Fortnite is a video game that’s drawn the cross-pollinating attention of, well, nearly everyone—from famous rappers, to pro football players, to various online personalities, to that neighbor kid down the street. Fornite’s had millions of gamers download it and encouraged hundreds of thousands to tune in to just watch somebody else play it. Some are even calling it the “biggest game on the internet.”
So what exactly is this thing called Fortnite all about?
Well, it’s about a couple things, actually. The game started out as something pretty different from what many are currently playing. The initial release (back in July 2017) focuses primarily on its PvE (Player versus Environment) Save the World mode. That challenge gathers gamers together in four-player cooperative teams and pits them, well, against a storm … and zombies … and rocks … and stuff.
OK, stay with me now, because that’s just the beginning of the Fortnite story.
The colorful, zany adventure takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where strange, lightning-zapping storms have transformed 98% of humanity into zombie-like monsters called Husks. They’re animated skeletal creatures that run about wearing their discarded skins like a hoodie (only … in a cute way).
As a survivor of that disaster, you’re instantly dubbed a Commander by a few hovering science robots that want to put some humanity-rescuing resources at your disposal. With their guidance, you become a hero (chosen from a group of collectable guys and gals with differing skill sets) who’s trying to make everything right. And your work essentially consists of two activities (even though there are several different types of missions available).
First there’s the Minecraft-like gathering, building and crafting part.
You’ll need to seek out and harvest as much wood, stone and steel as possible from everything in this open digital environment. Cars, walls, tool sheds, trees, rock outcroppings—the majority of this sandbox world can be struck with a pickaxe and broken down into its elemental basics. You then locate a mission-specific spot and use Fortnite’s building system to shape your gathered materials into floors, walls, stairs, towers, traps and any other fortifications to best defend what the mission requires you to protect.
Then comes the third-person battling side of things.
While seeking out materials, you’re also looking for weapons and ammunition to scavenge. Pistols, axes, shotguns, spears, sniper rifles and machine guns are there to be found and used against the hordes of Husks when they inevitably start rushing in. Once their attack begins, you can take on these baddies in whatever way suits you. You can sit in your tower perch, picking off Husks from a distance or wade into the crowd with a pulverizing shotgun at your shoulder. You simply have to keep the defense up until the allotted time ticks away. Oh, and then rinse and repeat.
Successful missions yield upgrades that include weapons, collectables, heroes, survivors, traps and more. Then, you power up your favorite hero and his or her armory and march on. And that’s how the original PvE side of Fortnite plays out.
These days, though, when you hear someone bring up Fortnite, it’s likely Fortnite: Battle Royale that they’re referring to.
By September of last year, the gang at Epic Games decided that players might like to use the Fortnite world setting for something a bit more fluid and freeform. So they introduced a free PvP (Player versus Player) game mode. It’s basically a mass online brawl that drops 100 players out of a plane onto a large lush island and says, “OK, gang, have at it.” Weapons (crossbows, grenade launchers, etc.) are hidden all over the island … kinda like we see in The Hunger Games, actually (though this game’s less graphic than that, which I’ll get to below).
Participants can team up if they want. They can explore, build defenses and find hiding places. And there are some modes that let teams work to take out other teams. But in general, this is a last-man-standing kind of challenge where the blasted are sent packing and must leave the contest. Oh, and if you’re thinking you’ll just hide until everyone else gets bested, well, that doesn’t work. As the match progresses, the playable swath of landscape slowly diminishes to the point where players are eventually forced to face off against each other.
In this respect, the Battle Royale version of Fortnite is more problematic than the original game. The biggest difference? The contest here involves humans shooting and killing other humans, instead of the more sci-fi like Husks.
So why is this game so universally loved, you ask? Did I mention it’s free? That’s certainly a big part of the answer here. Gamers can make in-game purchases, but they’re not essential to the play.
But that’s not the only reason for the game’s appeal. In addition, Fortnite’s contests feel quite cartoony. It’s fast and silly and sports a quirky sense of humor. Yes, this is a multiplayer shooter. But there’s no mess in this mix. When opponents get hit, they simply disappear.
Still, we are still talking about a shooter where, in Battle Royale mode, humans target and shoot other humans. In our increasingly violent culture, even a cartoony take on violence has the possibility of being desensitizing—an issue that families will need to consider before taking the plunge on this one. Some parents may well decide that even this game’s sanitized shooting is still too realistic; other families, meanwhile, may conclude that Fortnite’s gore free shooting is still a better alternative than graphic-‘n’-gruesome M-rated fare, which typically leaves nothing at all to the imagination, violence-wise.
Other than that issue, however, there really isn’t much to worry over in this T-rated title. No language is spewed. Female costumes can be a bit formfitting, but those outfits range playfully from space suits to soldier garb to pink fuzzy bear pullovers.
Before I bring this review to a close, there are a few other elements I need to mention. Younger gamers won’t encounter any vile vocabulary here, but that may not keep them from hearing it from the rest of the crowd online. Gather a hundred online combatants with headsets, and you’re bound to hear a few grunts of vulgar displeasure at some point.
Also, as with anything that’s as engaging as this game can be, there’s the risk that time can run away from you. After making it past the first 60 or 70 contestants, it’s easy to lose track of that ticking bedtime clock. That’s especially true as the programmers at Epic continue to expand the game’s maps, as well as enabling players to join the fray from a variety of video game platforms—everything from the game console in your family room to the phone in your back pocket.
Fortunately there are things that can help Junior and Mom and Dad in that department. First of all, the average run-and-gun match only goes about 20 minutes. And gaming consoles also have parental controls to make sure that Junior’s Fortnite run-and-gun gaming session doesn’t last … a fortnight.
And that, of course, is only for families who decide to opt-in to Fortnite at all, as many may conclude that even a relatively mild first-person shooter is still too problematic in its depiction of human-on-human violence.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.