I’ve finally had some brilliant moments in Fortnite. I’ve had some brilliant moments, unexpected and thrilling and hilarious. For weeks, I dipped in and out of a game that I dearly wanted to love, a game made with obvious craft and care and wit, but a game whose once-voguish elements – resource gathering, crafting, loot boxes! – failed to come together in any meaningful way. The art, a sort of goofy atomic-age panorama, as if Mad Magazine had been conscripted into a militia, was hard not to warm to and the PvE campaign zipped along, but I was left unsure as to why I should put any time into building complex structures to defend against zombie hordes when the match would be over in the blink of an eye and all that hard work would vanish forever, and I was suspicious of the numbers that you pumped out of enemies, one bullet at a time. Those numbers looked so great, chunky and bright as they cluttered the air, but they also looked like set-dressing rather than anything with genuine meaning to the player. Fortnite simply wasn’t as much fun as it looked like it was. It often seemed like it was pretending to be a game.
How things change. A few weeks back, Epic announced that it would be taking some tips from PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds – okay, that’s not exactly how Epic phrased it, I guess – and now Fortnite’s Battle Royale mode is here. You know the idea: 100 players parachuting en masse into a single huge map. Everyone is trying to kill everyone else, and the winner is the last person standing. The appeal of this stuff has already been proven, but it’s worth reiterating anyway: in that huge playground, you can pretty much opt for any strategy that comes your way. The dream, for me at least, is to win an entire game by only pulling the trigger once.
After playing a fair amount of Battlegrounds, Fortnite’s Battle Royale mode makes a rather odd first impression. It’s odd how much the team has taken wholesale, for example. Everyone spawns on a micro-island offset from the main map in which – stop me if you’ve heard this before – you can attack everyone else without inflicting damage, and you can run around picking up weapons and ammo that will disappear once the real game begins. And once the real game begins you’re flying over the island, direction randomised, and parachuting in at the moment of your choice. Sure, it’s a tricked-out school bus rather than a cargo plane, but PUBG spent a lot of effort getting this stuff right and now Fortnite’s sauntering in and reaping the rewards of all that experimentation. It doesn’t feel great.
And yet, when I first hit the ground in Battle Royale, I realised I didn’t know what to do. I had to get a weapon, of course, and since I am a terrible shot I should probably hide. But I suddenly had all these abilities that were brought in from Fortnite, and I didn’t know what to make of them. It was like being dropped into an active war zone with a qualification from a highly-respected plumbing college, and for a game or two, I flailed madly. I would draw attention to myself by noisily chopping down a tree. I would stop when being chased because I had found a car to steal, only to discover that Fortnite’s cars are for resource-harvesting rather than driving. By PUBG’s standards they are not tools, but props.
Over time, however, it clicked. Man, has it clicked. And hearteningly, Fortnite’s Battle Royale does not always feel that much like Battlegrounds when you are in the thick of it.
For one thing, you truly are in the thick of it from the off. The smaller map makes for a pacier game with a faster churn. There is a loss here, of course: without PUBG’s lavish roominess, you lose the hypnotic loneliness that makes that game such a strange treat. You can’t go prone, so you can’t spend what feels like hours crawling through shrubbery without seeing another soul. The peculiar genius of PUBG is that it sometimes feels like the sheer size of the gameworld and its potential for isolation turns you into a hermit before it turns you into a killer. You know, you get to grow a little disinhibited out there on your own, so when the map contracts and you are forced to head back to civilisation, there is no telling how you will react.
None of that in Fortnite. Instead, the map is a knotty treat. It feels, in a weird way, like a chunk of the Worms universe has been spawned in some strange and alternate real-time dimension, with all the zaniness and explosive potential carried across intact. The design is beautiful: there’s a fifties neighborhood, a tangle of shipping crates, and a toilet factory that our own Ian Higton is particularly partial to. My favourite spot is a maze hidden in the woods that seems to have come straight out of S-Town. This is a map with a real character – with many different characters, in fact. And while you’re exploring, it’s hard not to be thrillingly aware that you’re cheek-by-jowl with other players all the time.
And it’s so dynamic. Fortnite’s building tools suddenly make real sense here, in part because they’re simultaneously unbuilding tools. I parachuted in recently and landed on the roof of the kind of suburban mini-mansion that John Hughes was always making films about. Inside, I could hear the sounds of gunfire – maybe Kevin was at home – and I wanted in on the action. Suddenly, I realised I had an axe in my hand, and I could use it to chop through the roof. Seconds later I was in the attic, opening a loot chest and finding an assault rifle. (Seconds after that I was dead: Kevin really was at home.)
That was just the start of it. There is a wonderful play of risk and reward in building stuff. Ramps might get you to a distant sniper spot, but they’re going to draw attention to you as well. Chopping down a tree, as I’ve already discussed, is probably going to cause you problems in a built-up area. A few hours ago, I snuck up and killed someone while they were remodelling their bathroom. This was a new one on me, and it was instantly a treasured memory. Then, when I die, which I tend to do around the 30-players-left mark, I get to watch the really good Fortniters going at it, and there is a mad interplay with them between killing and constructing. They murder, they go shopping, and then they build a fortress around them for the end-game.
This is Fortnite, in a weird way, living up to its true potential. And I can finally see what a good job the team had already done with certain things along the way. The critical hit system for dismantling stuff is the kind of gimmick all resource-gathering games should nick – and Epic could hardly be aggrieved if they did after Battle Royale. Equally, the tools you’re given really are up to the job: this truly is a game where it’s easy to build impressive stuff rather quickly. Last night I had my best game yet: the storm contracted to the same spot where you find the maze in the woods. I got there early, climbed on the roof and walled myself into a makeshift tower. How did it end for me? Well, 11th place, so hardly a world-beater, but I felt like I was living the Fortnite dream.
And yet I was living it in someone else’s game. It’s so strange. In a weird way, Fortnite was a lot easier to feel affection for when it was still struggling to find the fun with its own design choices, back in the early days as it fought to get those once-voguish elements to converge in any meaningful way. Now that it’s started pinching stuff from others, it’s a blast to play, but I feel a lingering sense of guilt in my enjoyment, particularly since Fortnite’s Battle Royale has beaten PUBG to consoles.
Is it wrong to be hopeful? My hope is that this piece of shameless theft will give the Fortnite team the renewed energy it needs to find original life in their own game – that it will be akin to a period of teenage shoplifting before they go on to straighten up and win the Booker prize. It’s certainly interesting that a game that has often seemed to be drowning in its progression systems – in its loot boxes and post-match pinatas, in its collectible cards and levelling – has found the fun in a mode that kicks you back out with no unlocks and no persistent sense of anything having improved stats-wise.
The message to take away from PUBG, I think, is that simple rules and a great deal of freedom mean that fun has a better than average chance of turning up. That’s a message that a game as muddled and overly-busy as Fortnite has been waiting to truly hear. So what’s next?