Fortnite has been on my radar since it was announced in 2011. That’s right, 2011. This game has been in development for so long that Cliff Bleszinski was still at Epic Games when it was announced (he actually revealed it). To put that into context, Bleszinski left Epic Games in 2012, formed Boss Key Productions in 2014, and is about to release his first post-Epic Games title, LawBreakers (it’s out next week).
Six years of development tends to change a game but, surprisingly, Fortnite plays a lot like what I remember of the original 2011 pitch. It’s like Minecraft meets Call of Duty’s Nazi Zombies horde mode, albeit with a cartoony aesthetic and less of an emphasis on terrain destructibility and a greater focus on building stuff (in terms of the Minecraft comparison).
After the recent Nvidia drivers were released, which officially support Fortnite, it runs like a dream on my GTX 980, which is a relief given how much Early Access games like PUBG make me feel I’m overdue for an upgrade. That said, Fortnite is a beautifully presented game with a terrible user interface. The in-game UI is so clunky, that six hours in, I’m still only noticing parts for the first time.
But if the in-game UI is clunky, then the main menu and the way in which Fortnite presents information to players is an abomination. Playing with friends is easy enough. But working your way through the multiple tabs and subsections is a nightmare, even when there are objectives related to seemingly simple tutorial-like tasks.
It takes a good few hours of making sense of everything before it all falls into place, but then half of the core gameplay (which doesn’t include trawling through clunky menus) leaves a lot to be desired. The construction element is really cool. It’s incredibly intuitive, which means you’re not fumbling through menus when you want to build between waves of zombies or, hell, when they’re coming at you.
You’ll build walls, barricades, doors, floors, ramps, and traps in such a straightforward way that it stands as a stark contrast to the complex main menu systems. Harvesting resources is as simple as swinging your pickaxe at things. If you need wood, stone, or metal, go bash a tree, rock, or car, respectively. Simple. Resources automatically pour out with every hit, and it happens fast enough that it doesn’t feel like a chore.
If you do run out of building resources mid-battle, you can switch the material type to complete your build. It’s hard to fault the construction gameplay. The problem is the other half of the gameplay—the all-important combat—is monotonous and way too easy. Reddit informs me that it gets harder later, but playing with two competent friends (you can play with up to three others) feels more like one of those Flash games where you tap a single button to win and less like a shooter.
Epic has backed itself into a corner in this regard, as zombies don’t have a history of intelligent behaviours. Yes, there are different zombie enemy types in Fortnite, and the first time you encounter some of the newer ones, they’ll surprise you. But, ultimately, they’re still zombies. They’re stupid, and pulling off consecutive headshots against targets that aren’t particularly fast and run at you in straight lines isn’t much of a challenge.
Fortnite also has weapon degradation and you have to craft your own ammunition. When you’re fighting the twentieth wave of zombies and you’ve run out of ammo, it’s more frustrating than tense to be forced to run off and farm resources, especially when the resources you need to collect aren’t always clear. The alternative is to use higher-level weapons (yes, Fortnite has weapon rarity, because why not?) against lower-level enemies, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re wasting precious zombie-killers that are better hoarded for a later, harder horde.
It doesn’t help that certain weapons have blueprints that let you reforge them (with the right resources), while others are single-use only. On top of this, at least as far as I can tell from the early hours played, weapon drops are dictated by RNG. You’ll smash open llama piñatas (you read that correctly) to score loot, and it makes Fortnite a bit like a cartoonish Destiny clone in terms of weapon collection, where RNGesus giveth and taketh away sweet shooters. I have some great weapons at the moments—rocket launchers, grenade launchers, sniper rifles, LMGs—but they’re way too powerful for lower-level enemies, but inventory space is also at a premium.
But all of that pales in comparison to the odd way that Epic has monetised Fortnite. You can slap down US$39.99 right now (or up to US$149.99, if that’s your thing) to play Fortnite. But what you’re really buying is the right to beta test the game. This is different to other games that incentivise players to cough up money early to play the game before its premium release because the plan is for Fortnite to be free-to-play in 2018.
I thought that last bit was a mistake—an outdated bit of information that, much like LawBreakers (which was once intended as a free-to-play game), had changed in recent months—but it’s not: it’s on the official Fortnite FAQ. So, not only are you paying for an Early Access version of Fortnite, the free-to-play monetisation system is already implemented into the game (V-bucks, the game’s currency, and bundle upgrades)—that you can only pay to play right now—which feels like Epic is double-dipping.
It’s also hard to ignore the feeling that the only way the game can possibly become more challenging is by throwing artificial hurdles at you. Higher-level enemies who become bullet-sponges. Limited inventory space. An absence of higher-level weapons and the subsequent reliance on the mercy of RNGesus. These sorts of things in free-to-play games tend to incentivise people to throw down money for convenience, but considering coughing up cash only equates to RNG uncertainty, there’s no guaranteed way to get ahead, even if you’re time-rich and willing to grind.
Technically, there’s still a lot of time for Epic to refine the Fortnite experience before it’s ‘proper’ free-to-play launch in 2018. It’s already in beta, though, which, if the vernacular is being used correctly, means content is locked (unlike alpha). It’d need a drastic makeover to the in-depth menu, player training, and the gunplay to convince me to sink more hours into it, not to mention a rejigging of the sort of pay-to-loot systems that I abhor.
I can appreciate the Epic has to make its money back for a project that’s six years in the making, but these kinds of monetisation systems are ugly, and asking players to pay to wrestle with an incomplete game with inadequate gunplay and a whole lot of grind means that Fortnite isn’t off to a great start.