Time-twisting changes and mecha suits have descended on Epic's evergreen island.
Fortnite is in a really good place right now. The battle royale shooter has gone from strength to strength since it splintered away from Save the World and became its own, contentious free-to-play thing. You can see why Bluehole cried bloody murder and evoked the lawyers after Epic used the same formula as previously seen in PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds; Fortnite is an excellent battle royale shooter that does the basics extremely well, you could argue better than PUBG. It's characterful, polished, and ever-changing, with a cadence of freshly-pressed content that nobody can keep pace with. It has the world transfixed.
The constant iteration pushed by Epic - which it should be noted has resulted in allegations of uncompromising working conditions at the studio - has kept the game in a constant state of flux. Map changes are a semi-frequent occurrence, and that regularly changing state is even being woven into the enigmatic meta-narrative with even more map changes promised as Season X (SX) delivers its time-bending alterations, returning revamped and long-lost features to the island in order to keep the playspace feeling fresh.
We had been playing a fair amount of Season 9, and so we were looking forward to something a little bit different in this upcoming content drop. Starting with a huge in-game event at the end of S9 that saw a giant lizard skewered by a hulking robot, and then followed this week with the launch of the new SX content - with the Fortnite World Cup playing in the background and watched by millions - players have been given a whole bunch of new challenges and activities to busy themselves with.
Of course, for a lot of the Fortnite community, especially the younger players out there, the constant rotation of cool cosmetics is a big draw. They're such a draw, in fact, that these over-priced yet undeniably awesome skins and emotes are paying for the company to take on Valve and try and break that company's hold on the PC platform by challenging the dominance of Steam. We've bought more than our fair share of skins at our house, fuelling the company's take-no-prisoners approach to bagging exclusives for its game store, but then we've all enjoyed playing the game together, a family huddled around a collection of screens and devices, taking advantage of the crossplay functionality that Epic has helped bring to consoles.
Whether by its cultural impact with kids dabbing on the playground, the company's attempts at challenging the status quo on PC, or the fact that the game has united console gamers in previously unheard-of ways, the impact of Epic's shooter is impossible to deny and easy to understate. But you didn't come here to read an essay about the cultural relevance of Fortnite, so let's call that the intro and move on.
Let's start with the mechs because that's always a good place to start. We jumped in a few, both as a pilot and as a gunner, and we have to say that they're not as OP as we feared they would be - at least not in our hands. Yeah, you absolutely pack a punch if you're rocking one, but you're also a big fat target and you're far from bulletproof. We hit one at close range with a minigun and it didn't take long for the pilot to eject and the whole thing to blow. They do, however, have a few tricks up their robotic sleeves, with a heavy-weight double jump, and the ability to smash through walls and floors. Oh, and the rockets, which caused us a load of pain when we were on the receiving end.
We've no idea how long they'll last in the game, but they don't seem to have torn up the overall balance. That said, we've not seen enough top-five finishes since their introduction to get a definitive sense of just how impactful they will be over the course of the season. Time will tell on this one.
Then there are the rift zones, where items are suspended in the air and gravity is much more nonchalant, as we've seen many times before in Fortnite through various items and areas. For the briefest of moments hitting these little isolated pockets means you can leap huge distances (which isn't always as useful as it sounds). At the time of writing, there's one at Loot Lake, although we might see these anomalous bubbles shift location as the season progresses.
The giant lizard skull, complete with impaling sword, is now covered in pink flora (and reminds us a bit of a similar feature in Apex Legends), but perhaps the most striking part of the map is the meteor that hangs suspended in mid-air, and on more than one occasion we made a point of diving through the trail of smoke streaming in its wake, just because we could. The Block continues to add creative flair to the game as well, and it's currently a lovely little holiday destination to peruse as you search for lovely loot to aid you in the battle ahead.
Once again Epic has dropped in a ton of interesting new features for players to explore and discover, but some things have also been removed, and these omissions change the dynamic of the map too. One example is the geysers that used to be littered all over the place, as many of them (if not all, we can't be sure) have been removed, and this does have an impact as you try and traverse the island. The same can be said of the sky platforms, although the wind tunnels that loop around certain areas are still in place, so it's not all change (it's worth bearing in mind that the lack of geysers means areas around Pressure Plant aren't as easy to navigate now). In fact, vehicles and glider items have been removed too, so traversal has really been dialled back a notch, as was Epic's intention as laid out in their patch notes.
Map changes aside, one of the things that keeps games like Fortnite feeling fresh is having a range of ways to play. That's the case here and Epic regularly updates the game modes currently in rotation. The staples are already there - solo, duos, squads, team rumble, arena - but we've also seen community modes such as Beach Assault and hide and seek simulator Prop Hunt. In particular, the more playful Prop Hunt has proven to be a big hit with the little ones, and Epic is wise to keep mixing up the more intense battle royale modes with much more accessible and less taxing game types.
So as we said right at the start, Fortnite is in a good place right now. Season X is looking like it will deliver even more variety for players with a net so wide that Epic clearly hopes it will catch all manner of players. With a thriving competitive scene, a bunch of new cosmetics for fans to unlock, challenges to tackle, map alterations to anticipate, and - of course - lots and lots of battle royale for players to indulge in, Fortnite's constant evolution looks like it's going to continue for many more seasons to come.