Fortnite has proved once again that it’s one of the most boundary-pushing video games out there. Following a shocking gamble that saw the game pulled offline for nearly 48 hours, players were reminded that Epic Games’ battle royale hit is in a league of its own when it comes to experimental live events, all in service of the game’s weird and wonderful brand of world-building.
The game “relaunched,” you might say, on Tuesday morning after a meteor struck the island hundreds of millions of players have been exploring and competing on for the last two years. In the meteor’s wake was a black hole that sucked up the map and left players staring at a blank screen for hours. The game’s new map, which had been leaked in bits and pieces over the last few weeks, came out the other side after two tortuously long days of silence. The completely reworked island, and the launch of the game’s next season, officially marks Fortnite Chapter 2, which features a brand-new world full of activities and hidden challenges, an updated visual style and interface, and plenty of small but effective changes to how the game can be played.
After a brief period of controversy and decline, Fortnite is exciting again.
The whole affair was easily the most groundbreaking live event Epic has pulled off yet, after the developer raised the stakes with a world-shaking robot-monster battle in late July. But it can be easy to forget that, before it dominated all of Twitter, Twitch, and YouTube last weekend, Fortnite wasn’t in the greatest place. In fact, it felt like the game had entered into its first downward spiral, following a summer during which it hosted a hugely successful e-sports tournament and could seemingly do no wrong.
Season X, arriving the week after the World Cup, felt like a bad hangover after a raucous celebration. Instead of Epic using its 10th season to celebrate the game’s meteoric two-year rise and the realization of its e-sports ambitions, the game started to sour, and everyone was taking notice.
Streamers and pro players had a collective freakout over the introduction of game-breaking mech suits, and Fortnite’s post-World Cup e-sports event, the season-long Fortnite Champion Series, came and went without much fanfare. For the broader community, the game had grown far too difficult for casual players to enjoy it, while its constant challenge cycle and playlist rotation made keeping ahead of the battle pass a real chore.
Then there were the special “rift zones.” At one point in the season, there was a Batman-themed zone, a Borderlands 3 promotional zone, and numerous other rule-bending arenas on the map with their own distinct traits to account for. The result was that Fortnite felt like an overstuffed and overwhelming ad. By the end of the season, the game had fallen from its typical top spot on Twitch to the back half of the top 10, where it was regularly surpassed in viewership by years-old titles like Minecraft, Grand Theft Auto V, and the rerelease of World of Warcraft.
Part of that Twitch decline was due to two key events. Popular streamer Tyler “Ninja” Blevins abandoned Twitch in early August for a new home on Microsoft-owned Mixer. The following month, the game’s biggest personality, Turner “Tfue” Tenney, took an extended streaming break due to a self-described depressive spell and his general unhappiness with streaming Fortnite. (Tfue’s break also came shortly after he used a racial slur on stream; not coincidentally, he was playing Minecraft at the time, not Fortnite.)
Yet without those two personalities backing it on Twitch, Fortnite’s ability to capture the attention of the streaming community looked like it had endured a near-fatal blow from which it might not recover. Of course, the game was still likely making plenty of money and enjoying millions of players logging in every day. But part of Fortnite’s continued success has involved its incredible momentum and Epic’s ability to constantly stay at the forefront of the gaming zeitgeist, be it through e-sports, live events, or limited time game modes and crossovers. For the first time, it seemed like that magic touch was fading.
All of that looks like it’s starting to turn around following last weekend’s black hole event and yesterday’s launch of Fortnite’s next chapter. The destruction of the island, followed by a two-day blackout during which Epic presumably did some technical maintenance and enjoyed the internet losing its mind, was nothing short of genius.
It played on months upon months of criticism that Epic needed an overhaul to its map and a big, splashy turnaround that would grab everyone’s attention and bring back lapsed fans. And the developer did just that. Millions of people tuned into the black hole event, and millions stuck around for hours after, waiting to see when the intended result might materialize. Nothing would happen for roughly 40 hours.
But when it did, and the new map and season launched, it was evident Epic had planned something special. The opening few minutes after you boot up the updated version of the game feature a standard cinematic shot we’ve come to expect, but then Fortnite threw you directly into a match in a seamless transition from its CGI cutscene. It was a staggeringly effective moment that ranks up there with some of the most memorable the game has ever created.
The Fortnite Chapter 2 opening cinematic seamlessly loading you straight into a match at the end is legitimately one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in a game https://t.co/8ZTPDsDIpc
— Paul Tassi (@PaulTassi) October 15, 2019
I died within minutes of landing, as did dozens of other competitors (some of which, to be fair, acted very much like bots) in my particular server. But it was still such a powerful way to introduce the new map to players that I didn’t care. I booted right back into a new round, thanks in part to a clever new option that lets you do so as soon as you lose without backing out to the lobby and queuing all over again.
It’s those little touches — a fast queue option, multiple clever user interface tweaks, and the overall graphical and art style upgrades — that really drive home Epic’s thoughtful redesign. Everything feels fresh, and exploring an all-new island has conjured the same feelings of excitement that I had during my first few hours playing the game back in September 2017. Some of the new features are also hilarious, viral-ready additions — like being able to carry and even toss your teammates or your opponents through the air once they’re downed. Others are exhilarating new items, like the missile-equipped speedboats that let you traverse the island’s new canal system, that truly shake up the flow of any match.
Chances are, Fortnite won’t last forever. No matter how popular or how lucrative it is, Epic’s game is very much the product of a specific trend that the developer capitalized on at exactly the right time. And it’s only remained so popular because of a very unique combination: Epic’s breakneck update cycle; the massive amount of money it generates (in turn, funding new features and more revenue-generating cosmetics); and Epic’s willingness to try never-before-seen live events, none of which have miraculously failed or backfired. Eventually, one of those elements will give and, according to the fickle tastes of pop culture, something will take its place.
But after the black hole saga and the new island’s launch, Epic is making a strong argument that Fortnite can stick around for a very long time, endlessly reinventing itself in bold and exciting ways. If you had told me one month ago that a new Fortnite map was coming, I’d have shrugged my shoulders and said, “About time.” But if you had told me that it would arrive the way it did, I wouldn’t believe it. But Epic continues to surprise, and that keeps Fortnite the ever-evolving fun factory that earns it the undivided attention of millions, in an era where attention is the most valuable commodity a company can strive for.
Fortnite’s latest iteration may not be a drastically different game, but it feels enough like one to help it eclipse any and all other forms of entertainment that compete with it. The only question now is the same one Epic is always faced with: where it can go now, and what can it do to keep you around? We won’t know the answer until, yet again, like clockwork, Fortnite pulls off something we’ve never seen before.
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