Fortnite Early Access Review
GameSpot’s early access reviews evaluate unfinished games that are nonetheless available for purchase by the public. While the games in question are not considered finished by their creators, you may still devote money, time, and bandwidth for the privilege of playing them before they are complete. The review below critiques a work in progress, and represents a snapshot of the game at the time of the review’s publication.
Almost every moment of Fortnite is a chaotic mess–for better and for worse. It’s an action-packed shooter that knows how to encourage cooperation between team members. And, as a result, you’ll often build out hasty forts with friends to defend yourselves (and often some special MacGuffin tucked inside your base) from hordes of cartoonish beasts. That part is usually a thrill and highlights all the best pieces of what should be a solid formula: building bases with friends to defend against monsters. The reality of that is sullied far more often than it should be, however, by a staggering deluge of “content.”
Fortnite isn’t an easy game to describe. It staples together pieces of disparate genres into something new. It combines the construction elements and resource-gathering of Minecraft, the team-based shooting of Left 4 Dead and Gears of War, the quest design of a modern MMO, and the progression of any given free-to-play hit. It’s surprising that such divergent elements work together at all, but Fortnite definitely knows what it’s best at and tries to thrust you into ideal scenarios early.
Fortnite is quite content to keep its writing and tone lighthearted. Instead of any serious moves to address what’s going on, you get a solid stream of jokes. Its zombies look about as threatening as a Furby (i.e., a bit creepy in the right light but otherwise harmless). If you’re trying to bust down a wall, it’ll pop and flex with each strike as if ripped from old Looney Tunes skits, and many character you find will be some over-the-top caricature of a classic disaster/horror-movie trope. Your main companion, for example, is a finicky bot that only partially knows how to run your shelter. From there, you organize expeditions to gather other wacky folks to join your band, all while seeking out whimsical tech, such as sky lasers, to help cleanse the world of ghouls.
The early missions teach you the basics of defense and shooting. After that, you’re tossed in with three or four other players and told to hold up against wave after wave of foes. You’ll be running lots of instances with other players you won’t know–though you will need their help. Most missions are challenging, and tackling things on your own generally isn’t advised.
Tearing through zombies with others is so easy to get right, but it’s here that Fortnite sets itself apart. The shooting is sharp and tight, without feeling too “clean” or artificial. Constant communication with the squad can help you focus on problematic monsters worming their way through your defenses. You can have someone set a trap in a weakened area or have a friend buttress a wall as you gleefully charge out and bounce grenades off of zombified crania. Unfortunately for us all, after a few minutes that mode ends and you enter what amounts to advanced inventory management.
These missions with others are a means to several ends. They’re how you gain experience and progress your character. They’re how you gather the materials you’ll need to make new weapons and build out your base. They’re also where you rescue and then retrieve survivors. Together, all of these elements become the other main thrust of the game. You use each of these to build up your base’s power, which is essentially your level. As you gather recruits, you’ll make squads and strike teams, each adept at handling different tasks. Then you’ll send them on missions to get more resources to feed into other parts of the system. In turn, every element feeds back into every other. Leveling can help you unlock slots for more squads so that you can launch more missions to get more gear and experience so you can unlock more slots, and so on.
On first pass, this is awesome. It’s a prime example of a game working itself around a few core ideas that conspire to give you a lot to do. In combat, this usually works out pretty well–there’s always something to manage or coordinate–but once you leave, it’s obvious how deeply the game is intertwined with itself. You have to dig into the less engaging parts like strike team management in order to keep up with quests and combat challenges. That’s nice for a breather, but it also contrasts with all the other systems, highlighting their weaknesses.
Fortnite is designed to be free-to-play, but for now, at least, it isn’t. That shouldn’t be as big of a deal as it is, but it’s impossible to get around. Much of the game is built to burn time. You have energy meters in the form of research that your pack of survivors conducts. These meters place limits on progression in that they’re a resource you must wait to accumulate. At the same time, they’re engineered to keep you coming back, since you can only store so many points before they need collecting. If you have substantive experience with mobile free-to-play games, you can see where this is going.
Fortnite loves giving you extra things to do and stats to pore over. There are stats for each of your different heroes, for the defenders, for the research team. There’s your personal inventory and progress that’s tied to your account. And then there are also levels for each of your characters–and you can get dozens of these folks. Each of them can be trained, outfitted, and upgraded and then placed into teams that you can align based on personality types for maximum statistical benefit.
It’s awesome to have that sense of progression tied not to you, but to your group as a whole. It makes this apocalypse feel survivable and gives you a constant sense of growth. The problem is that most of these activities aren’t interesting in and of themselves. Instead of fleshing out all these ideas, the game only gives you the option to crunch for better numbers. All of the base-building and combat elements are linked, too, so if you’re not keeping up one piece, the logistics of your operation will screech to a halt for lack of one or another resource. For completionists, that will certainly have an appeal, but others will drop the grind.
Content dominates in Fortnite. There’s so much to do–so many skills to unlock, heroes to find, quests to finish, and llamas to whack–that it can choke on itself at times. In the fleeting moments it feels focused, however, it makes a grand case for itself. There’s nothing quite like scrambling to coordinate with your team to build out some extra turrets as you all blast away in a last-ditch effort to save a mission. These moments, for now, simply don’t come as often as they need to. The good news, though, is that Fortnite’s issues are solvable. They’re a matter of balance and tuning and expanding upon on what’s there.