Epic Games has finally given us a hands-on demo of Fortnite, its zombie fort-defense shooter game that has been in the works for four years.

The title is the latest flagship for Unreal Engine 4 technology, which is Epic’s game development platform that is used by huge numbers of developers. The third-person shooter game is entering closed beta testing this winter on Windows and Mac. Fortnite is very hard to categorize, and that is probably a good thing for Epic. It is a bunch of games in one. It is a gathering and building game. It’s a role-playing game, and it’s a third-person shooter game with cooperative play.

Based on the hands-on demo I played, Fornite is a lot of fun. But it also presents Epic with a marketing challenge. How does it describe the game? And how does it find the kind of player that will really love the game and appreciate it in all of its complexity?

“The thing that appealed to me was, we’re in an era right now where the fidelity of games is continuing to increase, but we haven’t seen a lot of innovation in gameplay,” said Mike Fischer, the vice president of publishing at Epic Games in Raleigh, N.C., in an interview with GamesBeat. “I loved the fact that this combined a lot of different types of gameplay – the searching and scavenging, the crafting, the building, and the fighting. And the way that was done in a multiplayer online environment really intrigued me.”


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An infinite world

A blueprint for crafting a better defense in Fortnite.

Above: A blueprint for crafting a better defense in Fortnite.

Image Credit: Epic Games

Fortnite is deliberately designed to bring together different gameplay styles. Imagine that you are stuck in a firefight and have one escape route. You try to run, but the zombies are chasing you. So one of your people drops a wall and builds it so quickly that it becomes an obstacle for the zombies. Then you have time to escape. That’s the sort of zany thing you can do in a round of Fortnite. And it means that the best teams of Fortnite players are those that include both the builders and the shooters. They can group together and cooperatively defend a base.

The look of the world is cartoonish, almost like Valve’s Team Fortress 2. Everything is colorful and beautiful, except for those nasty zombies. You feel like you’re inside the world of a Looney Tunes cartoon, except with much better 3D graphics and spectacular explosions and smoke effects. Fortnite makes maximum use of the Unreal Engine. The world is procedural, or different every time that you undertake a new mission.

The backstory is that players lead a group of heroes who have to rebuild and reclaim a world that has become shrouded in a mysterious darkness known as “the Storm.” They must band together to build fortresses, traps, and obstacles. When the Storm moves in, lots of zombie creatures emerge from it and attack. And for some reason, the Storm is attracted to various gates, which you guard with a contraption dubbed an Atlas. You then build your fort around the Atlas to fend off the zombies.

Epic approved the development of Fortnite after the idea emerged in a game jam. The game took a while to get this far because it went through a redesign and was pushed from Unreal Engine 3 to Unreal Engine 4. Now Fortnite is a showcase of what the engine can do.

“As we saw the potential in the game, the scale and scope grew,” Fischer said. “It looks, on the surface, like a wacky, fun, simple type of game, but the technology that delivers it is world class.”

Frenetic hands-on fort defense

Defending an Atlas.

Above: Defending an Atlas.

Image Credit: Epic Games

It’s still a work in progress, but now we’ve got a much better idea of what the gameplay in Fortnite will be like. It includes scavenging resources in a hilarious way, using pickaxes to tear down anything and everything in your environment for resources. You can get metal by banging your pickaxe enough times against a car. You can get wood by hacking at a tree or get stone by using your pickaxe on rocks. It’s a very cartoonish way to collect resources, but it drives home the point that everything in the world is destructible. It feels like Minecraft, with better graphics.

While you’re collecting and building, you are free from attack. Once you turn on the mode to defend your “Atlas” portal, the zombies start coming in from any direction. The maps and zombie attacks are procedural, meaning they aren’t scripted. So something different can happen every time you set up a new fort. That makes for endless replayability. If you are attacked, you can fend off the wave and then go repair your fort. You can quickly get resources, too. But you may be attacked, prompting the funny message, “I admire your focus, but did you know your fort is under attack?”

In between waves, you can continue to build up your base and add to your capabilities. You have to hold out hope that you can survive the unrelenting zombie attack.

I got stuck fending off a lot of zombies with a big stick. That was because I had a gun and some ammo, but I ran out of it quickly. The world I was playing in had no metal available. It was mostly trees and stones available for resources. An Epic staffer had to come by and tell me that I should craft a katana, or Japanese sword, to slice through the zombies more quickly. He also told me that I should build brick walls instead of wooden palisades to keep the zombies out of my fort.

My fort was also in a weird area. I was stuck in an area with round cliffs, so I couldn’t build a square fort. Instead, it had openings where zombies could come in. As they entered, I sliced them one by one. They also tried to tear down the walls, so I had to constantly repair the fort. All the while, the clock was ticking down. If you can defend your Atlas for eight minutes or so, you win. But if too many zombies get through, you lose.

Lots of enemies and heroes

Last stand in Fortnite

Above: Last stand in Fortnite.

Image Credit: Epic Games

I noticed several kinds of zombies. Some were pretty dumb attackers, known as Husks. But others were fat and tough to kill. Another had a ragged baseball uniform on and was lobbing bones at me. Some Husks wield angry bee swarms. Other enemies are the Smashers (giant brutes) and Flingers (two-legged catapults that send Husks over walls and roofs). The Storm always surprises you with the enemies that it sends at you.

Each hero is archetypal as well. So far, Fortnite has four hero classes: Commando, Ninja, Outlander, and Constructor. You can recruit new heroes as you expand your home base, and your heroes will rank up as they gain experience in the world.

The home base has Hero buildings and support structures. You can craft the buildings and your own gear. You can quickly build, repair, edit, and upgrade complex structures in the world — at the same time you are fighting off zombies. On the fly, you can create half walls, sniper perches, doors, mazes, and other things to hold back the creatures.

You can also use what you find in the world to make weapons, traps, health packs, and many other survival goods. You can find schematics in the world that enable you to craft unique items. Besides swords and guns, you can also craft scythes, flaming axes, and other stuff.


Taking out a Husk in Fortnite

Above: Taking out a Husk in Fortnite.

Image Credit: Epic Games

One of the points of Fornite is that you have an infinite number of ways to solve the same basic problem: defend your fort.

Fischer said that the game will likely have player-versus-player combat at some point.

He said, “That’s one thing that, as a marketer, makes it hard to package up. You can’t say it’s a shooter game, or it’s a crafting game, or it’s a multiplayer game, or it’s a competitive game. It’s all those things and more. You don’t want to pigeonhole it. At the same time, it’s hard to find the right way to characterize the magic that is Fortnite.”

A huge fort in Fortnite.

Above: A huge fort in Fortnite.

Image Credit: Epic Games

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