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April 2, 2018

RE: Fortnite

Oh yeah, I played Fortnite that one time.  Guess it’s time to do a post on it.

Full disclosure: I’m not the guy you should go to if you need an extra gunman in your squad.  When it comes to shooters, I’m pretty subpar; my aim is bad, I overcorrect my shots, and my dismal reaction time means you can sap half my health before I even think about turning to face my assailant.  The only reason I can get away with being useful in Overwatch is when I can play as characters that don’t have to aim.  The instant I do, it all falls apart.  But at least I know myself well enough to not pick Hanzo.  Small relief there, OW pros.

But as long as the game is good, I’m not 100% opposed to the genre.  I like Mass Effect and the recent Wolfenstein games, for example (and the former did temporarily make me better at shooters).  So even if it’s out of my wheelhouse, there are times when I’ll dabble with whatever’s been placed in front of me.  That would probably explain why I honored my brother’s earnest request to try Fortnite and its battle royale mode on the PS4.  What did I think of it?

Well, I think my biggest complaint right now is that I didn’t get to play as that cool hammer lady featured in the promotional art.  Somebody make her a guest character in a fighting game, ASAP.  Sakurai, you’re up.

For those unaware (which I sincerely doubt at this point), Fortnite’s battle royale drops you into a massive map with dozens of other players, and you skydive from a flying bus to the location of your choosing.  From there?  You scavenge for whatever weapons, ammo, and resources you can find, then use them to either launch attacks on your rivals or build up your defenses.  At regular intervals, the boundaries of the map will collapse and close in, meaning that you can’t turtle up forever.  If you don’t stay on the move, the barrier will pass over you and leave you in a killing field that will…well, kill you.

Naturally, the object of the game is to be the last man standing.  That’s easier said than done, though; the player count means that you can be attacked from scores of different angles from scores of different foes at any given moment.  The size of the map means that the skirmish density -- at least at the start of a match -- is pretty low, but that’s the thing.  If you’re picking up the game for the first time, you never know when or where shots will come from.  You could be gunned down by a sniper hundreds of yards away, or you could be beaten into a pile of broken limbs as soon as you round a corner.  As the song goes…

In any other game, that might be something that’d make me rage into the night.  But in Fortnite?  I get it.  I totally get it.  Bizarrely, the general lack of action in a match -- from my experience, at least -- makes the game more exciting than any Call of Duty game I’ve ever played.  I’ve never felt a tension like this before, as a wise man once said; the fear of death forced me to stay on my toes, always vigilant, always suspicious.  Get taken down in a match, and it’s over.  No respawns, no second chances.  If you want to play again, your only option is to join a new match.

But in the context of a single match?  It’s intriguing, without a doubt.  The amount of strategic options is impressive, if not terrifying.  Where do you land at the start of a match?  Go for somewhere out of the way and ride out the storm at the cost of good resources, or head to a rich spot and pillage what you can, even if dozens of others opt for the same?  Do you go on a hunt and try and eliminate as many as you can, or play it safe and pray no one finds you first?  What weapons do you want to lug around, assuming you can even find what you need?  Want to be a sniper for safe, long-range kills?  Or do you willingly keep a shotgun equipped at all times, just in case?

And what about building?  Do you build walls to try and form a makeshift fortress, even if it’s one you’ll have to abandon before long?  Do you build impromptu staircases to try and reach the high ground or hidden goodies?  Do you even build at all, knowing full well that you’re leaving yourself wide open in the process?  There are so many decisions to make from match to match, and from moment to moment.

And yes, you typically have more than enough time and breathing room to make your choices before the bullets start flying.  But the fact that you can feel the need to plan, chart out your course, and act on it is important.  When I played the game, I was about ready to freak out when I heard a bullet whiz by in the distance.  Seeing one person walk by in the distance -- while I stayed undetected, thankfully -- temporarily made my heart stop.  Even if actual firefights are rare (partly because you risk death just by standing in the open), those that do happen ratchet up the intensity to 12.  The will to survive makes every moment and every decision matter.

Or maybe not.  I made it to the final five in one of my first matches, which I attribute to being both extremely lucky and a huge coward.  But I still had fun, though.

On one hand, it reminds me a bit of the Smash Bros. games -- a chaotic, volatile environment where anything can happen.  Other players, stages, items; no two matches there are the same.  On the other hand, Fortnite is its own beast.  It’s “peak multiplayer”, for lack of a better term.  Everything that makes Smash famous (or infamous) is more or less reproduced here, but on a much bigger scale.  

Instead of a maximum of eight players, now you can have a maximum of a hundred.  Instead of cramming all the action into a single screen, now you have a monstrous map with enough space to give a hundred different people a hundred different perspectives.  And items?  Boy howdy.  Throw a metric ton of human error into the mix, and suddenly you’ve got the recipe for perfect, infinite chaos.  It’s no wonder why people keep coming back for more.

…Also this game has zombies in it or something, but whatever.

Granted, I haven’t personally come back to it.  But even so, I still understand and even respect what Fortnite has to offer.  Is there a level of fear and anxiety built into any given match?  Yes.  But there’s also tons of hilarity to be had -- a comedy of errors that’s hard to push aside.  I won’t soon forget that time I let another player slip away because of my incessantly-wobbling aim, though I at least managed to make him jump back and forth like a Looney Tunes character.  And there was that other time when I thought I was being brilliant by building a makeshift room inside a bombed-out building to take a foe by surprise, only to pop out at the worst moment and get shot into oblivion because I doubted the craftsmanship of one wall.

I can think of other games I’d rather play than Fortnite -- stuff that’s higher up on the docket.  For what it’s worth, though, I don’t think it’s a bad game.  I do wonder about its longevity, at least for me, but I wouldn’t mind popping in and going back to it one day.  Maybe soon?  I don’t know.  Maybe not.  Depends on how much of my backlog I can get through.

Still, if the numbers are anything to go by, Fortnite is here to stay.  And boy oh boy, are there some numbers.

There was a time when PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds pretty much blew out the rest of the competition, even if -- visually speaking, at a bare minimum -- it didn’t look finished yet.  I’m pretty sure it’s still a tour de force in the gaming world, but in terms of raw stats, it seems as if Fortnite’s taken the crown.  If I remember right, part of that has to do with Epic’s baby hitting consoles first and preemptively stealing the thunder, especially by virtue of a me-too battle royale mode.  I guess it was only a matter of time before the competition started, but jeez.  Feels like the lines have been drawn in the sand here.

In the time since, I can only assume that Fortnite is going to get bigger and bigger, least of all because guys are already finding ways to make some serious cash off of it.  Well, in conjunction with Twitch streaming and other modern media platforms.  But hey, who am I to complain?  I’ve seen for myself that there’s merit in the game and the genre, and I can only wish for the best -- for the devs, for the people who enjoy playing, and for the game itself.

Now there’s only one question on my mind: how is the gaming industry going to ruin it?

Not just Fortnite in general (or PUBG by extension).  The knockout sucker punches delivered by these two signals one thing: the battle royale genre is here, and here to stay.  So because of that, the next signal is that everybody’s gonna trip over themselves in a rush to push the next big thing, and rake in the dough as a result.  There’s no reason to believe why the AAA bigwigs -- as an example -- wouldn’t, because that’s exactly what’s been done before: find the next big thing, glom onto it, and then run it into the ground (while salting the earth in the process).  

Remember the era of plastic instruments?  Remember the Wii’s shovelware infestation?  Remember when everybody tried to make every game into Call of Duty, or otherwise wanted to cram modern military shooters down our throats?  Remember open world games giving way to the Ubisoft Game?  Now it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the next Assassin’s Creed tried to introduce a battle royale mode -- just a straight rip, not the multiplayer from games past -- as part of a focus test-approved checklist.  Though I guess if we’re talking major trends, it’s going to be microtransactions.

It’s already started.  The PUBG crew apparently explored the options once upon a time.  They still are, it seems.  There’s been a vow that they’ll never have lootboxes or microtransactions that affect the gameplay, which is good.  But they’ll still gladly take some more of your money.  That’s…not so good.  For players, I mean.  For those primed to reap the rewards?  Slaps on the back for all, I bet.

By chance, I happened to briefly boot up the PS4 version of Fortnite to cross-play with my brother on PC (an endeavor we ended up failing, alas).  In the midst, I happened to notice that a currency system was firmly in place with the game.  Pay real-world money, and you can get coins that let you buy spiffy new gear!  A new costume!  Rewards!  Et cetera!  Some text at the bottom of the screen was quick to note that the in-game purchases are strictly cosmetic, just in case people started to get the wrong ideas.

That’s a small relief, I suppose, but not enough to get the bitter taste out of my mouth.  First off, Overwatch’s unlockable loot is also purely cosmetic, but that didn’t stop Blizzard/Activision from earning anything worthwhile a punishing grind and a pure gamble -- a system meant to wear players down psychologically until they slap down a few dollars.  (As always, Jim Sterling has a biting video on this very subject.)  Second, there are still microtransactions.  Granted, Fortnite’s battle royale mode is free to play, but the PvE mode is not, as far as I know -- and even if it was, I feel like we’re on a slippery slope.

I don’t trust the game industry to do the right thing with the battle royale genre.  We’ll be okay for a bit, but it almost feels like you can count the seconds until everything that makes them great becomes everything we’ve come to hate.  And beyond that, who knows how long of a shelf life these games really have, especially if the drop en masse?  I want to believe they’ve got a future, but the winds of change are violent and fickle.

If nothing else, I’m OK with Fortnite (and PUBG by extension).  Even if I’ve barely gotten my toes wet, it doesn’t take much for me to see or understand why there’s a fanbase and support for the stuff that’s out nowadays.  What’s there is interesting.  What’s there is fun.  What’s there is…well, there.  I may be a guy who’ll push for better storytelling in games, but I’ve got no problems giving a firm and approving nod to anything with solid gameplay.  And that’s really all there is to it.

Well, except for being able to play as that hammer lady.  Her name is Penny, apparently, and now I want her to show up in anything, anywhere.  Think there’s an open slot for her in Bayonetta 3?  Or Overwatch?  Mario Tennis Aces, perhaps?

Okay, fine, I get it.  She can show up in Tetris.

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