For the first 10 hours of Fortnite, I didn’t have to build a fort to succeed. We shot down every zombie husk within seconds of them spawning, eliminating the need for any of the traps that Fortnite lets you craft and place on its maps. Instead, everyone would wander the map on their lonesome, completing quests that few—if any—shared in an effort to expedite the time until our next reward and crawl through the story missions towards something resembling a challenge.
When a hulking bruiser enemy busted through our walls for the first time, I felt relieved. Finally, I needed to build a decent fort, and finally, I would have to work with my team to plan and overcome a genuine threat. But we quickly killed the monster, repaired the walls, set out new traps, and coasted through the rest of the match. It would be another five hours of coasting and building useless monuments to the sky before I felt threatened again. And when it does start to get difficult, success is gated through a constant squeeze on your persistent resources required to build forts and traps, a frustrating byproduct of the messy, time-wasting progression systems.
This is typical of every post-match reward sequence, played at 2x. All this for people and bacon.
This isn’t a problem with difficulty. It’s a problem with focus. The abundance of superficial rewards are skewed to support what will eventually be a free-to-play economy, rather than to encourage unique class builds or fort deathtrap designs. Rather than expressing childhood fantasies with Fortnite’s intuitive building tools, I spent most of my time attempting to decode the purpose of Fortnite’s eight skill trees, three types of XP, and innumerable loot drops. The first time I opened a reward chest and received ‘People’ with little explanation as to what they’re used for, I started to worry. The remaining time was spent telling my teammates to hurry their puttering around the map, only for us to eventually kick off a swarm of husks whose numbers and health weren’t enough to reach our base before being dissolved by bullets.
It’s extremely disappointing, because at Fortnite’s center there’s an elaborate base defense shooter built in pretty, procedural landscapes, but it takes continual hacking away at layers of fat and fluff to get to and stay there.
Tower of Babel
Matches in Fortnite begin with an open ended search and scavenge period and culminate in the eventual construction and defense of your fort against waves of husks, which come in every expected variety: human-sized, rhino-sized brawlers, and fragile long-range damage dealers. You and up to three other players start in a large map, each of which contain procedurally generated neighborhoods and city blocks, or forested areas crowded with deep mine shafts and jutting hills.
In this early phase, you’ll typically need to find an objective to build a base around in order to protect it from timed waves of husks, that is, once you choose to kick off the swarm. But in order to build, you need to first find the resources scattered about the world by smashing literally any object in the world. Cars, trees, rocks, houses, mailboxes—everything drops resources used for building forts, traps, weapons, and ammo, and every resource is persistent. Keeping your supply topped off is important, lest you find yourself against a swarm without enough bits to construct shotgun shells.
Small activities dot each map in such forms as treasure-goblin-esque trolls that drop supplies after enough shots, stranded survivors who need protection, and crashed satellites that attract a small horde while spewing out resources. After a dozen hours, the environments run out of surprises, but they’re so colorful and expressive, I don’t mind. The real problem is that side missions and reward systems within the levels don’t contribute to what makes Fortnite fun, and actively discourage cooperation with teammates.
In one match, I spent 15 minutes clearing a large patch of forest around an objective we were meant to protect due to a storm warning that signaled enemies would be approaching from all sides. While two teammates wandered the map on their own doing god knows what, I worked with another player to build a fort, outfitting it with my finest traps. Things were finally starting to feel like a challenge, and I wanted to be prepared.
The grid-based building system makes planting and altering pieces a cinch.
But the roaming players wouldn’t come home, telling me in the chat they wanted to achieve platinum ratings across the board. We finished the fort and waited, but they never came. Rating systems with an intended purpose of encouraging team play were doing the exact opposite, so I got fed up and kicked off the swarm without them. And then my game crashed, my traps and building materials wasted, and it hit me: Fortnite could use some focus.
And it eventually finds some focus, but not until 10 or so hours in. A handful of the dozens of matches I’ve played were genuinely challenging, and once you reach the second map and set of missions, Fortnite starts to click. The third-person shooting feels snappy and forgiving throughout, with little recoil and massive husk hitboxes. Gadgets, like airstrikes and supply drops, and class-specific abilities make your role meaningful—as a Ninja, sifting through the horde to take out artillery and specialized husks is extremely important, as are the building reinforcement buffs from the constructor class. Other classes specialize in doing damage, scavenging, and breaking down materials, and all have their role to play, so long as players are willing.
This felt pretty good. A death hallway, an airstrike, and celebratory pick swinging.
When everyone is working together to build an impenetrable fortress, falling into their roles without a word, and when the husks arrive in numbers strong enough to trample over your best efforts, Fortnite feels good. It’s during those moments that the intuitive building system stops feeling like elaborate grid-based Legos, and more like a weapon in the right hands. With the press of a button and a few quick clicks, any floor, wall, or ramp can be altered to make low barriers rimmed with spikes, or a maze of interconnected stairwells meant to put the husks on a long route.
Whatever you make, it affects the husks’ pathfinding and, ideally, directs them towards more death traps your friends just put together. At the very least, you’ll delay them from ruining something you put time into. Defending your creations is tense and personal, especially with a system as expressive and easy to use as Fortnite’s. It’s just a shame players aren’t trusted to run free with it.
Instead, Fortnite opts to drip feed new traps and roles and challenge behind an excruciatingly slow series of missions. You’re free to play any mission available on the map screen, each with their own difficulty and goals, but ‘Story Quests’ incentivize staying on a guided path. They don’t change mission types significantly or at all, but give you small goals to complete in the early scavenging period of each match. You might have to collect medical supplies or listen to tapes strewn about the map, but finding them, like almost every side activity, feels like a delay of game.
We didn’t need to build it, but this fort sure cuts a nice silhouette against the storm.
Worse, most matches give a ‘build limit’ objective, which rewards you for keeping forts under a certain size. Instead of being rewarded for building a horrific castle outfitted with sniper towers in every cardinal direction, or a literal maze of walls and traps, you’re given a slap on the wrist and chastisement from your teammates who just want the medal so a meter fills up so they get a chest full of people and ‘drops of rain’ for purposes they haven’t unlocked on the skilltree yet. Fortnite’s painfully shallow difficulty curve doesn’t feel completely intentional, though. A quick tour of the progression systems points to a set of great ideas forced into a shotgun wedding with free-to-play hooks that left nothing on the cutting room floor.
Fortnite uses a cute, albeit shallow narrative backdrop as its excuse for building big towers of wood and stone and steel. Some recurring characters including a jokester robot and a longhaired rocksmith (whose van you weather-balloon into the sky every other mission) mark your progress with commentary on the state of humanity against the big purple clouds in the sky. They can be genuinely funny, but, like all the best parts of Fortnite, the dialogue feels like a low priority, often playing over the menu’s distracting visual noise and the post-match ritual of watching chests spill out, pinatas explode, and XP meters fill themselves several times over to accompanying carnival ambience.
At one point, I had 11 pinatas queued, which are basically Fortnite’s loot chests (they have actual loot chests too). I opened them all at once and watched over 100 new items—survivors, heroes, guns, traps, varying rarities of the same damn crowbar—scroll by one by one, and I didn’t feel excited about any of them. I didn’t know what half of them were for or when I’d get a chance to use them or if they’d make a meaningful difference to begin with. At first glance, they’re pictures accompanied by colors and numbers, and that’s how they stay.
Whereas a legendary skin in Overwatch becomes an instantly recognizable and expressive keepsake, or a new set in Diablo fundamentally changes how a class plays, Fortnite’s loot is indistinct, boring, and diminished by its own abundance. No one will know your rare Chad is buffing your hero’s health unless they ask.
That’s because most loot items are abstractions, human beings on cards you slot into one of a couple squads for passive buffs to health, shields, or endurance. Rarer cards mean better buffs and small perks, but you can’t glance at a Chad and understand how Chad can help you. Still, you can ‘inspect’ a Chad or Melissa and pour one of three expendable XP items into them, which upgrade their personal stats, which then spill over into your chosen hero’s swirling vortex of numbers and perks.