Fortnite builds a hopeful future for Epic, free-to-play

"We want to provide that Epic level fidelity combat in the building game genre."

Sometime last year a meme was making the rounds of an interior design student's school project in which they were tasked with creating the worst house floor plan ever. There was a toilet in the dining room, another toilet could only be accessed by going through a shower, and a bedroom defined by a chain-linked fence. This made plenty of sense in comparison to the mad, ramshackle designs my compatriots and I composed in Epic's upcoming free-to-play building & defense game Fortnite.

Like the hilariously twisted satirical college assignment, the sorts of rushed structures we construct in Fortnite are rubbish for things like eating, sleeping, and crapping - but who cares? The pertinent question is "can it keep zombies out?"

The answer depends on your tactics, skill, and maybe a bit of good old fashioned luck. Of course we've seen a glut of other build and defend games over the last few years with Minecraft, Rust and State of Decay paving the way, but Epic's putting its own accessible, action-focused spin on the genre.

"We want to provide that Epic level fidelity combat in the building game genre," says lead designer Darren Sugg. "You're not scavenging for a can of beans to survive. That's not the tone of our game. We're not serious at all. We're sort of whimsical in how we treat it...People have an idea about what Epic shooting and an Epic action game feels like. So putting that into the building genre makes sense for us."

This focus on twitchy reflex skills is evident even in Fortnite's most basic functions. Just as Epic somehow made reloading fun with its own revolutionary spin on the monotonous activity in Gears of War, in Fortnite it reinvents the drudgery of tree-punching. To liven this up, the developer revitalises the oldest cliché in the book: glowing weak points. With every swing of your pickaxe you'll see a new glowing spark sprout up on another part of the object's surface. Hit this weak spot and you'll do extra damage, drastically decreasing the time it takes to break it down. Everything in the game except for the actual earth can be demolished for materials, and there's a rubbery, Toontown-esque bouncy feel to the game world as the walls, trees and machines bend to your beating.

And that's just gathering resources. The real magic comes when it's time to construct your fortifications, and Fortnite's accessible control scheme lets you build complex structures in a matter of minutes. Hotkeys will select whether you wish to place a wall, floor, ceiling, staircase, or various traps. From there a holographic blueprint of your proposed addition will appear and you can right-click to toggle between wood, brick and stone variations of these constructs.

Better yet, each wall/floor/roof/etc can be edited on the fly as you can punch out parts of a wall to form a door or bend a staircase by dragging its blueprint in edit mode. You can even save your variations of these, so you don't need to reshape every wall to add a door. Smartly, you can edit any piece of your fort once it's placed, so if you don't like your teammate's nonsensical hallway to nowhere you can simply go into edit mode and add a door in two or three clicks.

It's an incredibly intuitive approach to fortress-building that allows you and your teammates to raise colossal strongholds in a matter of minutes. My only criticism is that there's no gamepad support at the moment, but the developer noted that this is something it will investigate later once the core game is further along.

Given the game's title and premise, you might think that you build during the day then defend at night, but it's not that simple as you can actually choose when to send in the enemy wave. Your first order of business is to smash anything you can find to bits until someone on your team locates a beacon. Once found, you activate its first phase which indicates from which side the zombies will emerge. From here, you have indefinite time to erect your fortress. Since the maps are rather large, you could easily spend hours creating a citadel the size of Alcatraz, but chances are after about 20-30 minutes you'll feel pretty confident about where you're at and invite your foes to come get some.

It's a somewhat odd decision to give the player unlimited time to build - and it arguably robs the first half of each match of any sense of urgency - but Sugg says that he wants players to have a choice in how tense this first phase of a mission is. As such, there will be a reward for completing each objective under a certain amount of time. It's not that hard to simply complete a level, but doing it most effectively is where the real challenge lies.

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PvP matches will be limited to five on five matches as coordination is important and that's harder to set up with any more players.

Sugg tells me that this lack of a hard time-limit to prepare is one of the most divisive choices in house, but having playtested the game with younger folks it seems like it's the most inclusive option. "We've had community days where we'll bring in people on the young side and having them be able to wander around and build and take the time that they need- they enjoy the game. That's the thing that they like. But for the core gamer who wants the rewards and to make optimal progress, we can set goals."

"We're going to try rewarding the players for moving speedily along," he adds. "But if the community says 'no, I need more pressure' we'll examine that too, because there are even people in-house who prefer that level of tension."

It's worth noting that Fortnite is a funny game, but its most humorous aspects aren't scripted. Sure there are some jokes like creating a healing substance called "Mega Bacon" made out of bacon and duct tape (which can be upgraded to the deadly Mega Bacon Bomb), but its biggest laughs are based on the sort of emergent mayhem inherent in the design. The man-made fortresses will wear and tear, making their origins as the manifestations of panicked idiots all too clear. Why does this staircase go to nowhere? How come there are no walls on this side of the second floor. How do I get into our compound again? There's an almost dream-like feeling navigating these slapshod fortresses that constantly change while communication between your comrades deteriorates.

There's even more potential for this sort of thing in PvP. While the competitive mode we play is in its embryonic stage, it successfully blends the cerebral and skillful as each team is tasked with destroying the other team's unicorn statue. Since building is more complex than fighting, at the preview event each team is given an Epic staffer to assume the role of the Constructor - a class with some specialised building buffs. The rest of us operate as gun-toting soldiers or agile, double-jumping ninjas set on infiltrating our enemies' base, defending our stronghold, or gathering resources to help our architect ringer fortify our defenses.

Adding a further wrinkle of mayhem to this already complex mode is throngs of zombies that appear by night. Armies of the undead charging your safehouse while ominous purple storm clouds and lighting bear down upon you is a rousing set piece on its own. Having all this go down while you're embroiled in a war against another team of human opponents is absolutely harrowing.

Best of all, there are opportunities for some dastardly forms of trickery. One subtle detail in Fortnite's design is that you can open your own doors, while enemies cannot. Likewise, traps will harm your foes but your team is impervious to each others' hazards. In one multiplayer match some cunning bastard decided that instead of infiltrating our compound they would build their own doorway into it. Since it looked the same as our wall, no one thought anything of this nondescript passage and it wasn't until later that we realised it was a secret entrance accessible only for our enemies. Well played, other team. Well played.

While PvP is still being constructed, it's my favourite mode so far as it operates more like an RTS - with its balance between rushing and turtling - with a more conventional action game. I mostly go rogue and try to infiltrate the enemies' compound when their forces are otherwise distracted, but my other teammates - like USGamer's Jeremy Parish - are more cooperative about gathering materials and building. It's a more chaotic mode that requires more cooperation, but smashing the enemies' unicorn to bits or catching a human intruder wreaking havoc from within is as thrilling as anything I played in the campaign. (Though Parish will disagree as he was more partial to the PvE stuff.)

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You can give schematics to newer players, so they can build advanced weaponry without putting in lots of time.

There's still plenty to Fortnite we haven't seen yet. Sugg mentions about something called a home base, which will be a sort of meta-game on top of the campaign. One dev likens it to Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker's Mother Base, in which you rescue people during the campaign then send them on tasks in this stat-based meta-game. The advantage of the home base is that you'll gain buffs for building this abstract mini-game. Build an armoury to get free guns for your teammates, or place a hospital to add a regenerating health buff to your squadron.

Beyond stat buffs, one of the Homebase's most interesting functions is that you'll be able to build your own permanent fortress that you can test against increasingly difficult waves of enemies. While the campaign and PvP matches will see you build a structure only for it to vanish into the ether upon the round ending, this home base fortress can be saved and tinkered with to your heart's content until you've amassed the perfect stronghold.

While Fortnite is a free-to-play game, Sugg is adamant that it won't be pay to win. "My overall view in this space is making it so people with time can compete with people with money," he tells me. "That seems to be the bargain basement in terms of fairness in that space. So if you don't have any money and want to earn the stuff by playing, you can do that. If you don't have a lot of time but have some money, there's ways to acquire things in that way."

"We like Riot's model of the player-centric view. They deliver value to those players and on a similar level we can. You don't have to go in and spend all this time on getting the champions. You can just acquire them," he adds. "That seems to be well-received by the communities, so if we stay within the philosophy of that, I think we'll be okay."

Fortnite's focus on building is a far cry from Gears of War, but the studio's DNA is still very evident. Like Gears and Unreal before it, Fortnite is a game about teamwork, rivalry, strategy, and things going wrong in the best of ways. It's Unreal meets Minecraft with a healthy dose of Team Fortress' whimsy tossed into the mix. If this is the direction that Epic is plunging headfirst into, then count me in as hopeful for the free-to-play revolution.

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