LOS ANGELES—Remember Epic Games' Fortnite? You've had ample opportunity to forget about this co-op tower-defense shooter, whether after its 2011 reveal or its uneven 2015 "return," but Epic says that this time, honestly, truly, it's ready to come out.
"This isn't Fortnite's first rodeo," Epic Creative Lead Donald Mustard said at a press event in May. "It's not even its second. It's not even its third rodeo!"
After admitting that its initial 2011 reveal came "three weeks after we came up with the idea, before we even made the game," Mustard said that Fortnite's years of development and fine-tuning would finally pay off with a real, coming-soon release date: July 24.
That's when you'll be able to play the "free-to-play" game... so long as you pay up.
Epic is the latest gaming company to experiment with a game best described as "free to play... later." If you cannot wait for Fortnite's "sometime in 2018" launch as a free download, you can pay $39.99 and up to start playing its beta version on PC, Mac, Xbox One, or PlayStation 4 in July. (Preorder the game's "founders pack" to start playing three days earlier, on July 21.)
Hands-on with the forts
The press event was weirdly followed by Epic demonstrating "live" gameplay without letting us touch the game. I immediately wondered whether this was an elaborate ruse before Epic would delay the game another two years, but thankfully, the event ended with the promise of a download code. I've since tested the game for a few days, and I'm here to report that yes, Fortnite exists... and it's largely similar to what Kyle Orland tested two years ago.
The game's late-'00s origins are evident in a design that is still best described as Call of Duty Zombies meets Minecraft with a pinch of Orcs Must Die. The world of Fortnite has been ravaged by mysterious storms, and wherever it rains, zombies appear. You're on a journey to turn on storm-blocking devices across the globe to save humanity's last survivors, but whenever you turn on a new device, you have to hang around for a few minutes to protect it from waves of zombies.
This works pretty much the way Ars reported in 2015: team up with other online players to scavenge nearby resources, build barriers and traps, and shoot guns at waves of the undead. Many of Fortnite's missions drop you into a slightly randomized world as defined by whatever difficulty tier you're playing in at the time. The worlds are usually made up of the same kinds of buildings, hills, and foliage, just shuffled around. The most common mission in the early part has you set up base at a beacon, build reinforcements (walls, barriers, traps) around that beacon, and flip its on switch. At that point, enemies start swarming, and you have to keep them from getting to, and destroying, your precious beacon until its timer is up.
Eventually, other types of missions appear with a greater focus on combat than on building, but you'll typically need to have a pickaxe and blueprints handy. When you're inside of an active game, use a pickaxe to destroy objects (trees, cars, file cabinets, vending machines) and gather whatever resources pop out. These resources fuel every element that you have a blueprint for, and the game starts you out with enough blueprints for basic structures, traps, and weapon ammunition.
Building walls, stairs, floors, ceilings, doors, and even sniping towers is simple enough: select the "build" mode, and the structure type you want to build will appear as a translucent preview in front of you, usually set to snap to the game's hidden grid system. (The whole game world is made up of square shapes and structures, but the geometry comes together in a smooth, cartoony way so that it usually doesn't look like Minecraft. This is why the game's stairs and ramps always have an extreme slope, however.) Creative shapes can be made by adding or deleting from one of the four primary template shapes; for example, remove the right pattern of blocks from a wall to make it have a door, or remove most of the blocks from a wall to turn it into a knee-high barrier that zombies will struggle to hop over.
The catch is, you can't get more diverse and interesting traps and guns without opening loot boxes, and you can't get better loot boxes without completing missions while meeting specific win conditions. Simply protecting a beacon will get you crappy loot; doing so while only building a certain number of structures, or doing so within a given amount of time, will upgrade the end-of-mission loot box that you receive.
You probably won't be shocked to hear that you can pay real-world money to purchase loot boxes, and these come full of items that offer more than cosmetic boosts. You can play the game with the weapons, traps, heroes, and experience-point boosts unlocked during normal play, or you can pay to get more of those items sooner. I've seen impactful items unlocked by paid loot boxes in the game's current alpha state, and Epic is already charging as much as $150 for its digital "limited" edition, full of exclusive and rare loot, so I'm anxious to see how exactly this paid content will play out in the final game.
Is there hope for this Horde follow-up?
That's an unfortunate blemish on an otherwise solid "build-and-kill with friends" game, though even without loot in mind, the game isn't by all means perfect. The best news in this near-final version is that it's a lot easier to navigate in missions than in the 2015 version. You can now build zombie-stifling bases with barriers that players can easily jump over or shoot through instead of having to build claustrophobic mazes. I like how resource requirements will make a squad of players have to coordinate efforts and divide their duties between combat, building, trap placement, and repair (and the game's various characters favor different skills, accordingly).
The default actions of aiming and blasting guns feel as good as you'd expect from the shooting-game diehards at Epic, though some of Fortnite's weapons (booming hand cannons, head-popping sniper rifles) feel way more impactful than others (piddly shotguns, melee weapons that go through enemies without making impactful sounds). At least the game's deadly traps and devices explode with gorgeous particle and light effects, meaning you'll never fail to notice when a lurching gaggle of the game's "husk" creatures explode on one of your electric fences.
But some of the game's early missions already include unclear mission directives. Most of these issues revolve around a total lack of map or sound indicators that reliably tell players where to head next. In one mission, I was instructed to find three hidden survivors, but I was only guided by the sound of people shouting for help. Thanks to a very busy well of background noise and music, these locations were impossible to discern without headphones on. I also ran into missions whose randomly generated worlds stuck our beacon right next to a ton of natural rock formations and the like, which caused two problems: first, the missions' zombie hordes just bee-lined into a simple path; and second, the formations blocked our ability to create any traps or structures nearby.
When random level generation worked as intended and the game fired on all cylinders, I got my hopes up about how the game might fit into a social-gaming schedule. Party up with friends, knock out missions, chat over voice comms during the setup phases, have players juggle combat and resource management, and strive to max out loot by fulfilling each mission's emerging, optional objectives. It felt like a Gears of War "Horde" mode with more legitimate "come back for more" systems (which makes sense, since Epic originally built Gears so many years ago).
But I'm already frustrated with the feeling that those efforts, the ones that make a group of friends work their butts off to get that next sweet area-of-effect electric trap, might be so easily trumped by spending $10-20 more. It's bad enough that free-to-play games have to find tricky ways to squeeze a few bucks, but Fortnite is testing this formula on top of a "pay to play early" fee, already. Epic doesn't have long to change its tune before the game's July 21 rollout, but we'll keep our eyes out in case they do.