Epic's free-to-play Fortnite delivers a suspense-filled finish

In hindsight, maybe that Video Game Awards trailer wasn't a great idea.

Epic Games' Roger Collum concedes as much. "The VGAs came to us and said 'Hey, you want to be on the show?' we were like, 'Well ... yeah?'" said Collum, the lead producer for Fortnite. "Who's gonna say no to that?" Nearly three years ago, Fortnite put out this teaser trailer at the Spike Video Game Awards, and when a game receives that kind of treatment many assume it's ready to go in a year or so.

It wasn't. And the silence surrounding Fortnite through 2012 and 2013, along with the departure of Epic's all-star designer Cliff Bleszinski (who had introduced it at the show) led some to think Fortnite had gone to the realm of vaporware.

It hasn't. Fortnite, planned as a free-to-play PC game, isn't giving out launch dates yet but if you're interested in it, there's a good chance you can find some way to play it by the end of the year, in some kind of public alpha event. Inside, you'll find a cooperative campaign experience that, once the action begins, is remarkably well balanced.

Fortnite is a class-based game with three phases, two of which usually last as long as the players wish before someone triggers the third showdown phase. You scavenge there landscape for raw materials, build up your weapons loadout and erect a fortress and then, when everyone's ready, push the big button and fend off a zombie horde.

If Fortnite's AI director, which may be the most important participant in the game, is doing its job properly, then no matter how much you've built up that fort or your armaments, you'll get a white-knuckle finish.

That was, on the whole, my experience at Epic Games' Cary, N.C. headquarters a couple of weeks ago. In one mountainside setting, my teammates and I spent what felt like forever plundering raw material out of a mineshaft (that seemed to go to an unlimited depth) before we returned to the "Atlas," the game's ultimate defense point. We were going to reinforce this sumbitch but good.

The basic job in Fortnite's PvE phase is to find the other-dimensional portal on the map and close it by setting up the Atlas. You can build up any kind of structure to defend it, but once you start the closing, the game sends the undead to tear it down and stop that process. We built an enormous reinforced metal cage surrounding our Atlas. We rigged the walls and floors with spike traps to annihilate anyone who could breach it. We ringed the exterior with jump pads that bounced off anyone who tried to bust down the doors.

The AI director sent a flinger after us.

Free-to-play, but you gotta earn it

Fortnite is a departure from what most gamers have associated with Epic over the past eight years — a PC or a console shooter retailing for $60. This is a free-to-play game with a little more of a lighthearted style.

The core gameplay experiences — scavenging, building and shooting — won't be touched by the free-to-play design, Epic insists. You can mine rocks, build weapons, reinforce your fort and cut down zombies without spending anything. Players will buy in by acquiring card packs — sort of similar to "ultimate team" modes seen in sports titles, that deliver boosts and schematics players use to craft better items.

A player who owns a weapon schematic may build it forever. A weapon built from that schematic may be shared with another player, though it does have a limited durability. These schematics can be encountered in the wild but, of course, buying these card packs with real money improves one's chances of seeing it.

"Basically, our goal is anything that has game implications, if you play the game, you can earn it the same way as people who spend money," said Darren Sugg, Fortnite's lead designer.

The flinger is basically a bigger zombie who throws smaller zombies onto the roof of your structure. The part we couldn't rig with traps or jump pads. The choke points we identified and trapped, the sniper nests offered by the higher ground of our cliffside perch, these things still mattered, mostly in the sense that the AI director had to figure out a way to defeat them. It was harrowing to watch our this-is-awesome, no-way-anyone-gets-in fort come under total siege within a minute of triggering the showdown. You can repair (or even attempt to improve) a structure under attack, but combat still is utterly essential. As the ninja, Fortnite's most nimble, melee class, I raced to the zombie staging area to cut down the flingers and pray we could hold out until the timer went off, the Atlas shut the portal, and we won.

"Everybody has this thing, whether it's building with LEGO as kids, or Lincoln Logs, or when you get older, you know, we had this patch of woods where everyone would go and nail together board and build our own fort," ruminated Darren Sugg, the game's lead designer. "That feeling doesn't go away. Fortnite's supposed to mimic that cool feeling. You're imagining the bad guys showing up, and you're making your last stand. People just get that. So if we can capture that resonance when people play the game, they'll keep coming back."

Everything on the map is procedurally generated, even when you revisit the territory you've liberated, so there was no getting back that position we defended. I'd love to get another crack at it; that place was a dream. It was on top of a cliff, with a single ramp leading up to it. That Fortnite, under these super optimal starting conditions versus the CPU, still broke down to a match that demanded intense shooter combat to win is a hell of a credit to that AI Director.

"A lot of math has gone into it," Collum said to me. The AI Director will back down the assault if it looks like you're getting your ass kicked, as I saw earlier in an urban terrain where we hadn't balanced our classes and someone started closing the portal before we were really ready. Simply being passive won't call off the dogs, as the game evaluates the defense surrounding the Atlas as well as your gear. One shortcoming I did note, however, is how a protracted engagement can run out ammunition — something that can't be easily harvested or constructed when the horde is tearing apart your base. That does place a certain primacy on melee types, or at least building up enough ammo (or not wasting it) before things get really serious.

When Fortnite got its VGA closeup three years ago people sought immediately to fit its gameplay into a box. The day-night cycle — clearly identified by a character dragging a barrier across a doorway as night fell — strongly lent Fortnite to comparisons with Minecraft. Today, the "nite" portion of the game's title is probably the most vestigial feature of that first look, as day-night is relevant only to a very unfinished PvP mode that could (and should) change dramatically before launch.

Collum said that about a year ago his team realized it had a big problem problem if it stuck to this kind of a schedule. "You get a weird pacing if the night is something that always lasts eight minutes," he said. Fortifications, for example, are limited by the amount of time it takes to harvest the material to build them, cramping players' creativity and in a larger sense forcing them to choose between crafting weapons or building walls. While the campaign mode does spawn undead aggressors randomly to harrass players through their scavenging and building, the real throwdown begins when players decide they're ready.

Thus arose the concept of the storms, which cloak Fortnite's world map and darken the skies of the main game. Collum, Sugg and the others aren't really talking about the canon informing these storms or why or how it is they've visited your world, but I got the sense whatever backstory they will supply is loose enough to keep Fortnite's story fixated on your exploits with your friends. No cinematic cutscenes, in other words, and no driving to a narrative climax.

The world will, more or less, continually reset. Players will progress through a hex map of different biomes, securing them and unlocking things useful to their campaign — such as weapon schematics — along the way. Once a map is filled out, the player may start over on another map. In cooperative multiplayer, the map being played is the one the host is trying to complete.

This raises a tricky question about progression, namely, if a player spends all his time supporting friends while his own map remains neglected, what does he have to show for it? Collum and Sugg said Fortnite will deliver a continual XP benefit to those who helped another player clear his map. The idea is, fundamentally, if you pop into someone's session to help them with one mission, but that's all you have time for, as they progress you still get a continual benefit that's pro rated to whatever contribution you made to that campaign.

Screenshot_pvp

That benefit increases the more you play together, of course, so the idea is to include players who may only have a short session to spare on some evening, while encouraging them to clan up. Fortnight is eminently solo-able — the AI Director will adjust the challenge — but it's clear it will be a lot better when played among friends.

Pulling together offers other benefits, too. Fortnite proposes a "My Base" metaspace which isn't necessarily a combat zone, but a "3D character sheet" of everything the player has done in the world. The benefits offered by someone's base are conferred to anyone else fighting with him in a game. So, for example, building out the Armory perk will deliver extra weapons, without crafting, to that player as well as his teammates.

Atop this, Fortnite will let players slot certain classes into these facilities for an extra benefit. This is meant to encourage developing characters across all classes, instead of playing as just one. Collum said they want players to see themselves as a leader of a team of heroes instead of someone grinding up a single character. Even if a person prefers to play as a ninja, there will be a benefit to having a commando slotted into the Armory in your base. When a player hits the level cap for one class, he may continue playing with it and apply the additional XP to a different character in his Base.

All that said, leveling in Fortnite will not mean the same thing it does in other genres. No weapon will be restricted to class or level, Collum said. If you possess — or a friend shares with you — the schematic for an awesome weapon, as long as you have the resources to build it, it's yours. Yes, super cool schematics are part of the game's free-to-play model, and they may be acquired with real money but Fortnite will rely on its overall balance — again, that AI Director —to keep things from becoming a pay-to-win scenario.

Crafting still has primary importance without buying up the schematics. A number of zany weapons were available to me a low levels, uncluding a rocket-powered hammer, whose application should be apparent (it delivers a buttload of splash damage). Weapons have a durability rating, with melee items (and tools, such as the pickaxe) running out the fastest. If you lose everything, you always have an indestructible stick to club down trees and rocks — it'll just take longer.

Screenshot_buildinggiantfort

Where things were most unbalanced was in the player-versus-player mode we were shown, which Epic conceded was essentially a proof-of-concept and not something likely to survive, intact, into the main game. The team-based, competitive multiplayer supported sides of five each, and the objective was to fortify your control point and destroy the other team's. So in the build we played the Constructor class — essentially the engineer — was vital.

He (though all classes may be played with avatars of either gender) could build walls and fortifications faster and anyone not a Constructor gave him the trap they received every time they spawned. Building really high walls was essential because of the ninja's double-jump capability. We saw some really interesting creations, including structures with 45-degree angled exterior walls that thwarted attempts to chop them down directly.

The sniper-minded created grotesque perches that shot up from every available roof. Fortnite's construction doesn't hew to normal laws of physics; if it attaches to a solid structure at a single point, it's assumed to have support. Of course, destroying the support means the entire thing comes crashing down-and anyone standing on it will take falling damage.

The PvP instance we were shown did deploy the old Fortnite feature of sending out the zombies at sundown; this was meant to speed the game to a reasonable conclusion if both sides were stalemated after a certain time. In all PvP matches, we got the zombies sent after us. Fortnite's player-versus-player has a long way to go before it's as compelling as its cooperative campaign.

But the cooperative campaign seems to be the main mode of play, and while Epic has a lot more to introduce to it, the foundation of a challenging and thoughtful experience is there. I approached my first playthroughs thinking that we'd be undone if I built something incorrectly. There's no real architectural wrong answer, though. There's no architectural perfect answer, either. It all must be defended.

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