If you’ve been reading about or playing video games in the last few months, you’ve probably heard someone talking about Fortnite. Epic Games’ post-Gears of War project entered early access in July, 2017, as a co-operative sandbox survival game. These days, though, when players talk about Fortnite — and that happens a lot — it’s safe to assume they are referring to Fortnite: Battle Royale, a free-to-play mode that Epic quickly added to the game in response to the wild success of Battle Royale innovator PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. Fortnite: Battle Royale cribs its structure from PUBG, much to the dismay of its creator, Brendan Greene. While the similarities between the two games can be striking, Fortnite’s cartoonish visuals and arcade shooter-style play distinguish it from its predecessor. It is also, as we mentioned, free-to-play, making it an ideal jumping off point for those who had been hesitant to invest in PUBG.
While it’s easy to see why millions of players have become enamored by the singular loop of Battle Royale games, Fortnite: Battle Royale feels at odds with that premise. You only have one life, but cautious play isn’t rewarded, and its emphasis on gathering materials distracts more than it adds. Its systems force players into combat quickly rather than building up the tension that makes Battle Royale games so enthralling.
Fortnite: Battle Royale mimics the standard Battle Royale format: 100 players enter in an large arena, last person standing wins. Once 100 players (or close to it) join a match, everyone boards the hot air balloon-propelled bus towards a large island. Pick your starting spot, then parachute down, steering your randomized, generic character to the ground.
Fortnite’s cartoonish visuals and arcade-shooter play sets it apart from PUBG.
From there, it’s a race for the best vantage points and powerful gear, both of which heighten your chances of staying alive. To keep players moving and engaging with each other, a “blue storm” progressively shrinks the map, forcing players closer and closer to each other. That’s the game: Keep moving, keep killing. The last person or team standing wins (you can play solo, as a duo, or in a four-person squad).
The first few minutes of each round typically play out as a mad dash for weapons. Most of that precious loot is found in the game’s town areas, scattered around the center of the map. As such, you have a choice to make: Do you risk dying early in the pursuit of rare weapons, or do you stay away from the pack in favor of less densely-packed areas, without nearly as much available firepower?
Though Fortnite feels unique in spots, it shares a lot of DNA with other Battle Royale games. It’s not uncommon to land in a commercial area with 15-20 other players in view. Consequently, the player count frequently drops below 75 within the first couple minutes. It’s not unusual for close to half the field to be eliminated by the time the first storm constrains the island.
This is where Fortnite’s distinctive features start to feel like flaws. Any time you fire a weapon, you give away your position. Maybe not to the person you’re firing at, but the tracers that the bullets leave behind lead straight back to you. The gunplay feels imprecise, which can lead to prolonged, scrambling firefights. Where PUBG players live and die by their ability to master precise systems, Fortnite’s mechanics leave room for chance in even deadlocked encounters.
Stealthy kills are not in Fortnite’s genetic makeup. Sure, you can find a quiet hiding spot away from the action, sit there hesitantly with an assault rifle in hand, wait it out, converge on the safe circle when needed, and repeat. You can get into the top-20, maybe even the top-10, if you’re lucky, but you won’t be prepared for the home stretch if you remain idle the whole game.
If you build it, you will win… Or maybe not
You only have your sole precious life, but Fortnite forces you to play loose, take considerable risks, and think about the endgame while in the midst of a pandemonium. When it comes down to final group of players in a tight play area, the person with the most resources has a considerable advantage.
Fortnite: Battle Royale’s novel aspect that differentiates it from PUBG is building, which was adapted from the base survival game. Almost everything in Fortnite’s environment can be broken down into materials with your pickaxe. Rocks crumble into stone, trees chop into wood, and heavy machinery is scrapped for metal. You can also find materials lying around, in treasure chests, and looted from bodies.
With these three resources, you can build structures that address your problems on the fly. Need to cross a gap? Build a bridge. Need to get up a mountain? Build some stairs. Need protection from incoming bullets? Build a wall.
Need to get up a mountain? Build stairs. Need protection from incoming bullets? Build a wall.
By the end of a match, resourceful players will have accumulated enough materials to build towering structures for their final stands. After all, it’s wasteful to use resources on stuff you’ll likely have to abandon during the next instance of the storm.
The player-made structures, like everything else, can be destroyed and stick out like sore thumbs, but if you’re way down below and they are way up high, well, you’re at a severe tactical disadvantage. This has only grown more important as the game has evolved: In the game’s fourth season, which began in May, 2018, which added low-gravity bouncing spots and removed certain structures that provided natural cover.
Building structures is surprisingly easy and quick, even with the limited inputs on a controller, but it doesn’t quite feel like it fits inside the Battle Royale format. Building destructible cover, rather than finding truly safe spots in the environment as you would in most cover-centric shooters, forces you to keep moving and scouring for materials, which you pour into more stuff to hide behind. You have to lower your scope, switch to your pickaxe, quickly break down materials, switch to the building menu, build, and then cycle back to your gun to see if anyone heard the commotion. It’s a lot to manage.
Like the shooting, the building system seems hell-bent on fostering chaos, which can be fun, but often leaves you wondering what went wrong. Even if you happen to play a perfect match — you collected a truckload of resources, acquired a small arsenal of powerful ranged weapons, and situated yourself up in an elaborate fortress — there’s always a chance that someone will prematurely spoil your victory lap by blasting the fortress with a rocket launcher, sending you to your death.
Fortnite follows the now-hardwired rules of a Battle Royale, but also forces you to bend away from that logic, to put yourself out in the thick of the fight even though you will likely die and have to queue up another match. There’s a direct correlation with how little you care about protecting about winning and how much fun you’ll have. That isn’t necessarily problem in itself, but Fortnite doesn’t really click unless you approach it in a very specific way — One that isn’t as intuitive as it could or should be.
Remember what ‘Fortnite’ was supposed to be?
All of Fortnite’s mechanics that feel somewhat out of place in Battle Royale — its loose arcade-y action, its building, and emphasis on loot — make sense when you dive into its original game mode, sub-branded “Fortnite: Save the World.”
The game doesn’t start to click unless you approach it in a very specific way.
In Save the World, a storm comes, wiping out most of humanity and filling the world with hordes of zombies. Each mission tasks you and up to three friends with pushing back against the zombie hordes by fortifying a position using the same building tools found in Battle Royale, or completing a series of errands around the map in a set amount of time.
The building mechanics place a strategic emphasis on what would otherwise be a rote horde mode. It’s good, fast fun but, unfortunately, it grows stale rather quickly. Its progression, an endless grind for experience, loot, and building up your home base, feels overwrought.
There’s simply too much going on here — a dizzying number of experience point variations, multiple currencies, skill trees — all of it compiled in a confusingly massive menu system that you’ll spend too much time sorting through in between action. The game tries to explain its obtuse systems, but when sorting through menu system is deemed an actual “mission,” you know something is wrong.
For the most dedicated Save the World players, free updates released via the game’s “season” system have added additional missions and story content not found in Fortnite: Battle Royale. These updates have tweaked how you acquire gear, with loot dropped by defeated enemies and special “caches” available for beating mini-bosses. New sub-classes give you more options for how you engage in combat, with additional weapons and abilities like the “Piercing Lotus” Ninja’s poison shuriken.
While interesting at times, that content supplements the game that’s already there, without than address the mode’s issues. For better or worse, the classic Fortnite experience endures.
‘Fortnite’ on a phone, not “Fortnite Mobile”
Propelling Fortnite even further into public consciousness, a mobile adaptation of Fortnite has launched on smartphones. The mobile version of Fortnite, which is out on iOS and coming to Android in April, 2018, is no “de-make” or compromised derivative: It is the complete Fortnite experience, translated to touchscreen controls. Cross-play with PC and consoles is possible, but only by opting-in, which will give some players peace of mind about the inherent handicap of playing on touch controls versus opponents on gamepads or mouse and keyboard.
That being said, although we found that the touch controls put us at a distinct disadvantage over console and PC players, that was clearly not the case for many of our opponents, who seemed to be more deft with the touch controls than we could be even with the gamepad.
Fortnite and the comparable PUBG Mobile are leading the charge of more heavyweight, “gamers’ games” making good-faith efforts to launch to mobile platforms. Traditionally, console and PC games have jumped to mobile as cheap ports and casual side-stories. Fortnite‘s free-to-play model is indicative of how economic practices incubated in the mobile space have already been informing AAA game design. As the technical barriers between platforms dissipate, so to do the other categorical differences between their games, which makes Fortnite an interesting harbinger of games to come.Our Take
Fortnite: Battle Royale is a fast-paced arcade alternative to PUBG, but it fails in the tension department. Its good fun when you play like you don’t only have one life, but that in and of itself makes it feel like an oddity that hasn’t quite found its identity yet. The Save the World campaign makes better use of Fortnite’s mechanics, but it’s severely hampered by its needlessly elaborate progression system. Both modes show promise, but fall short, mainly from trying to do too much.
Is there a better alternative?
While it is a bigger investment, we feel that PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds provides the better Battle Royale experience, especially on PC. On PS4, where PUBG is not available, Fortnite: Battle Royale is currently the definitive Battle Royale experience.
How long will it last?
Fortnite: Battle Royale and Save the World don’t have a firm ending. You can play either version as long as there are enough players online, and right now it seems the game will remain popular for years to come.
Should you buy it?
We don’t recommend buying the Save the World campaign, but since Fortnite: Battle Royale is free-to-play, there’s no reason not to dip your toe in and see if you like it.
Fortnite: Save the World was reviewed on PlayStation 4 using a retail license purchased by Digital Trends.