I’ll tell you what my new years resolutions are, the fucking opposite of last years. I’m not the kind of guy to stick to plans so rather than mature into a proper adult, lose some weight and develop intimate connections with as many humans near and far that I can I’ll just continue to follow shortsighted whims, respond to all things with the sort of dispassionate sarcasm that exemplifies the worst of my generation and defiantly resist just packing in this Starcraft shit and getting the sort of job I can do once I’m 30 (or even, gasp, older). Sure it’s not the greatest idea but it means I’ll be writing this sort of shit for you guys to enjoy so try to see the bright side of my long winded self sabotage, will you? Anyway, I’ve recently sampled two very different games that share a common theme of long periods of quiet looming dread that frequently end with sudden, brutal destruction. As I understand it these two games are pretty popular so I guess the last two years can’t have been that bad really if this is the sort of shit we’re going to for escapism, can it?
So, Fortnite then, or as developer/publisher Epic Games would call it “PUBG with enough Minecraft in it so that people can’t accuse us of being one of those copycat phone games, no sir.” Now I’ve not played multiplayer shooters for many years but it’s hard not to have noticed latest indie smash hit PUBG. Statistically even the fossilised bacteria on Mars own 7.3 copies of it each and with great success comes great ripping off. I’d feel sorry for Mr Player Unknown but considering he probably owns a fleet of yachts made from solid cocaine I find I rather cannot (and besides he just ripped off that film Battle Royale so, you know, fair do’s matey).
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Fortnite is a game where 100 randomised clueless dipshits with no identity or purpose are deployed onto an island in order to slaughter each other until there’s just one left. Players start with a pickaxe but in order to expedite the process there’s loads of guns and ammo scattered amongst the various locales so they try to find one or three and then get to work shooting everyone else. Over time the part of the island that players can stand in without dying from natural causes shrinks, thus encouraging everyone to partake in the grisly slaughter. So far so PUBG. Fortnite adds in the destructible and constructible terrain though, it’s possible to break things down and quickly build up your own fortifications (or forts, if you will, but the whole game takes place in the daytime so I’m not sure where the ‘nite’ comes into it. Perhaps because each game feels like it takes 2 weeks to complete, is that it?). It also has a family friendly aesthetic, just the thing to get the kids interested in vicious bloodsport.
Like I said I don’t normally play these sorts of games but after some chums told me it’s currently Free to Play and there’s a 4 player squad mode I figured why not? Free is a fine price to pay to find some new reasons to secretly despise me mates, and perhaps it’s more fun this way (although the same can be said about all sorts of things, really, like prowling the streets at night clubbing the homeless to death and that comes with a sense of purpose). This is probably true, considering I’ve not played the game solo and hardly believe I ever will, which is a good indicator of how I’m feeling about Fortnite. If I thought it was any good I’d want to play it even without having three people yell orders at me, scoop up all the good loot first, display far better accuracy and boast about having sex with my mum.
Me main issue is that while having buildable objects and destructible terrain in a multiplayer shooter is a fine concept it doesn’t really work too great for a format where you’re encouraged to move around a lot. Fortifying a position only to have the map start playing The Floor is Lava isn’t great so most of the game is spent running around and using all the perfectly functional cover they left lying around already. You’re encouraged to start setting up defences when enemies catch you out in the open but I find it somewhat difficult to get into a Bob the Builder mindset when hot lead’s flying at me. I like how you have to scavenge for equipment early on, it gives the game a sort of Roguelike quality which is certainly novel, but I don’t like how most of the weapons are kinda rubbish. Snipers for long range, assault rifles for medium and shotguns for close all well and good but I’m not sure why I’d want pistols and SMG’s. Perhaps so my inventory slots can feel valued? I also think it’s odd how you’re incentivised to avoid combat which strikes me as the opposite of what I’d imagine most people play multiplayer shooters for. Ok I suppose you have to shoot people to win and I’ll concede they often have neat shit to steal but I can’t help but feel a bit of a dissonance going on here.
It does have some things I like though, I like how the tension steadily escalates as the game proceeds, one’s desire to not die increases as the game goes on and you’ve accrued more loot (perhaps an unintentional allegory for our capitalistic society?). I like coordinating movements and engagement strategies with me chumleys and I especially like how you can finish off downed enemies as they crawl about on all fours, clutching their stomachs in agony as they beg for mercy. But none of these are unique to Fortnite and whilst I haven’t played any other titles in the Battle Royale subgenre, as we now must call it, I can’t imagine that its particular take has anything to offer. Give it a try if you must (it IS free after all, at that price there’s definitely a limit to how much ire it can generate) but I can’t see Fortnite going down as one for the ages.
I also played some They Are Billions, which is certainly my kind of game! It’s a City builder/RTS about surviving the zombie apocalypse using dieselpunk things like oil powered robots and big fucking guns. The closest comparison I can think of is Stronghold except with zombies and with even worse voice acting (which is almost impressive, in a retarded way). You got a command centre and a few soldiers and you’re surrounded by the rotting brainmunchers. I dunno whose idea it was to establish a colony in the middle of, apparently, billions of zombies (closer to tens of thousands, really, but that’s a less catchier title) but since apparently everyone in this universe wears an eyepatch I surmise they think the zombies are further away than they really are. Your goal is to survive for a few months, steadily expanding the colony, clearing out the infected hordes and their holiday inns whilst the occasional wave of the filthy bastards gets hurled at you.
Now, imagine you’re in an empty warehouse and you’ve got a crate of playing cards next to you. The only way to get out of the warehouse is to construct a replica of the Eiffel Tower using every card available. Inside this room are a number of small children who have been force fed a powerful concoction of ecstasy tablets, red cordial and red bulls. You have a stun gun available to you but it’s not going to keep them down for very long. Once you’re almost finished a bus-load of the little shits abseils in from the ceiling. That’s basically what playing They Are Billions feels like. See, if just one upright walking corpse should mosey on into your base past the defenses then it’ll infect a building, which spawns more zombies which infect more buildings and then just like that you’re completely fucked. You can’t spread your houses out, you need shitloads of them and space is fairly cramped. Zombies don’t like going after your units if there’s some sweet delicious children nearby so the trick is to never let them get in, ever. But it’s so easy for them to slip in early on and later on if your guard is down and you’re stuck trying to guess how many zombies are going to hit where and when.
It’s a demanding game that seems to delight in trolling you but not so much that it stops being captivating and that’s sort of what makes it fun. It’s hard to be bored when you’re in a state of constant wariness. The final wave it sends at you is jarringly enormous but it is a lot of fun to deal with and setting up rows of defenses for your sprawling metropolis is all well and good. It’s fairly tightly designed in terms of resources, units and technologies and there’s lots of stuff happening on screen. It plods along like a citybuilder should, ie a constant series of shifting short term goals all in service to a higher purpose, and in between is exciting RTS action. Lovely.
I got some grumbles though. There’s not a lot of variety when it comes to structuring your city or defences or for how you’re going to get attacked. Basically once you’ve figured out a winning build order and lategame strategy you’re set. Citybuilders turn into Build Order: The Game after a while and it’s the duty of the designers to work in as many variables as they can to stop this from happening. They don’t seem to have tried very hard in this area yet, here’s hoping that they eventually do. Currently it only has one mode, a basic survival mode with no tutorial, so get your floaties on cuz we’re jumping into the deep end. Figuring out the right build order and army/economy balancing is tricky but when you nail it the first time the game stops being quite as interesting. Oh yeah and it’s in Early Access which means if you decide to play it you might very well end up spoiling your appetite for when it’s finally ready for prime time. If you played Northgard this may well have happened to you so, you know, consider exercising restraint perhaps? Or don’t, I don’t give a shit.
(I know TAB developers Numantian Games consider their game to be Steampunk but I'm not sure you qualify as Steampunk once you're pumping oil to power robots. Surely at that point it's Dieselpunk, no?)