In December 2011, Epic Games - the studio best known for its gritty and bombastic shooters - caught us well off-guard with the reveal of slapstick crafting adventure Fortnite. Considering how long we've been waiting to see more, perhaps Epic was caught off-guard too.
New signs of life finally began to stir earlier this year, when it was confirmed that the Gears studio's unique new PC game would be a free-to-play title. Epic has a great pedigree for hard-hitting shooters and visually stupefying game engines, but it knows it still has a lot to prove.
That's why it invited CVG and a dozen other outlets to its Cary, North Carolina headquarters to play few hours on the game's co-operative and competitive modes.
Our team of four started off in a pastoral map. A small farm sat in the distance, the place where we would deploy our "Atlas" device to close off the chaotic storm that threatened this part of the world. But in order for the gizmo to finish its work, we'd needed to protect it for several minutes from the denizens of the storm - husks.
In Fortnite, crafting weapons, ammo and structures requires resources which can be harvested around the world, Minecraft style. But instead of pressing a button to "use" an abandoned truck and watch a bar slowly fill as it's converted into scrap metal, we had to beat the thing with whatever melee weapon we had on hand - you can bust it into useful bits faster by using a pickaxe or smacking glowing orange "fracture points" that pop up around the item.
It's a reward for staying focused on the task at hand, and focus is important when that last bit of brick is the only thing between the fort's tender innards and the husks' onslaught. Teams have as much time as they want to prepare, but after they flip the switch (or activate the robot, depending on the mode) the husks don't stop pouring in until the job is done.
Wouldn't you know it, the husks love beating down walls. Their capacity to sniff out the most effective route to the beating heart of the base impressed us; in one instance, we blocked off an alleyway with a sturdy steel wall, thinking that it would keep the husks at bay from that side of the map. But past the bend in that alleyway was a building, and inside that building was a staircase, and at the top of that staircase was a flimsy door, and outside that door was a clear path over the roof straight into my base's front yard.
"AI programmers from across Epic beat their heads against dynamic nav meshes and leafy behavior trees to make Fortnite's core concept worthwhile"
We knocked out the stairs when we discovered how the enemy had circumvented our blockade, but by the time we got back the ghouls had worn down the rest of our defences. Their knack for finding the path of least resistance makes proactive base design a necessity. And since each map is procedurally generated from terrain to building placement, players never start off knowing how best to align their defences.
That took a lot of work to get right, lead producer Roger Collum admitted. AI programmers from across Epic and Epic Poland (formerly People Can Fly) beat their heads against stuff like dynamic nav meshes and leafy behavior trees to make the game's core concept worthwhile.
"If the AI don't behave correctly, then your forts are worthless," Collum said. "The whole reason you build a fort is to defend yourself against AI, which is to essentially defend yourself against their scripting and their pathing."
The build of Fortnite I played supported three classes: the commando, the ninja, and the constructor. Commandos specialize in firearms and explosives, Ninjas prefer melee weaponry and acrobatics, and Constructors like to build forts almost as much as husks like to tear them down. None of those abilities are restricted to a class - Ninjas should keep a few guns on hand, Commandos can build a fort just fine, and Constructors can fight when needed.
However, each class starts out with some skills and proficiencies that augment their intended role. We spent most of our time with the commando (mostly for one of the Commando player models, a clone of Aliens' PFC Vasquez), so we got to know her abilities the best. Contributing to missions by looting, building, or fighting earned experience points for Fauxsquez, which - among other things - gave us skill points to spend.
Skills are laid out in a series of columns, with the biggest fireworks waiting at the bottom of each column. Most of them provide passive boosts, increasing damage from critical hits or strengthening certain weapon types, but there are also a few unlockable skills like landmines or a dashing slash for the Ninja. Each skill costs more points the further down you go, and players will never get enough points to unlock everything at once.
I had a wonderful time perched on our fort's roof as Fauxsquez, softening up enemies as they closed in on my Ninja companion. But fighting the hordes one-on-one just means balancing ammunition, weapon durability, and health bars, rather than the breath-catching high-speed jousts of Unreal Tournament or tense cover duels of Gears of War.
The combat works perfectly well, though we found melee fighting slightly more repetitive when using the Ninja for a few matches. Epic fans should expect Minecraft with deeper combat, rather than Gears of War Horde Mode with building bolted on.
Speaking of Gears, Fortnite doesn't much look like the harbinger of a new Unreal Engine. Its thin, cartoony characters are about as big around the chest as Marcus Fenix's bicep. Its colorful world of bright green trees, cars with big impractical cabins, and bouncy tires that send heroes flying look more at home in a Chuck Jones short than a GDC tech demo.
We enjoyed it, but more in an "ooh, that's a fun looking old Gothic house" way than a "Christ, you really can see the sweat drip off each whisker" way. Collum claimed the Epic team's cartoony milieu will help it stay relevant on a wide range of PCs.
"I think it's not just showing another side of the Unreal Engine, it's showing another side of Epic Games, for sure," he said, noting that many members of the team were sceptical about the approach at first.
We observed that Fortnite seems to have a more diverse cast of playable characters than previous Epic titles, from body types to race and gender, wondering if this new art style helped encourage some fresh thinking there.
"It's not much harder to make those models, so we should do them," Collum said. "We feel very strongly about diversity. We feel very strongly that people want to play the heroic version of themselves, and there's more than just the stereotypical archetype."
It's Epic's first free-to-play PC game, so some are rightfully sceptical about how Epic will make money off of Fortnite. The current plan is to keep monetization as far away from the core playing experience as possible - Epic claims no pop-up windows will ever tempt you to repair your fort by spending 200 UnrealBux, and no skills will be gated behind near-endless timers.
Instead, the studio says players will be able to buy card packs that offer rare crafting schematics, cosmetic upgrades, and boosts to character or account experience. That doesn't sound too bad, but why not just charge a flat amount for it like the rest of Epic's games?
"For Fortnite, free-to-play is an opportunity for us to reach the maximum number of people," Collum argued. "Sure, we've sold 6 million copies of Gears 2 or 3 or whatever, multi-million sellers. But when you look at the big free-to-play games now they dwarf that in the number of people they can grab."
Since Fortnite is 100 per cent online, retaining lots of players to hang out with is important. Epic expects most of those players won't ever pay a dime, and they'll be able to unlock all of the same play-affecting goodies through play. It will just take longer.
That said, card boosters won't be the only way players can augment their performance in the game. Epic wasn't ready to show us Fortnite's Home Base features in action but the developers assured it will be a major part of the final game.
Players progress through randomly generated co-op campaigns at will, unlocking more regions to plumb for resources on a hex-based map. Those resources aren't just for crafting more temporary structures or items, though. Eventually, they'll go toward building a player's very own Home Base. Yeah, it's kind of like Mother Base from Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker.
Survivors can be rescued in the world and put to work building and maintaining the base. Different structures will provide passive boosts for the Home Base's owner and all of his or her party members.
As one example, a dojo might increase the group's melee damage. A dojo staffed by a high-level ninja will provide even better bonuses, so veteran characters benefit their players even when they aren't active in the field. Players will be able to invite friends into their bases for horde-mode style defence missions - or drop their kitted-out design opposite a rival team to face off in PvP.
Home Base was easily the most nebulous concept we were shown. It sounds like a fun way to let players stay connected to the world and their characters while jumping between campaigns. But even if it doesn't all work out, the rest of Fortnite seems strong enough to get along without it.
We spent most of our time progressing through co-operative campaigns, the current area of focus for Fortnite. But Epic gave us a look at the team's early work on player vs. player battles ("it's not balanced at all" our guides warned, and they set up each match with a series of console commands).
"We worried that the need to keep up with (and kill) the Joneses would lessen our enjoyment, but it was actually refreshing"
It starts out nearly the same as the co-operative mode, with an objective to defend and materials to scavenge. But on the other side of the field was another team doing the same. Knowing our opposition was out there grabbing all the stuff, rather than patiently waiting for us to construct our fort and flip a switch, made all our needs much more pressing.
We worried that the need to keep up with (and kill) the Joneses would lessen our enjoyment, but it was actually refreshing. Instead of wandering around the map looking for items to craft a slightly higher-powered gun, the match saw our team's Constructor barking out requests for materials as we madly scavenged for scrap to reinforce the base.
Our matches were five-on-five. This meant that, with some coordination, a good team could fortify, search for resources, and harass the enemy team all at once. Taking out individual players didn't bring our team any closer to victory, but it did momentarily deprive the others of a base defender or resource gatherer.
Each tiny blow we delivered to the other side became important when night fell and husks began to attack. They appeared in the middle of the map and fell upon both forts, digging at our weaknesses. As long as we managed to beat up the unicorn-statue heart of their fort a little bit more than they beat up ours, we could count on the husks' attrition to finish the job (or a rather anticlimactic match timer, hopefully another artefact of the PvP mode's early design).
That is assuming neither side executes a near-suicidal nocturnal raid to knock down the others' walls and let the hordes of unicorn-hating undead in. Humans are the real monsters, sure, but it does get the job done.
PvP was great fun, but it's not entirely fair to dismiss the standard PvE mode just yet, since the latter is a slower burn by design and as such less friendly to a preview session. But we are curious how Fortnite's persistent elements will be balanced for both facets. Collum said it's a challenge that the team is still considering:
"We don't want to create two games, we don't create an imbalance between two modes," he said. "I want players to know that when they fire a grenade launcher in PvE, they're going to get a similar effect in PvP."
Collum says the first publicly playable alpha of Fortnite will be released sometime this year. "Release" is a sketchy concept here, since Epic plans to have an iterative release for the game and keep adding stuff as long as the community wants it.
"Before we go super wide, we're going to start small and iterate," Collum said. "So it's not a switch that we're going to flip right away, but we are in the process now."
Fortnite will release on PC first, but according to Epic it isn't "stuck" there. For one, full gamepad support will be enabled before 'release'.
Our trip to Epic initially had us intrigued to see what Epic could do away from its gritty shooter tropes, but equally prepared to shrug off another free-to-play tower defence game with crafting.
We ended up enjoying Fortnite immensely, and thankfully we won't have to wait another three years before we see it again.