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Fortnite announces early access release, hands-on the unfinished game

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Coming July 25 to Mac, PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One

Epic Games’ Fortnite finally has a release date. First announced nearly six years ago at the Video Game Awards in 2011, the hybrid “action building” game is launching as an early access title on Mac, PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Bundles start at $39.99 and run as high as $149.99. The final, free-to-play release comes some time in 2018.

Fortnite is a class-based cooperative shooter rolled up with a building game. Scavenge resources, build up your defenses and then open the cage to let the monsters come out. Rather than regurgitate all the talking points in full, we’ve attached Epic’s nearly five-minute trailer and explainer above. It does an above-average job of laying it all out.

During a press-only event in Los Angeles a few weeks ago I was shown the near final version of the game and sent home with full access to the latest build. After a week spent playing Fortnite, it’s clear that it’s got a new coat of paint and a lot of polish compared to what we’ve seen in the past. Trouble is that while the game is trying really hard to make me like it, I’m still not sure I’m having fun.

Fornite Zombies art
Our soldier hero, Ramirez, holds out against a wave of cuddly zombies called husks.
Epic Games

Best apocalypse ever

In the fiction of Fortnite, 98 percent of the world’s population has disappeared overnight. Massive storms filled with roiling purple clouds are sweeping across the world and when lightning strikes, monsters crawl out of the ground to attack the living.

They’re called husks, and they might be the most adorable little critters I’ve seen since Plants vs. Zombies.

Each husk appears to be wearing a person’s flesh like a hoodie, which is pretty gross when you type it out like that. But some of them are themed delightfully. There’s one that looks like a baseball player, and another with a beehive stuck on its head. And when you shoot or slash them, they don’t get dismembered or bleed or howl in pain. They just sorta turn to powder and blow away.

Combined with cartoony environments and an incredibly diverse cast of hero characters, it all comes together to form an anodyne, family-friendly apocalypse.

Executive producer Zak Phelps tells me that’s by design.

“What if it was Pixar meets The Walking Dead?” he said. “I'm the hugest Walking Dead fan, but Rick and company are screwed. That show doesn't end with them saying, ‘And then there was no more zombies and we lived happily ever after.’ It ends with, ‘And then Rick died.’

“With Fortnite, we said, ‘Let's make it hopeful survival. Let's say that it's the best apocalypse ever. Let’s make it fun and make it this really engaging, accessible thing that we could all play together. Let’s embrace the co-op nature of it.’ We wanted a game that we could sit on the couch with our teenagers and play it with them.”

It’s possible that Epic has missed the mark in aiming for a teenage audience. The game feels a bit too saccharine for the that age group, and I’m not quite sure this is a game that’s appropriate for even younger players.
Epic Games

Build it better

When I left Epic’s presentation in LA I was pretty excited to get back home and give the game a try. I downloaded the Epic launcher, flipped the switch to start the download and before long I was running through the tutorial.

Three hours later, it felt like I was still running through the tutorial.

In my time with Fornite, I’ve pretty much done the same three things over and over and over again. I’ve hit trees, rocks and various pieces of furniture with a pickaxe to gain resources. Then, I’ve used those resources to build a fort and fill it with traps. Finally, I’ve killed an awful lot of husks.

That’s it.

Sometimes the husks come from one direction, and other times they come from a different direction. Sometimes they even come from multiple directions at once. But there’s an awful lot of them, so many that playing single-player my hand began to ache from all the clicking.

The most interesting part is, for me, the building. Fortnite does a good job of letting you experiment with one-off structures in the field so that you can try out new shapes and traps as you collect them. It also offers some persistence with a central homebase fort that you add to over time. The building system, which allows you to put doors, windows, ramps and roofs pretty much wherever you need them, works really well. Switching between building mode and shooting mode felt easy and natural after some practice. While it works with a keyboard and mouse, the controls felt much more natural on a controller.

It’s just that I got bored with it.

The environments and the objectives changed from mission to mission thanks to procedural generation, but it was by and large the same exact experience every time. I play more than my fair share of free-to-play titles. I know that repetition and, yes, even a bit of grind is par for the course. But it just feels like Fortnite is missing that spark to keep my interest and keep me coming back.

Players can take as long as they want to prepare for the horde. Individuals missions take place over multiple days, and perks are granted when you finish under a certain time limit.
Epic Games

Games as a service

Phelps, the executive producer, wasn’t the only representative on hand during the pre-E3 presentation. The bulk of it was delivered by Donald Mustard, Epic’s worldwide creative lead. His messaging was equal parts self-effacing and strategic.

Epic knows that Fortnite has become a bit of a punchline over the years, and Mustard was willing to own up to it.

“This isn’t Fortnite’s first rodeo,” he said, and the journalists in the room gave a polite chuckle. “It’s not even its second rodeo. It might not even be it’s third rodeo. At Epic we love our ideas, and sometimes we get so excited about our ideas that we announce it three weeks after we’ve even had the idea. Or even before we’ve made the game, which was the case with Fortnite.”

He went on to try and spin the extended development time into a positive. He stressed that it was transformative for the company, that it helped to breathe life into the product.

The assembled writers seemed unmoved.

Later, during our closed-door interview, Mustard narrowed down what he believes will make Fortnite special.

“This is very much a living product,” he stressed. “If you look at Destiny, while it isn't technically free to play, it's designed very much like that kind of game — the robustness of their event systems and how it's very much a living product that is constantly evolving. There's this rhythm, this cadence that is much more alive than you'd think out of a traditionally-updated game. Our systems are even more robust than theirs.”

Ninjas are a special melee-focused class. There are also soldiers, who focus on missile weapons, and constructors who make quick work of building projects.
Epic Games

It’s those systems, he stressed, that his team has been working on behind the scenes this whole time. The game itself has been playable for nearly two years, and there are testers with thousands of hours in-game. While the paint job has been reapplied a number of times, it’s all the stuff underground and in the walls that will make Fortnite a house that players want to live in.

Phelps explained it a different way. Epic has long been used to creating games on a cycle. Like a kind of firefighter, they’d work shifts of two years on and two month off. But now, they’re preparing to tweak the game every single day.

“Talking with our partners,” Phelps said, “and even in thinking about it ourselves, even our internal guys, the question is, ‘Well, what's the next DLC that we're going to do? What's the next update that we're going to do? Are we doing that in three months?’

“I tell them, ‘What are you talking about? In two days I'm going to be updating this thing to the next thing. There's going to be this new hero and there's going to be this. There's going to be this awesome gun! You're going to be able to drop into the game. There's going to be exploding husks, and you're going to have to defend, and then you're going to earn a bunch of points, and you're going to go get this, you're going to be able to unlock this, and you're going to be able to collect all these things! And they'll say, ‘What are you talking about?’ I'm talking about the experience of what our event system is.”

It’s that event system, filled with constant updates, new features, new loot and new game modes that we weren’t shown. It’s likely to make or break Fortnite.

Right now, the game still has some placeholder text in spots. It feels like it’s missing a bit of the tutorial section where it shows you how the menus work, and the menus themselves are a bit cluttered while their function is opaque.

The game works. It’s rock solid. It does what it says on the tin. It looks as good as anything on the market.

But it also bored me. It eventually gave me hand cramps.

“We expect that this is the future,” Phelps said. “That AAA-quality games will be free to play. And we're not the first. There’s a lot of great examples. I mean, you look at League of Legends. You look at where Warframe is going at this point. There's other examples of games that are just these very, very high quality offerings.”

Now it’s time to get some fresh players into the game, see what the culture looks like as it builds up steam, and find out if people are willing to pay $39.99 for early access to a high-quality, high-concept free-to-play game.