After 5 years, Fortnite is a fun but bloated base defense shooter

A week in, the co-op shooting and base building are a great time, but the progression systems are a confusing mess.

As is law in games now, Fortnite has character classes. Of course it does.

Honestly, I still don’t know how to describe Fortnite. It’s a cross section of all things ‘the kids are into these days’ with some old school Epic Games DNA tying it all together. It’s part Minecraft, in that you bust up trees and rocks with a pickaxe to build big fortresses out of big snappy pieces, and part tower defense in that zombies creatures make a beeline towards said base with the singular goal of destroying your creations. It’s also a third-person shooter with class-based co-op synergies and tons of loot—traps, weapons, heroes, and even NPC support characters. Fortnite is a lot of things. It’s too many things, really.

But after spending all week with an early version of the Early Access release (early-early access), I’m a believer. Building forts with friends is super easy and satisfying. Tom and I spent far too long combing each map’s houses and cave systems looking for secret treasure chests and weird one-off surprises—my favorite was an impromptu game of whack-a-mole we played with a purple, portal-diving demon and a shotgun. I’d expect procedural generation to make the maps more bland than they are, but I’m still finding new terrain, traps, and construction strategies every time I play.

The latest trailer does a nice job showing off what Fortnite is.

Plus, Epic gave Fortnite a makeover, refining its cartoonish stylings into something that looks like an animated Dreamworks movie. It’s a pretty, pleasant world I like spending a lot of time in, and the goofy writing colors in the characters and item descriptions with big, dumb, bright jokes. The best so far has to do with bacon, which is valuable resource used to make traps. It’s described as “the duct tape of food.” I found some in a toilet.  

And then I smashed that toilet. Nearly everything in Fortnite’s procedurally generated forests and small towns can be busted up with a pickaxe and salvaged for materials. Wood, brick, and metal are the most important, used for building the forts themselves, but specific objects like copper deposits and computers (and toilets) can be searched and salvaged for more valuable materials used to build traps and weapons.

Materialistic

Most missions begin by dropping you into big map, where you’ll need to find an objective, build a fort around it with defenses based on the direction of incoming storms. Storms bring zombies. Don’t worry about it.

Your resources are persistent between missions, so you might already be loaded up on building materials and traps. If not, or if you’re just curious, head out into the world and bust shit. It’s almost always a good idea anyway since you might find valuable loot in the form of extra traps, weapons, and rare resources. Plus, it’s fun to tell your friend you found a chest in some basement, only to trap them in layers of walls. Sucker.

Building forts is easy. Tap Q to enter build mode and use the scroll wheel (or F1 through F5) keys to select walls, floors, pyramids, ramps, or traps then click to place. Other objects snap to a grid and can be customized by pressing G and clicking spaces on a three-by-three grid. Removing the center square on a wall grid makes a wall with a window. Remove two in the center to make a door. Nearly every possible arrangement makes something unique, leaving a ton of room for smart, strange designs. And while I’ve had fun making eccentric bases (don’t you ever make a roof without a balcony, damnit) none of them have ever been in danger.

Customizing building materials is a cinch, except for some awkward key placements and menu hierarchies. 

I wish I could say more about Fortnite’s more difficult levels, but in its current state, the tutorial is an agonizingly slow ramp towards anything resembling a challenge. Tom and I spent the majority of our time scavenging the map for parts and building elaborate forts only for the zombie forces to be so weak that they hardly even make it to our traps. Then, poof, the level is over and our creation is dust in the wind. That said, there are missions where you return to a persistent fort, expanding the influence of a huge shield through waves of enemies from all sides. Still, the massive forts on display in the trailer feel like a distant dream, with jump pads, several stories, dozens of rooms, and enemy types I still haven’t seen tearing it all down. 

Meanwhile, in the first 10 hours of play, we’ve rarely been forced to cooperate or build on the fly in response to new threats. Fortnite should give more trust to its players and let them die earlier. What better way to learn? I’m sure it gets harder, but I worry players will get bored with so many hours of slow burn tutorializing.

When we accurately anticipated what approach the zombie waves would take and built a beautiful, symmetrical death corridor to compensate, Fortnite felt so right.

Enemy AI and pathfinding is a bit questionable too. It’s hard to anticipate what route the enemies are going to take and build a fort to accommodate. The procedural landscape results in some strange terrain that seems to take the AI on strange paths. Some ranged enemies like to flank while the weakest grunts typically make a straight line towards the weakest point in your base. There were missions where Tom and I had to build massive walls twice the length of our base just to make sure the AI didn’t decide to take a long nonsensical path to the side. It’s never too clear why some choose to attack one wall over another or why some attack ramps—walkways they need to reach your base—rather than carry on towards their destination. 

Early Access gives time for refinement and behaviors might become clearer with more playtime, I just wish their motives were easier to understand. I wasted so many beautiful traps only for those jerks to walk somewhere that didn’t make sense. 

But when we accurately anticipated what approach the zombie waves would take and built a beautiful, symmetrical death corridor to compensate, Fortnite felt so right. We kicked back and let them try to get close while we bathed in the efficiency of our engineering. With a bit more chaos, another player or two, bigger stakes, and clearer rules, it’s easy to imagine gliding even higher on that emotion, approaching the same adrenal rush of scraping through a Left 4 Dead campaign with near perfect teamwork.

I can also imagine that feeling getting washed out by the confusing, bloated progression systems you have to manage once dumped back into the menus.

Progression regression 

After each match, here’s a simplified list of what you can do, most of which is done through convoluted menu navigation:

Send heroes out on timed expeditions to grab resources.

Open chests for loot.

Smash pinatas for loot.

Level up heroes and manage their gadgets.

Level up and manage defenders, NPCs you can deploy in forts.

Manage squads, which can be used to defend Storm Shields, sent on expeditions, or assembled to upgrade passive player buffs.

Allocate loot to the collection book to work towards more rewards.

Allocate commander points to one of four massive skill trees.

Allocate research points, which are earned on a timer, into one of four massive research trees.

Recycle extra schematics for XP to pour into other schematics.

Combine schematics to transform them into new, potentially more powerful schematics.

Cry, crushed by the weight of existence and the finite time we have to live.

The loot pinatas are amazing, but everything you get has to be leveled up to unlock their specific perks—that's for all weapons, traps, heroes, and survivors. 

Almost all the progression systems are entirely removed from the actual act of shooting and building, influencing progress in invisible numerical increments—new loot being the primary exception. Speaking of, XP is loot and there are multiple types. Epic, we need to talk. 

I love the idea of recruiting survivors and building a safe bastion for my people, but it’s boiled down to an exhausting cycle of looting and leveling, none of which makes me feel like the leader of a surviving contingent of cartoon humanity. It could be massively simplified, or some systems gutted entirely without losing the fun of collecting, exploration, and fort-building with your friends. When I was a kid, constructing pillow forts that’d make an NYC architect keel over, none of the fantasy involved managing a dozen spreadsheets. Hopefully the early access period shifts the focus from building skills for office work into building skills for, well, building. 

Fortnite releases into Early Access on July 25. For more details, see the announcement post here.