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Fortnite: Battle Royale only looks cuddly on the outside

A game as brutal as any in the genre

Epic Games
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Epic Games caused a stir a few days ago by announcing Fortnite: Battle Royale, a spin-off of its long in-development early access title, Fortnite. The standalone game is based on the smash hit Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds and the “battle royale” genre that it helped make famous.

The project is awkward for a number of reasons. First, Battlegrounds is built on the Unreal Engine, a platform which it licenses from Epic Games. Also, Fortnite: Battle Royale will beat Battlegrounds to consoles with its own free-to-play version in just a few months. Those factors, and the similarities between the two games, has Battlegrounds developer Bluehole crying foul.

The latest version of Fortnite: Battle Royale went live on Epic’s servers just this morning, so I decided to give it a try. After a few hours in-game, I found an experience that is strangely familiar, but with a few very unusual twists.

At first glance, Fortnite: Battle Royale feels like a carbon copy of Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds. It shares the same third-person, over-the-shoulder perspective, the same map interface and the same conceit of a constantly shrinking map. But I found the game’s cartoony art style extremely unnerving.

There’s something unsettling about playing a vicious, last-man-standing style arena combat game from inside an adorable, cell-shaded avatar. In reviewing the original Fortnite, I commented on how it felt “as if Pixar sat in to do a season of The Walking Dead.” Pixar’s influence is still plastered all over this new game, but this time around they’ve shown up to remake The Hunger Games.

I could see the impulse to play Fortnite with your kids, and while there’s no blood or gore in Fortnite: Battle Royale it is absolutely not a game for children. It’s simply too violent and too stressful.

Mechanically, the looting system feels very much the same as the one in Battlegrounds. Small arms, ammunition and bandages are scattered all over the map. So too are treasure chests, which make an audible, shimmering sound the closer you get to them. Audio cues are a big part of the drama of this game, just as they are in Battlegrounds. One of the first signs that another group of players is nearby is when you begin to hear their footsteps.

Of course, every player also drops onto the map with a pickaxe which they can use, Minecraft-style, to harvest resources from the map. Those resources are then used to create structures.

Need to cross a river? Build a bridge. Want to reach the roof of a three-story apartment building? Make a ramp, and then destroy the last few sections behind you. It’s the same set of building tools found in the original Fortnite, and they ensure that every part of the map is immediately accessible to players. But they also creates the opportunity to build barricades and other forms of cover in the late-game.

As a hedge against turtling up, weapons do an incredible amount of damage to structures. Even a short gun battle has the tendency to leave a building riddled with holes. By the mid-game, I was stumbling upon torn up apartment blocks and warehouses all over.

Aside from the art style and the building mechanics, Fortnite: Battle Royale and Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds feel very similar. They even seem to share more in common than Battlegrounds does with H1Z1: King of the Kill, especially in terms of pacing and tone. I can absolutely see why Bluehole felt the need to speak up and raise an objection.

But I can also begin to see where Epic is going with their version. This is just a starting point, and my hunch is that the building mechanics that make the original Fortnite so unique and interesting will continue to expand here. They will eventually lead these two games in radically different directions.

All that remains is to see how many fans of Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds will follow along with it.

The next level of puzzles.

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