Fortnite doesn't feel like the kind of experience that should be coming from Epic Games. This is the House That Shooters Built after all, with huge slabs of foundation laid down by Unreal Tournament and Gears of War. But, despite being a game that takes heavy cues from Minecraft, Fortnite represents an evolution for the dev coming.
It'd be easy to pigeonhole Fortnite as 'Horde Mode x 1000.' But it's got far more depth than that phrase can communicate. I sat down with the game for two hours at PAX Prime, playing multiple rounds of what Epic's calling a "living, action-building game." Three classes—Commando, Constructor and Ninja— were available to play in the build on hand. (A fourth class hasn't been revealed yet.) The way Fortnite is handling classes a little different than other multiplayer games. Any player in any class can use any weapon in the game but certain skills and items will work better for specific classes. So, the melee-focused Ninja will be able to shoot a gun, but it'll do more damage in the hands of a Commando. Everyone can build structures but only the Constructor will be able to take them to Level 3.
The levels start off with a group scavenging for resources that they'll need to build structures and craft weapons. All players begin with an indestructible 2x4 that can be used to smash rocks, trees and other things into base elements used for crafting. In the intro level I played with three other people, this harvesting happened until a clock runs down and night falls. When the sun went down, giant purple storm clouds rolled in, with lightning bolts that spawned monsters all over the map. Our team had to survive this wave until morning, killing creatures until the time ran out.
This was the basic pattern for the next few levels we played, set in a suburban neighborhood, a grasslands field and an industrial park. But varied mission objectives changed things up each time. On the Suburbs level, we were tasked with finding, activating and defending a special doohickey called an Atlas Gate. That meant building a protective structure around it, figuring out how best to guard it from multiple angles and making sure we have enough materials to rebuild weapons and walls once the monster onslaught started. My Level 4 died a lot in this level but found that I was able to keep the items I collected by recovering my backpack at the spot where I died.
Fully-formed weapons can be found in the game's levels. These will persist for the entire level but won't carry over to the next. But when you discover schematics for a weapon, those crafting recipes carry over to your profile, so you'll also know what you need to make them in another session. If you really want to grab the stuff needed to make a certain weapon, you can pin that recipe to the HUD so that you'll always know what you should be looking for out in the world.
You'll need different resources to craft the items, weapons and structures needed to rebuild Fortnite's broken world. Almost everything in the gameworld is destructible and will cough up some resource you can use. Things like herbs, mineral powder, wood and duct tape can be found by harvesting or searching the trash cans, crates and suitcases strewn about the indoor and outdoor environments. Interior spaces generally feel realistic, with multiple rooms, floors and basements in each.
The Grasslands level added an escort objective to the build-and-defend template, with a robot that we had to protect on its way to a site where it'd erect a radar tower. As I recall, there was no countdown to monster-storm in this one. Instead, some monsters were already on the map. Some were asleep in husk form, no longer human but not a threat unless players messed with them. Once walls are built in Fortnite, it's often not wise to just take them right down, as it wastes resources. But they can be edited to add doors, traps and other modifications.
Watching giant towers go up in the background at high speed while fighting off a zombie that throws energy bombs was a bit surreal. Fortnite's tone is goofy, not grim, but when the threats ramp up, it's a tense challenging affair.
Along with the upcoming Unreal Tournament, the game represents a change in how Epic is making and pushing out its future titles. It's going to be free-to-play but lead animator Matt Russell says that the specifics of the economy are still being worked out. "We're looking at the guys who do it right," he told me on Saturday. "We want to be generous in what we offer initially. We think if we do it right, the audience and the money will come."
The procedurally generated maps in Fortnite won't be the only environments players will build and fight in. Russell also said that there will be homebases that players maintain, as well. These bases will have things like armories that fuel buffs to your various character classes, like better weapons for a Commando. These buff will also be shared with other players in your session. "We want the building to be as engaging as the combat," Russell said. I definitely wanted to experience more of Fortnite's gameplay so Epic might be well on their way to making that happen.