Generally speaking, Epic's a company that likes to put its best foot forward. When it debuts a new game or engine, everything's polished to a gloriously gritty sheen - even if a look behind the curtain tells an entirely different tale. So Fortnite's PAX presentation was - for many reasons - a strong reminder that the crayola-colored survivor is Different. It began, for instance, with Tanya Jessen, Cliff Bleszinski, and co running us through very early Unreal Engine 3 prototypes of Fortnite's combat - complete with desolate checker box backgrounds and near-superheroic levels of Aliasing-O-Vision. But that's the point: Epic considers its construction-centric opus a "living project," and it wants fans in on the ground floor.
"Next-gen is here," Bleszinski began. "Next-gen is a high-end PC. It's been here for a while. The PC never died. The PC never went away. This game is going to be a PC game first and foremost."
First up, combat. We were shown a video of one of many potential weapon options: the crossbow. Initially, it fired a normal bolt. Nothing terribly special. Next, though, Epic followed with three concurrent bolts, then an immobilizing lightning trap, and - most impressively - a grappling rope that could bridge vertical gaps and be tip-toed across. In terms of enemies, meanwhile, a ghostly "Troll" took center stage, passing right through defenses and literally stealing the clothes off a character's back.
Later clips, however, showed off snazzy Pixar-meets-Tim-Burton-style Unreal Engine 4 environments and enemies that were more interested in taking lives than pants. (But maybe they still wanted pants, too. I can't actually claim to understand their full motivations, as Bleszinski would only note that - despite their zombie-like appearance - so-called "Husks" weren't born of any sort of infection or undead plague.)
One especially funny clip saw a character named Dennis cackling at a small Husk from behind a wooden plank wall, only for a rotting flesh mountain of a Husk that best resembled one of Left 4 Dead's Tanks to punch a hole clean through it - and right to Dennis' unprotected face. The smaller Husk then leaped in, stole Dennis' hat, and started dancing in a very old-timey cartoon fashion. It was brief, cute, and no one got their entrails neatly minced by a chainsaw gun or anything.
That, too, is a major driving idea behind Fortnite, according to Bleszinski. While showing off concept art of an early, vaguely STALKER-esque take on the world, he explained that those sorts of styles can be very emotionally taxing. In short, bullet-ridden bursts, sure, they're manageable, but Epic's hoping players will spend hundreds of hours with Fortnite. Or, as Bleszinski oh-so-eloquently put it: "You want people to go, 'Oh, that was bright colorful and fun' - and not, 'I'm gonna go slit my wrists now.'" He also added that “We don't want to be in the same space as the awesome Day Z. If you don't want to be in that space, you stylize. We wanted more slapstick.”
Next up, it was the building system's turn. In short, each blueprint produces a see-through projection of the structure it's going to create, and then you can reposition, rotate, and even modify it. For instance, lopping a couple cube-shaped spaces off a square wall produced an arch. Putting a blueprint into action, meanwhile, prompts everything to fly into place in a manner that best resembles Bastion in reverse. It certainly seems more streamlined than, say, Minecraft, but the results - at least, at first glance - look no less impressive.
Well, after some time, anyway. A clip of Fortnite's progression began with a player constructing a twig hut out of hastily hacked trees on day one. Then night fell, and - with the arrival of Husk after Husk in all their facial-skin-hoodie-clad (seriously) glory - so did the hut. In later days, however, the player upgraded to a log fortress, complete with choke points, railings, and sniper nests. By day 14, the player had crafted a sledgehammer, which they then used to bust down old buildings' walls and amass a stockpile of bricks and stone. Then the video cut to that night, with the player perched proudly atop a full-blown, multi-story castle replete with what could've actually been mistaken for a stairway to heaven.
Admittedly, I imagine Epic dramatized that part a bit to pick up a few extra "oooooos" and "ahhhhs" (an actual in-game day apparently lasts about 24 minutes), but you get the idea. Interestingly, though, Jessen noted that players can - if they so choose - steer clear of combat entirely and only build, or vice versa. She described it as "opt-in combat," though creation and survival modes apparently aren't separate. It remains to be seen, however, exactly how Epic will pull that off.
To conclude, the developer once again drove home Fortnite's "living project" status, explaining that it'll debut in 2013 as a "quiet" beta in order to engage the community and see what they like. Then it'll build onward and outward from there. That said, the blueprint for Fortnite's release isn't entirely set in stone. Characters, for instance, will be persistent, but Epic's not sure about entire worlds and the servers they'll inhabit. The developer's definitely trying to figure something out, though. "I wanna build my cool fort and at least hang onto it for a little bit," said Bleszinski. On the subject of mods, meanwhile, Jessen noted that "We honestly don't know yet. [Mods] are something we'd like to have, though."
So we don't have all the answers, and other questions - like that of single-player and whether or not it will exist at all - still hang over the project's head, but I'd be remiss if I said Fortnite wasn't looking impressive. There's obviously a whole lot of game here, but Epic's trademark penchant for making the little things feel good seems primed to shine through via the chunky, loot-driven metagame of knocking down trees, buildings, and even things like fire hydrants (which become jump pads!), and some impressively versatile combat. Fortnite's ambitious, open, and still very much in flux, but I'm looking forward to seeing where it goes.