'Fortnite' is Trying to do For Survival Games What 'WoW' Did For MMOs

Epic is finally pulling the curtains back on its long-in-gestation hybrid sandbox shooter

Credit: Epic Games

If you're wired the right way, Fortnite could very easily get its hooks in you. It's been in development for what seems like eons (in actuality, since 2011), periodically going dark every few years before reemerging as an Actual Thing that Epic Games assures us it's working on. But it seems like they're really serious this time: Fortnite is coming out in early access July 25th, and from the looks of it, Epic has been pretty busy.

Behind Fortnite's cheery cartoon veneer is a vast superstructure of game systems that's at times incomprehensibly expansive. The skill tree, for instance, sprawls for what feels like square miles on your PC monitor, looking like something out of Civilization. You collect weapons, schematics, NPCs, and more, and there are systems for upgrading each of them. You can "retire" all of these and log them in some sort of scrapbook, which appears to be good for something, but I'm not yet sure what. In the six-or-so hours I've played through this early-early-access alpha build, Fortnite hasn't ceased this barrage of new concepts and systems. I feel confident saying that it is the most complex and ambitious game ever made about protecting ramshackle strongholds against hordes of cartoon zombies.

If you're anything like me, the prospect of breaking in an unruly prototype game system is usually enough of a draw. But the nuts and bolts stuff in Fortnite is also well-crafted and immediately satisfying – the shooting, the harvesting, the building. The first thing that came to mind when I was earnestly in the thick of it was World of Warcraft, and the way it pureed the MMORPG's gluey gruel into a form consumable by a layperson. Fortnite is trying to do this with the survival/sandbox game, and seems to be mostly getting away with it.

Mainly, it does this by giving you a concrete goals. Unlike other games where you chop down trees and build stuff, Fortnite makes an effort to keep things contained: you start a game, invite others if you want, and complete an objective, which almost always, per the six-or-so hours I've played, involves defending a stronghold against an onslaught of zombies. Most of the time, these endeavors take place on a big map full of rocks, trees, and junked cars to harvest for raw materials. The ones that take place in a facsimile of suburban America also have houses that you can sack for valuables, and survivors that you can aid or rescue for bonus rewards. You can wander all you want, but the game never stops telling you that the thing you're actually there for – the building of the fort and the killing of the zombies – will commence if you go over there, to that blinking map point, exactly where your peppy robot handler Ray is telling you.

There's a persistent piece to Fortnite, too, though I haven't yet had the chance to really explore it without the tutorial's training wheels. Every player gets a plot of land where the stuff they build is permanent, and you increase your dominion of the place by bolstering your "storm shield" – essentially, the high tech force-field that keeps at bay the zombie-spawning megastorms that plague the land. You boost your storm shield by (you guessed it) fending off hordes of zombies. I get the feeling this is the primary mechanism by which you progress through Fornite.

Yes, the experience is laser-focused on the harvest-then-horde-mode thing (does it count for something that Epic more or less defined the concept in Gears of War?), but when I'm playing Fortnite, this implied monotony simply doesn't register. It's because all the basic stuff just feels good. We bring up the concept of "weapon feel" when we talk about Destiny, and while Fortnite doesn't quite reach those heights, it definitely approaches them. All the flavors of shooter weapons are present, and they all feel distinct, and more importantly, shooting skillfully with them gives you the buzz you expect, as big, yellow "crit" numbers pop out of the vaporized heads of your enemies. Even simply harvesting resources – read: whacking surfaces with a pickaxe – stokes your mammalian pleasure centers as you're encouraged to aim your strikes at a moving target that doubles the rate at which you collect materials. Building is stripped to its bare essentials; you place floors, walls, and ramps in your desired configuration, place traps where you want them, and before you know it, you have a viable structure. Carving out doors and erecting half walls (that you can shoot over) takes a little more doing – you go into "edit mode" and manually delete the modular bits to carve out the openings or chop down the walls. There's a little more to it, but nowhere near Rust or even Minecraft in terms of the complexity of the operation.

Normally, when I play a game for six hours, I feel like I'm at least beginning to grasp its measure, but with Fortnight, I'm very clearly just scratching the surface. Ninety percent of the UI elements in my character screen are empty, alluding to things like squad mates that can accompany me on missions. I've yet to meet one. The next thing on the skill tree that I can unlock appears to give me access to dirt bikes. What? I had no idea vehicles were a thing in this game. Clearly, there is a very deep hole that people like me are in great danger of falling into. And since it's free-to-play (and very much still TBD on whether Epic gets the pay-to-win stuff right), it'll be quite an easy hole to peer into.