What if you could build your own bathroom in PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds? Fortnite's surprise Battle Royale mode asks this very question, and the answer is that so far no one wants to build any bathrooms except me. But they do want to build big boxes and ramps into the sky, sniper towers jutting out of mountainsides and impregnable cubes at the center of the storm's slowly shrinking circle.
Such constructions come by way of Fortnite's intuitive fort building system, which make the endgame encounters in a battle royale format feel like a week-long siege in Rust playing out in four minutes. It sounds like a fun idea and a nice companion mode to Fortnite's bloated PvE base defense, but Epic barely leverages what makes Fortnite unique and instead goes for the best PUBG impression it can muster. It's a problem, and not just for players.
Bluehole isn't trying to claim ownership of the battle royale game mode, but some of Epic's early marketing makes their inspiration clear by invoking PUBG directly. And, frankly, almost every major system in Fortnite's version is taken straight from PUBG. You start each match in a lobby where you can run around and bash other players over the head. No human centipedes though.
You leap from an airborne bus (what is a plane if not a bus that flies?) to an island dotted with ruins, townships, and shacks below. A big blue sphere slowly closes in while the match carries on—it's PUBG from tip to toe in presentation, but it plays out in much more simple, unsurprising ways.
The long log jog
Fortnite's Battle Royale's biggest sin is its lack of vehicles. You'll be hoofing it across the map, for now at least, but the absence of buggies and motorcycles that disagree with physics means the wacky happenings that make PUBG so clip-worthy aren't even present to begin with. Every mad dash to get inside the shrinking circle will be on foot across a map with plenty of space between points of interest. At least there's no limited stamina pool like in Fortnite's primary PvE modes. I miss the mad dashes to grab a vehicle as a last ditch effort to beat the shield, but with everyone moving at the same pace there's no incentive to play at the edges (or far beyond them).
The absence of vehicles is made worse by Fortnite's art style. While it looks nice, characters cut sharp silhouettes from far across the map and the foliage isn't dense enough to produce natural cover between places to hunker down. Characters and clothing aren't customizable yet either, assigned at random at the beginning of each map. With camo out the window, movement tactics are limited to sprinting between trees like a slow Looney Toon.
Transferring a third-person combat system built for chipping away at swarms of zombies doesn't make a neat transition to fast-paced, methodical competitive play either. It doesn't have the mechanical depth of similar games—no ability to move the camera to look around independent of your aim, no prone stance, no first person aim. It's missing a dimension of complexity, not necessarily because it's not realistic enough, but because your options for survival are mostly limited to not being seen or shooting first. The sandbox just feels empty right now, even with such an intuitive and elaborate fort building system available to every player.
In the early game while the Storm's Eye (the big blue circle of death) is at its maximum diameter, homegrown buildings aren't very useful or worth the time. You can use your pickaxe to tear down nearly anything you see to get wood, metal, and brick, but stopping to hole up in your own tiny fort only paints a target on your back. Amateur architecture won't stop the big blue bubble from closing in on you anyway.
A safe haven is no longer a safe haven if it can be destroyed. Hunkering down in a bathroom and watching the door loses some tactical appeal if the floor can fall out from below you, but I can imagine feeling pretty clever if I were the one deconstructing. But I'm not that clever. What might make feel better is a bigger emphasis on Fortnite's floor, wall, and ceiling traps. If I'm going to hole up in a building as a last ditch effort to survive, give me way more floor spikes and bounce pads. Turn what would be a routine encounter in PUBG into a miniature gauntlet—a family-friendly Rainbow Six Siege. Right now, they're so rare I've only come across a few, and fewer choice opportunities to use them.
I suppose small forts could be deployed as decoys and ramps can be used ascend a tower to worm out an enemy without much effort, but I see the building system used to create cover on the fly more than for the purposes of subterfuge. Throwing up a short wall for impromptu cover can be difficult to manage in a firefight—the function keys are way up there—but they can change the outcome of an encounter completely.
I watch most matches to the end to see what the best players are doing, and one in particular highlighted the best aspects of Fortnite's Batte Royale while leaving what's missing in sharp relief. With only 10 players left, the Storm's Eye closed in on a few small mountains with deep gullies between them. Most players were decked out with snipers and plenty of building materials by the end, so they each built a tower into the sky from their own mountains and had a slow, tense shootout, stopping, popping, and rooftopping.
Once the player I was shadowing sniped everyone on the ground (it's really easy to shoot players at long distance), it was down to two. To find the other player, rather than heading down the mountain, exposing himself, and getting picked off, he built a floor from his sniper nest to a different mountaintop entirely. He spotted the final player below, sent a bullet or two his way, but then the guy desperately started throwing up wood walls. It just so happens our guy had a few rockets, which beat wood, and he delivered that poor man and his leanto straight to hell.
Mix in far more trap drops and Fortnite's Battle Royale is one step closer to becoming distinct enough, a free-for-all tower defense match happening inside an electric blue trash compactor. With the addition of squads of four players and duos, the endgame fortress standoffs will likely get more elaborate and strange. I really hope so, and I hope Epic takes note and leans into what makes Fortnite unique.
It's a weird experience that I can't recommend—not as an alternative to PUBG for its more approachable style and control, not to experience the goofball sandbox, and not to experience Fortnite's building system. It's capable of being a good time, but because Fortnite uses PUBG as such a strict blueprint, everything it's competent at is diminished by PUBG's fidelity and months of iteration. If Fortnite: Battle Royale excels at one thing, though, it's at costing zero dollars to play.