrading in Fortnite is a mixture of activating nodes on skill trees, as well as directly upgrading heroes and weapons. During missions, you will earn loot in the form of loot chests or talking Llama piñatas (yes, you read that correctly). Loot can be anything from a new weapon, a new Llama, a new survivor, or XP. You can spend XP to level up heroes, as well as weapons and traps. This will be your main focus aside from resource collection and fort building. These menus do seem daunting at first, but given time with the game they demonstrate a fair amount of depth given the otherwise simple premise. What will initially appear convoluted will start to make sense, and will eventually add to the game’s overall appeal.
There are four different key hero types: Soldier, Constructor, Ninja, and Outlander. All come with their own strengths and weaknesses, and each also comes as either male or female. It gets more complicated than that, but sticking to the basics I chose to play mainly as a female Constructor because I enjoy the building aspect of the game more than the combat aspect. She has characteristics that are a lot like a Tank (high shield and defense, with lower attack), but she also came with certain bonuses. She made construction go faster and made the cost of construction cheaper. She also had a shield attack that allowed me to rush enemies and force them away from our fort.
The ease of constructing defenses, the excitement of the fight, and the fun of the co-op camaraderie make Fortnite a blast to play. The complexity of leveling heroes, crafting weapons, and ultimately building the fort you could only dream of in childhood keeps the game fresh and adds a needed depth that is sometimes missing from tower defense titles. It also allows the player a certain level of customization and helps her or him find work better as a team using their own expertise.
The game isn’t perfect. Crafting between missions would be a plus. Missions can start to feel redundant for some if the outcome of the missions (loot and resources) doesn’t provide enough of an incentive. In Early Access, the game requires players purchase a bundle to start off, which at it’s cheapest, is $40. There is an argument to be made that the game currently incentivizes players to purchase more loot in order to overcome an eventual level or progress cap. It might be best for Epic Games to make higher level loot more readily available in-game. However, so far I have not gotten to a point where my progress has been impeded and I have been playing for a week. Let us hope however, Epic Games can make these changes before the game goes free-to-play next year.
Fortnite is a fun and exciting take on what would otherwise be a bit of a bummer (losing all your friends and family to the apocalypse). There is a sense of hope in the game that doesn’t normally find it’s way into the end-of-the-world scenarios. The bright atmosphere, silly baddies (there is a husk with a beehive on his head), and the confident attitude of the game’s heroes makes you think this is a zombie apocalypse that might actually end well.
Fortnite is available in Early Access for PS4, PS4 Pro, XBOX One, Mac, and PC. The game is scheduled to go free-to-play in 2018.
What we like so far:
- Easy building mechanic with potential to build elaborate fortresses
- Different hero types allow customization of gameplay
- Co-op is exciting and working together with other players is a breeze
- Combat is fast-paced and fun
- Enemies are kind of adorable (for zombies)
What we hope improves:
- Missions can begin to feel a bit redundant
- Higher-level loot needs to be more readily available from completing missions
- Crafting between missions would be a major plus