Fortnite hands-on: Epic's new PC-exclusive shooter is like twelve games in one

A million things to learn. Only half an hour to learn them.

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Fortnite is one of the simplest games I’ve ever played. Fortnite is one of the most complex games I’ve ever played. This is the duality running through my head as I try to wrangle my thoughts on Epic’s upcoming Minecraft-alike/survival game/shooter/whatever this thing is.

See, Fortnite at its core is a summation of multiple games I am keenly familiar with. There is, as I mentioned, the smacking-trees-to-get-wood-to-build-things aspect of Minecraft. Okay, easy enough. There’s the never-enough-ammo-or-guns-so-loot-everything part of survival games. Also base-building. Lots of base-building. And then there’s the shooting pew-pew bit, which in the mission I played consisted of an on-the-fly version of Gears of War’s Horde Mode—hold out against waves of enemies until you run out the clock.

It’s a lot of pieces of a lot of different games that I understand. I know how to play Minecraft and DayZ and Gears of War. Throw them all together though—build those three bits (and more) into the larger, complex entity known as Fortnite—and damn, it’s amazing how quickly I feel lost.

Running before walking

Fortnite is a terrible game to demo.

That doesn’t mean it’s a terrible game. I’d like to get that out of the way early. I had moments during my half-hour with Fortnite I really enjoyed—particularly the base-building, which I’ll talk more about later.

But it is a terrible game to demo, particularly in half an hour’s span. It is the polar opposite of Epic’s other game, Unreal Tournament, which is literally “Shoot anything that moves.” There are too many fiddly bits to Fortnite, too many facets that are desperately important for you to understand but require too much explanation and experimentation for you to really comprehend in the time given. It’s like if someone opened up the lid on a piano, gave you thirty seconds to look inside, and then said “Cool, now build me one of those.” Where do you even start?

Well, with Fortnite you start—if you’re me—aimlessly wandering around. Literally. I chose the Constructor class (which has a slight bonus to base-building), dropped into a co-op match with three Fortnite developers, and was told we were looking for a “gateway” we needed to close. That was our mission.

Each match is procedurally generated though, so not even the developers knew where we were headed. We all walked off in different directions, and I just sort of got lost in Fortnite’s cartoon-apocalypse world. And it is a very pretty world, all soft edges and bright colors. Very Sunset Overdrive-esque.

I mostly spent the next five minutes admiring, because…well, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t even know what the gateway looked like. I chopped apart a tree. I found some metal bits on the top floor of a house. I opened up my crafting menu and immediately got overwhelmed by all the stuff I could build.

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Seriously, Fortnite’s crafting system is massive—and it’s part of what makes the game impenetrable to demo. You craft melee weapons, you craft guns, you even craft bullets for your guns. What kind of ammo do you need? And how much? These are questions you’ll need to be able to answer in Fortnite, and in my demo I absolutely did not know the answers.

But that’s not fair! Because if you were a new player, you wouldn’t have all these options. You’d have built up your library of schematics over time, making mental notes of old favorites and stockpiling bullets in quiet moments. Here I was, jumping into the late game—essentially trying to build IKEA furniture by smacking the pieces together and hoping something fit instead of following the instructions.

In my demo, that meant the well-meaning developer sitting next to me said I could create a new weapon if I didn’t like what they’d kitted me with. I opened the crafting menu, saw a million different schematics, went “Nope,” and shut it again.

After all, there were other things to focus on. We’d found the gate, so now we needed to build a fort around it for protection—and I, as the Constructor, was integral to this process. Everyone else could build, but I could build.

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This was actually where I had the most fun. Fortnite’s base-building is super-easy, but hides quite a bit of depth. You can just place walls/floors/stairs in a variety of materials (I had wood, brick, and metal). However, each of those can then be broken down into nine separate pieces. For instance, think of a wall as a three-by-three grid. If you keep all nine grid-pieces filled in, it forms a full wall. Take out the central square in the grid and you’ve now got a wall with a window. Leave only the bottom three squares and you’ve got a short wall. Bottom six? Medium-height wall.

Stairs and floors work the same way, so you could (for instance) have narrow or wide stairs based on the same schematic. It’s easy! And yet still very powerful. I had a lot of fun throwing down walls—and then reconfiguring them later in the battle to have windows (once I knew where enemies were coming from).

Because sooner or later it’s time for shooting. Once we’d built our base (a three-story, sprawling monstrosity that probably could’ve been at least a floor shorter) we activated the gate and thereby brought enemies down on us.

Here’s where all the prep-work comes into play. Did you build a smart base? Did you craft enough bullets? Do you even know what the hell you’re doing?

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And the answers were “Yes,” “No,” and “Sort of.” Our base held up surprisingly well, and as the Constructor I spent a lot of time running back inside and repairing damaged walls. We only had one wall break down, and I was able to kill the shambling horde that came through.

I did not have enough bullets, though. I ran out maybe three-quarters of the way through, and since I had absolutely no idea how to make more (or even what kind of ammo I needed) I just…put my gun away. I also had some sort of melee weapon on hand so I wasn’t completely helpless, but this game does not mess around—if you are out of ammo, you are out.

As for “Sort of” knowing how to play—I mean, it’s shooting. I know how to shoot things, and Fortnite is pretty similar to any other Horde mode. You have tons of fodder enemies, and then a few specialized types that throw grenades or soak up damage or what have you. Again, I think it’s the cartoon aesthetic that’s causing me to draw this comparison, but if you played any of the tower defense-esque missions in Sunset Overdrive then you get the gist.

I still felt like I was missing out on key parts of the game, though—like if I knew my way around the crafting system more, or I knew how to make other weapons, I’d be better off. There’s an entire traps category I barely played with. There are, as I said, about a million weapons.

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There’s a lot to take in. This game is massive. On the one hand, cool—it opens up a ton of player-agency. On the other, it feels a bit loose or (at its worst moments) unfocused. It’s like a crazy Frankenstein’s monster of influences, as if Epic set out to build a shooter and then said “Well what if we tacked on a Minecraft component?” and then later went “We could combine that with this survival component…” and then it just kept growing.

It doesn’t help that the game is in massive flux right now. During my demo I was cautioned that the entire UI is getting scrapped and rebuilt. Like, all of it. And the current campaign map? Also getting scrapped.

Despite how dire that sounds, it actually has me hopeful—like maybe Epic also feels the game is a bit too big and unwieldy, and is pruning the game’s least important aspects. And just to reiterate, I feel like some of my demo-specific issues would be fixed if you started the game from scratch. Minecraft can be similarly overwhelming in its late-game, but it’s easy enough to get started by just punching trees.

The long and short of it, though, is I don’t know what exactly to think of Fortnite. Normally when I leave a game preview I have some sort of idea in my head whether a game will be good or not—a first impression that’s usually (though not always) correct when it’s time to review. Fortnite? I mostly felt confused. And like I needed to play a dozen more rounds to come to grips.

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