- Building system adds valuable depth
- Simple gunplay is immediately fun
- Combat mechanics feel polished
- Limited time events
- There’s still a cheating problem
- Junior atmosphere feels jarring
Available on PC, PS4, Xbox One
30 players left. Three Russian children are shouting at you: “Blue! Blue! Take shield!” They’re shooting at the floor near a shield potion they’ve dropped for you. They are, demonstrably, much better at Fortnite Battle Royale than you. On the brow of the next hill there’s someone dressed as Harley Quinn building an iron shed. One of your squadmates takes them out with a headshot from their fancy purple sniper rifle, drawing three other enemies out.
The next 30 seconds are a mess of jumping, reviving allies and screaming for revival yourself. Somehow, when the dust settles, you’re the team left alive. A puddle of brightly coloured loot lies where your enemies fell.
20 players left. You’re miles away from the safe zone and the storm is closing in with a level of rapidity that’s making your back sticky. Your squad converses in alarmed Russian, sprinting across a field towards the Dusty Divot where you’ll set up base if you make it in time. Sheer cliff faces are navigated with impromptu staircases, crafted in the blink of an eye. 19 players left. 18.
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The one with the fancy purple sniper rifle has spotted something and, wordlessly, they take a shot. It misses the mark, and seconds later a bullet from nowhere downs you in one hit. More frenzied Russian is shouted into headset microphones hundreds of miles apart. Then: disaster. Two more friends are downed by the same sniper. Except you can see them now – one’s poking out from behind a tree on the horizon, and two of their mates are building a great wooden tower behind them.
The three of you crawl pathetically out of view, waiting for your remaining buddy to play the hero and revive you all. Or kill the enemies who downed you. Something. Instead, they elect to jump aimlessly to and fro, beginning to build a wall then thinking better of it. When you finally bleed out, there’s someone playing air guitar on your corpse. Fourteen left.
This experience, and the many variations of it you’ll experience in a single night’s play, has proven to be the most popular in all of gaming in 2018. There’s something about the unpredictability of it all, the constant capacity for the game to cast you as a hero, an underdog, a wily escapee, a dogged pursuer, that’s just irresistible at present. Battle royale games are the new black. And although it might have sounded ridiculous to say this halfway through last year when PUBG was more popular than oxygen, Fortnite is the genre’s reigning monarch right now.
Is it actually a better game than PUBG? Than H1Z1, the OG of last-man-standing games? That question’s interesting not just because it’s such a close fight, but because on a technical level the bar’s set quite low all round.
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Fortnite’s still an Early Access game, and its two big rivals have only recently graduated up to big school. All three have a problem with cheaters, with server unreliability, and with glitches. It feels less of a problem here, but cheaters do still exist in Fornite. Their presence isn’t as immediately obvious as in PUBG. Many simply team up in Solos mode rather than hacking the game, although the spectator mode controls make those players pretty easy to identify and report. It’s an ongoing conversation, of course, but at present cheaters aren’t ruining the fun – they’re just a by-product of a hugely popular multiplayer game that’s still in development. By contrast, the last wave of dominant multiplayer games such as Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: GO feel like they’re carved from solid granite and polished to a mirror sheen. There’s a wild west feeling to the entire Battle Royale genre that wasn’t present in Dota or CS since their origins as fan-created mods.
In several identifiable areas, Fortnite Battle Royale is the better battle royale game. Its building mechanics lend something valuable to the formula, a much needed extra level of interest when everyone gets ultra-cautious in the last few minutes of a round. PUBG and H1Z1 are happy to let you crouch in a bush and try to glitch as much of your player model out of view as possible, but Fornite gives you the potential to build an eponymous fort, or lay waste to an opponent’s. Boss Key’s ‘Extreme Early Access’ offering Radical Heights goes in a different direction to avoid the stale battle royale endgame, shrinking the play zone to a tiny dot and lighting it up so well that hiding is nearly impossible. In the end, Fortnite Battle Royale’s creativity in this regard prevails.
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Building’s just one of the component parts that whirr and chug to make Fortnite’s battle royale machine operational, and of those, gunplay feels the most honed and reliable. Its specifics are transparent: hit points tumbling out of a player you just shot, and extra crosshair lines to indicate a direct hit. It’s initially frustrating to be kept at arm’s length from the action by a third-person perspective with all but scoped rifles, but the result is a more immediate fight. With such a simplified shooting model there’s an encouragement to just get stuck in, never mind worrying about crosshair size or wind direction. Two terrified people jumping frantically and pulling the trigger like they’re in a Quake III tournament final: undeniably a good thing.
There’s also just enough difference between the hierarchy of weapon rarities to incentivise hunting more loot or picking it off enemies’ corpses. Sniper rifles and rocket launchers are everyone’s dream endgame, and if you can pick up a spike trap and a bush along the way you’ve all but won.
Consider the spike trap, actually. This time last year we were making our own fun in PUBG by waiting behind closed doors or baiting doorways with items. There’s a lot to be said for MacGuyvering ingenious tactics like that, but there’s also a lot to be said for laying down a massive panel of sprung spikes on the other side of a doorway and coaxing mark after hapless mark into your lair of doom. It’s emblematic of Fortnite’s design philosophy: everything’s made explicit, it’s there to be experimented with, and it all looks like it felt out of a warped toybox. Mechanically there’s a huge payoff to that. Tonally, it’s a bit like fighting to the death in a children’s cartoon.
“Everybody out!” Announces the ‘Battlebus’ as you fly over a world map featuring regions such as ‘Pleasant Park’ and ‘Haunted Hills’. 100 cartoon heroes spill out of the back to go looking for objects that would fit right in a Crash Bandicoot game. Say what you like about it: this is a game designed with at least half an eye designed on a junior audience. Anecdotally, much of the time when you leave the game to assign a squad for you rather than buddying up with actual humans you’re familiar with, those squadmates will be children. That or Fortnite’s player base has a real problem with huffing helium. That doesn’t happen anything like as often in PUBG. This isn’t a strength or a weakness of Fortnite. Anyone who might harbour the woefully misguided view that children might not be as good at the game will soon learn the error of their ways when one of them’s moonwalking over their cadaver thirty seconds into a round. It’s certainly strange though, if you’re an adult, and it does place greater responsibility on Epic to police its community interactions.
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As is always the case in multiplayer games, the apex of enjoyment is to be found in gathering people you know together and working as a squad. Unique to Fortnite is the added level of specialisation in a squad: maybe one of you is the construction savant who sees the world in angles and resources, and can build a two storey house as quickly as most people sneeze. Or the one who really cares about mouse DPI – the one everyone just hands their sniper rifles to without argument. The fact it can support sustained specialisation like this is what makes Fortnite so tempting to return to, night after night. Everyone knows their skillset, and at any moment they might be called upon to deploy it and save the day.
If there are in-game aspects that still feel Early Access – and there are – the inclusion of seasons and limited time events lends a slick triple-A sheen to proceedings. In each season (we’re into number four now) are particular challenges for those who care as much about XP and in-game currency as kills and wins. They might require that you find some ‘no dancing’ signs and dance next to them, or get 10 shotgun kills in a certain map region. Whether you pay much attention to challenges or not, their very existence promotes map exploration for all because those who do care about them will gravitate to certain areas to fulfil certain challenges.
Limited time events, like the Infinity Gauntlet Mashup going on at the time of writing, are a welcome diversion for a few rounds. They mess with the essential formula, sometimes in a big way, sometimes small and, one suspects, harvest useful data about how players actually want to play the game for future updates. These systems seem to be working for Epic and the community, and although there’s a frightening amount of cosmetic content and virtual currency lurking within the menus, it’s possible to ignore all that and still feel truly engaged in the experience.
It’s easy to forget that this industry-crushing phenomenon is free to play. Therefore, the essential ‘should you play it?’ argument at the heart of any review isn’t asking ‘is it worth it?’ but instead ‘do you fancy fighting 100 people in a slightly disquieting cartoon world?’ For around a third of gamers in their entirety at the moment, the answer’s ‘yes’. Despite its junior stylings and mountain of cosmetic items, Fortnite’s combat and construction fundamentals are strong enough to sustain weeks and months of play, and as it nears final release, it’s only going to get stronger.