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Hands-on with Fortnite, Epic Games' curious survival construction shooter

Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

The creators of Fortnite, Epic Games' new PC game that blends scavenging, construction and shooting, hope to create a game that's as enjoyable as the combination of peanut butter and chocolate.

Fortnite, they hope, marries exploration, building and action into something new, something different from the studio's Unreal Tournament and Gears of War games.

It's easy to look to other popular games that focus primarily on those gameplay components — Minecraft for building things, DayZ for exploration and survival — when describing Fortnite. But Fortnite is not those games jammed together with third-person shooting, based on our time with the game at a recent preview event.

It's also not quite the video game equivalent of a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup just yet — the game is still very much in development and currently being shaped with input from the community — but Fortnite has promise.

"One of the things in the core Epic DNA is making a great action experience"

Although players will forage for raw materials and supplies, while also battling waves of horrific creatures, it's "more superheroic" than other survival-focused games like Rust or DayZ, explained design lead Darren Sugg. The stylized, Tim Burton-inspired cartoon world of Fortnite also makes the game less grim and harshly realistic as those games.

"It's not about looking on the landscape for cans of beans, or running after bears with rocks," Sugg said. "It's much more friendly."

According to Sugg, the heroes of Fortnite, which include ninjas and commandos, "are thriving, not just surviving."

"We knew there were a lot of games that did that [survival gameplay] really well and they're fun for that experience," he said. "That just didn't make sense for us and our overall direction. We want to make this big, larger-than-life gameplay experience."

Our hands-on time with Fortnite started in one of the game's early, procedurally-generated levels. With little more than a stick to our name, we set out to break down trees, rocks and other game objects down to their raw materials. Those materials can be crafted into better harvesting tools, like a pickaxe, and weapons, or used in the construction of fortified structures. Our goal was to establish a protective fort around an object called an atlas device (a glowing purple portal mechanism of some sort), which the game's cartoon monsters are desperate to destroy.

The harvesting phase of Fortnite certainly isn't its most compelling aspect at this stage of the game's development. You aren't doing much more than whacking things with a stick, hoping for some scrap to pop out. Clubbing rocks and trees and rusted old cars for materials is mostly mindless clicking, but it's also likely the phase in which players will be chatting with each other, talking co-op strategy and getting the lay of the land. Mindless resource gathering might just be the right way to warm up.

Once players have tracked down the atlas device, they set to building — walls, stairs, spike traps — and reinforcing that structure. While there are monsters scattered throughout the world as you harvest and build, players don't really have to worry about an invasion on their protective fort until they've decided they're really ready for it. Once you activate the atlas in your fort, you've essentially said "Go!" and welcomed the arrival of the horde.

The action portion of Fortnite, the shooting and slicing of monsters, is where the real fun begins. There's an array of guns, explosives and melee weapons, from swords to axes to guitars, that players can craft and unlock. Keeping up with the frenzy of base invaders is where Fortnite's most interesting teamplay moments happen. During a relatively easy invasion, I still found myself frantically crafting new ammunition for my character and patching up holes in our team fort between waves.

In a level of the game that was billed as more difficult, our team of three was tasked with protecting two atlas devices, one of which was at ground level and one that was floating some 30 feet in the air. That required building some elaborate staircases and sundry support structures to keep our tower fort aloft in the event that its foundation was damaged. The game threw some higher-level enemies at us, but I was forced to end our game a little early. I never did get the chance to see how well our defensive fort withstood the onslaught.


Between matches, players will get the chance to upgrade and customize their character. Currently, there are four character classes playable in Fortnite: Outlander, Constructor, Commando and Ninja.

Sugg noted that any class can build, fight and explore the world of Fortnite, but some classes have greater affinity for those skills. The Outlander, he said, is better at finding treasure and collecting resources, for example.

"He's the eyes on the game board," Sugg said.

The Constructor is, naturally, a specialist in building. That class "bolsters the team" by upgrading fort structures with an extra level of durability and augments the containment field that protects the portal that players are tasked with safeguarding. He's "the rock of the team," Sugg said.

The Commando is the game's ranged specialist. She's more skilled with assault weapons and grenades, compared to the Ninja class, which is a highly mobile melee class who's expert with a katana and some throwing stars. The Ninja can also double jump, giving him better traversal skills.

"We also have a couple more [character classes] in the hopper," Sugg said, adding that when teams play as a group, at higher difficulties all those class synergies really come into play. A team of four ninjas might not succeed as well as a well-balanced squad.

"Playing together with a group has a compounding awesomeness for the player."

Players will be able to upgrade their characters through a progression system, a robust skill tree that will make one Commando play differently from another. They'll also have a second level of advancement and customization in the form of base-building. Between levels, players are able to customize their character and the structure of their base, a collection of buildings that augment their character and their teammates. A player could, for example, choose to develop a hospital to give their team a hit points boost or build a drone factory to give their team supply drops mid-battle.

"Playing together with a group has a compounding awesomeness for the player," Sugg said, explaining that players will benefit by optimizing how their teams and bases interact.

Beyond co-op, Epic says it's working on a player-versus-player mode for Fortnite. That's in the prototype stage right now, Sugg said, and will pit five players against another five as they build, explore and battle each other.

Development of Fortnite continues, with small batches of players being invited into early access to help mold the game. Sugg said that Epic will invite more players into the fold later this year, describing the game's development as "a very iterative process with the community."

"We know the nugget of what Fortnite is, and we can sharpen and polish certain aspects of it," he said. "We're doing that based on our interactions with the community."

Fortnite is getting a beta this fall on Mac and Windows PC, Epic Games and Apple announced today.

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