Tabletop RPG: Storytime or Playtime?

Posted by on Aug 16, 2017 in Editorial, Tabletop and Board

Tabletop RPG: Storytime or Playtime?

I (and possibly others) find that the most difficult aspect of being the GM in a tabletop RPG (henceforth know simply as RPGs in the context of this post) is letting go of the reins. On the flip side, I think many players also find it difficult to take those reins. The so called “power” of the RPG is that it’s a collaborative story which is moved forward by both the GM and the players. Does it actually work like that? In my experience, not always, and if it does, the question is: does the experience remain “a story” or does it turn into something else?

The big caveat is that RPGs don’t need to have an end. Like life, what’s got the current focus is just a point on a timeline that for all intents and purposes has no visible end. When the players have achieved their current goal, the GM can present them with another…and then another…and another. Each of these “adventures” becomes a story within a greater “campaign” set in the much wider “game world”, a construct that insinuates that there are millions of stories going on at any given time.

A story, then, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Published modules follow this, in part because there’s no real way to make a truly open ended module. Yet there are tons of gaming groups out there who will tell you without prodding that their group has been playing the same characters in the same game world for years without considering the question of “are we done yet?”

Are these adventures stories if people “play the way they are supposed to”? And by this, I mean with the players driving the direction, and the GM filling in the foundation underfoot as the party rushes ahead? Consider as an analogue a baseball game; it has rules, players have positions and purpose, and things continue until a definitive end is reached. Contrast that to kids on a playground; they don’t have a goal except for “having fun” and would keep playing forever if their parents didn’t collect them and take them home. The first offers a driven “story” that trends in a single direction, while the second is more of an aimless wandering that only ends when people agree to end it.

This isn’t to say that stories can’t exist on the playground, but from a GM perspective, it’s incredibly hard to maintain a specific narrative if the players are exercising the agency they are allotted to the full extent that they’re able. Every GM has at least one experience of how he or she set up an elaborate showdown or situation that they were intensely excited about, only to find the players turning 180 degrees away from the encounter to do something totally unrelated.  If a GM’s job is to respond to players, then the GM has no choice but to put his or her plans on the back burner and follow the players.

In this respect, the players are making their own stories, but at what cost? Standing at the foot of the mountain carved in the visage of a skull, lava pouring from the eye sockets while dragons wheel about in the air above it, the party…turns around and decides they’d rather explore the sewers of the nearest major city. If the whole point of the adventure was to infiltrate that mountain and defeat the Ancient Evil, then that story is left untold (for now). Instead, the players are exercising their ability to go anywhere and do anything…and are putting a massive stress on the GM to come up with a whole new set of encounters, purpose, and reward because of the the party’s newfound wanderlust. There’s no doubt that the players know that “the point” of their adventure was to get into that mountain (it’s the kind of meta-thinking that is actually OK in an RPG), and their agency gives them the right to do anything else, and while the GM can come up with ways to get them back on track (abandoning their role in defeating the Ancient Evil will certainly have repercussions that will invariably find the party), are the players purposefully subverting “story time” in exchange for “playtime”?

In closing, I’m not condemning the more free-form gameplay; it’s how I used to play when I was younger, having been one of those GMs/players who just kept the ball rolling week after week without a defined purpose except what we happened to come up with. I have concerns now, though, as I personally find it more difficult to be flexible in how I’m able to respond to player agency that moves away from the “goal” of the session. I’d love to be part of a freewheeling group where the session starts with “what are we all going to do today?”, regardless of whether it’s the GM or the party who asks. In light of that, I find myself reliant more on very specific details, whether it’s the helping hand of a published module or my own homebrew concepts. I figure that if the GM is going to lay down a “hook”, then the players should very strongly trend in the direction that the hook leads, even though it flies in the face of the agency that RPGs provide.

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Rated M for Mayhem

Posted by on Aug 16, 2017 in Agents of Mayhem, Editorial, Featured

Rated M for Mayhem

Listen, I’m no longer the kind of gamer who spends a lot of time pouring over numbers in a bid to find the best bang for my virtual buck. Games have gotten really good at cramming tons of gear and weapons and skills into their offerings such that parsing the data to min-max a build could very well be a full-time job. Even being a lowly consumer of this information leaves a whole lot of crap to sort through. I get the appeal: I used to revel in games that came with 300-page manuals (back when games came with manuals) and there’s some part of me that really wants to get out of the tutorial of Crusader Kings II with my sanity intact.

Agents of Mayhem is kind of the anti-stats game. It’s easy to hit the ground running (and you will do a lot of running) and you’ll never once miss the chore of crunching numbers because you’ll be too busy whoaing at the absurd, over-the-top kinetic action and laughing (or at least chuckling) at the bonkers characters that populate the game.

If you’ve played the Saint’s Row games, then you know 75% of what AoM offers; I consider this a Good Thing because I loved the SR series for its open world setting and it’s insane characters, plots, and gear (the only well-known game series where you can wield a jelly dildo as a weapon). If you’re new to the SR universe (of which AoM is a part, although admittedly a “spin-off”), then the Agents might actually be a better introduction to the setting than the existing SR games.

You play as a team of three Agents of M.A.Y.H.E.M (Multinational Agency for Hunting Evil Masterminds), with “Mayhem” being the “good guys” supergroup much like S.H.I.E.L.D., complete with a floating HQ called the ARK. The ARK serves as your base of operations which you can return to in between missions or whenever you want to get away from free-roaming the futuristic vision of Seoul, South Korea. While at the HQ, you can upgrade your team and their weapons, craft new auxiliary armaments, pimp out your rides (of course), buy perks for your team with the money you collect, and even train at various difficulty levels in the holographic simulator.

When you’re ready to return to Seoul, you can accept a mission from the storyline, a mission to unlock Agents that you haven’t collected, one-off missions for advanced loot, or just to wander the city in search of action. The story is basic Saturday morning cartoon fare: Mayhem is fighting the forces of L.E.G.I.O.N. (the League of Evil Gentlemen Intent on Obliterating Nations), complete with cannon-fodder henchmen, tougher middle-tier bosses, and analogous named villains that are perpetrating the bulk of the evil that you’re thwarting. As you make your way through the city, you’ll encounter drop-in mobs that spawn around you on occasion to keep things lively, static mobs that seem to be going about their dastardly deeds, and even event mobs that end in a tougher enemy that drops better loot than you’d get from mowing down henchmen. With more focused missions you’ll engage in actions such as assaulting enemy held territory that requires you to “hack” terminals (a simple mouse-button QTE) in order to claim the area for Mayhem. When you’re unlocking new agents, the game takes you through a preamble which you play with your team, but which eventually switches you over to the new Agent so you can play through a snippet of his or her backstory and how they relate to the Mayhem organization. If you’re tired of working for The Man (who is actually The Woman), you can scour the city for one-off trials like racing, track down loot chests, or just engage in some namesake fun.

The action can be incredibly frentic. Enemies can spawn in from any direction, and often while you’re focused on mobs in other directions. The game doesn’t pull punches in that respect and it’s super easy to find yourself running in circles and weaving through enemies with the trigger held down simply because you’ll be guaranteed to hit something in the process. When the battle is done (or when it slows down a bit) you can collect dropped cash or materials, which isn’t something I’m a fan of because I always suspect I’m leaving loot on the street.

In order to help with the second-to-second action, it’s easy to cycle between characters (sort of) using the mouse-wheel. When you start you’re given a team of three — Hollywood, Fortune, and Hardtack — which means no real customization, but that’s OK because Hollywood is a decent ranged character, Fortune is a decent crowd control player, and Hardtack is a decent close-ranged character. Each Agent has two special attacks: their signature special, and their unique “Mayhem” ability. The signature attack is regulated by an individual cool-down, but the Mayhem ability is regulated by a “Mayhem meter” that fills when enemies are killed. The Mayhem meter is also individual to each character, so there’s a bit of planning there if you want to rely on a specific ability for an upcoming segment. Like Master x Master, another team-based game, any Agent that isn’t active will heal damage over time, although collecting the purple fleur-de-lis that mobs will sometimes drop can heal and pump up the Mayhem meter at the same time. I have to say that I do not like the mouse-wheel cycling mainly because I never remember which direction to roll to for a particular character, even though it shows their order in the lower right corner. I tried using the number keys, but that didn’t seem to do anything. I’m not sure if there’s a keybind for an alternative method of character switching.

Seoul is a big city, and I’ve heard that it suffers from “open world syndrome” — i.e. so big as to provide a lot of space but is mostly absent of purpose on its own. When you’re on a mission you’ll get sent to specific locations, and will often be required to go somewhere else. You can travel around by “nicely” carjacking a vehicle, or you can summon an AI Mayhem car which is a lot faster and comes equipped with a nitro boost for those hot pursuits. Each vehicle handles differently: the tiny smart-cars have no pickup but are pretty easy to control, while lumbering buses are like rolling cinder blocks that are good for ramming other vehicles in missions where you need to stop a rolling target. Whenever required, use the Mahyemmobile, because it’s the perfect combo of speed and handling. If you’re on a free-roam, there are things to do. I’ve seen various terminals at random locations around the city, and based on my experience with Saint’s Row, I assume these will trigger street races or other one-off activities that can earn you cash or loot. There also seem to be open-world events, like waves of mobs that culminate in a mini-boss and which drops better loot than you’d get from random enemies.

At the end of the day, though, AoM has one mission: balls-to-the-wall mayhem, and in that it succeeds. Explosions are big. Combat is satisfying and can get crazy. There’s a lot of upgrades to be had in the service of customizing your Agents and building your mission team. It also retains the SR humor, which is a little on the juvenile side (Hollywood launches grenades with a hip-thrust, and Braddock threatened to “put [her] foot so far up her ass that she’ll sneeze boot polish”) but when offered in the context of stupid and silly fun it’s pretty obvious that it couldn’t be presented any other way. It all just fits together really well. I don’t think that AoM is a “first-tier” game (something you focus the majority of your gaming time on) but I don’t think it was designed with that in mind either. It’s the kind of game you turn to when you want an oversized reaction to a really angry and violent action that can scratch a virtual itch and maybe put a smile on your face in the process.

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On Learning Stuff

Posted by on Aug 9, 2017 in Editorial

Upon close examination of my life, I realize that aside from elements outside the scope of this blog (house, family, job, etc), I don’t really have a whole lot to show for my time here. When I get home I usually move right on down to the PC until dinner, and either eat with the family or, if everyone scatters to the wind or my wife insists on watching dumb crap on TV, move back to the basement until it’s time for bed. Most of the time I have is spent consuming stuff — games, TV, whatever — and considering how scattershot my posts here are when I try and talk about these things that I do, it’s pretty obvious that I’m not even very good at doing those things.

I spend a lot of time, then, trying to Learn New Things. I have to literally force myself to do so, as this virtual book-cracking is just a shade lower on the scale than “eating better” and “losing weight”; the reason why I end up gaming is that it’s so low-cost and provides some level of positive feedback that makes me feel good about the immediate actions I’m taking, and doesn’t immediately result in the level of self-reflection that happens to me at times like this…writing a post…about how I am trying to spend less time consuming and more time producing, or learning to produce.

So I’m back to square one with Blender. I have restarted my video tutorial series because it has been quite some time since I last made the effort. I’m kind of amazed at how much I have forgotten in between then and now. This realization has lead me back to the high-school mantra of “when are we going to use this in real life”, and the implication thereof: If we’re not going to use it, why learn it; and if we’re going to learn it and no use it, aren’t we just…going to forget it eventually?

I have tried to learn game development through Unity, and while I’ve made great strides (IMO) when trying, returning to it after an absence requires me to re-learn everything I already have in code in front of me. Same with Blender. Same with new technologies at work. I’m trying to put together a dynamic web form builder, and I’ve already run into situations where I’m looking at code and wondering how I ever figured out how to get it to work because I sure as hell can’t see why it’s doing what it’s doing right now.

Is this an old age thing? Is it a diet thing? And exercise thing? We have already established where on the scale those things lie so I’m hoping not. I’m just not entirely sure if it’s worth plunging into new projects these days.

The silver lining, I hope, is being able to put learning into practice. For this form builder I’ve learned a whole lot about technologies that I’ve employed which should help me in other projects — assuming I have other projects which call for these kinds of things (I’m not the kind of developer who looks for excuses to shoehorn the “flavor of the month” tech into my work). Similarly, when I was working with Unity or Blender, I did OK. Certainly well enough to have made any instructor proud, had there been any to oversee my progress. But in the case of the latter, I didn’t have any reason to continue to deploy my new skills. Being on a self-imposed schedule apparently doesn’t do it for me, and there’s no way I’m going to come across any circumstance where a looming deadline is going to help hammer home the lessons learned under pressure.

At the very least, I can feel some minor level of accomplishment in moving away from being a passive consumer to being an active producer in the things that matter to me, even if I have to keep going back to the start every six months because I’ve already forgotten what I’d learned last time.

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Be Somebody

Posted by on Jul 31, 2017 in Editorial

When my daughter was younger and was all about the Disney Channel “tween” shows, I came to realize that Disney is very much a “theme” company. Check this:

  • Young girls get the “Princess” brands, despite the Internet’s best efforts to get them to knock this off.
  • Young boys get the “Cars” brands, despite good taste’s best efforts to get them to knock this off.
  • Young and discerning adults get the Marvel and Star Wars brands, which account for 98% of all entertainment on the planet Earth.
  • And there’s a cohort of core Disney fetishists out there, who adorn their spaces with Mickey and Pooh and who laugh and say that it’s all in good fun yet do so in a slightly creepy, “don’t be alone with them in a room” kind of way.

What’s the theme of that tween content, then? Celebrity. The Disney Machine is programmed in such a way that they employ kids to star in these shows which pretty much exclusively focus on the everyday lives of kids who happen to be famous — or are trying to get famous. There was Hannah Montana (to its credit, was sometimes really funny) about a pop star who was “played” by a “normal teen”, Sonny with a Chance (also sometimes funny) about a young teen “nobody” who was given a shot at being on a Nickelodeon-type variety show with established celebrities, and I swear to gawd there are others but my brain is walling them off to protect my sanity.

If people believe that Disney is trying to “program” their viewers (and many, many people believe this), then the message here would be “you’re nobody until you’re somebody”. On the surface that sounds like a rather poisonous lesson to impart, because it leads to…well, things like social media grandstanding, Snapchat and Instagram, and live streaming and YouTube videos of kids (and adults) begging for follows, likes, and shares.

If you want to blame someone for this, blame humanity itself. The only thing that modern society teaches us is that we no longer have to limit our outreach in the age of the Internet. I have always believed that human beings have the need to be needed, and that didn’t start with the advent of social media. Think back to when you were a kid, and how the social dynamics of your ecosystem were arranged. Were there social strata in your life? Were you someone who had no trouble making friends, or were you someone who always longed to just be accepted for who you were? Did you ever decide to change who you were in order to “fit in” with one group or another? What did it feel like to be accepted, and what did it feel like when you were rejected?

The need to be somebody to someone is not a feeling we should look down on, because we all have it to differing degrees. In many cases, the snarky outbursts we might see knocking “celebrity” and self-promotion are no doubt directed mostly at the “scaffolding” that attempts to commoditize this need, like Disney’s ham-handed messaging, or the cynical and business-like apparatus that has followed in the wake of the rise of live-streaming. We as average people don’t want to be told that we should hold someone in esteem simply because other people do (aka being told someone is an “influencer”), but we as average people do find people to admire, and in turn do want to be admired by our peers for something: our sense of humor, our knowledge, our insight, our empathy, or even (sadly) our rage.

What do you want to be known for? I think about this all the time, but I never come to a satisfactory decision. I don’t want to be a “celebrity”, and I don’t think the majority of people do, but I also don’t want to be ignored or forgotten or just another face amidst a seemingly endless list. Everyone wants to matter where we want to matter, which is why being thought well of and considered by the people that I think well of and who I consider is important.

“Be honest!” some people might say. “Be yourself!” is the advice our parents give us. Truthfully, that’s not the best advice, because people are terribly complex and everyone has an asshole streak, an empathetic streak, and an indifferent streak, and the dominant personality can change from day to day or even minute to minute based on the weather, the amount of sleep or coffee we get, or even how we feel we’re being perceived where it matters. This is why the whole “anonymous on the Internet” thing is relevant — we can be whomever we want when no one knows who we really are. This allows us to appeal to those we want to appeal to. And before you say to yourself “that’s disingenuous and the you that people like isn’t the real you!”, consider that this is a door that swings both ways: no one is truly honest on the Internet, despite how earnest their bios might claim to be.

For those who consider the problem, we try our hardest to be the put forth aspect of our persons that we can be. We want to be happy, so we crack jokes. We want to be trusted, so we show that we care. We want to be remembered, so we try and be relevant to the conversations we inject ourselves into. We don’t belittle or berate or insult unless we have a juvenile sense of what it means to be liked and how to be liked. Snark and sarcasm are not virtues, and shouldn’t be celebrated. For those who opt to be infamous rather than well regarded, there’s nothing I have to say about or to you.

Wanting to be thought well of is difficult, but it’s not something we should be ashamed of. I feel like I’ve written that before, but it might just be because it’s something I often think of, especially as I get older and realize that some day I’m not going to be here any longer. What will my legacy be, and who will bear it? My daughter, obviously, and that’s an aspect for another day, but even though I’ll be gone leaving a footprint behind does matter. I’m not sure why, or beyond that even how, so the best I can do is work on the present.

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The Dark Fortnite of the Soul

Posted by on Jul 26, 2017 in Editorial, Fortnite

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So Fortnite has gone from a game that no one has heard about, which generated no buzz, which dropped off of 98% of the radars out there until it didn’t, to a game that elicits complex feelings…more so, I think, than any game I’ve played in quite some time.

The Good

The game is solid. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, all of which are shot through with a narrative which, however weak it may be, makes the repetition more meaningful than just your typical arena bouts.

I got to play a mission with Ser Mindstrike last night, and the game most certainly excels when you are playing with people, and even more when you’re playing with friends. Being able to take your time and scour your environment for raw materials rather than having to worry about a timed phase is stupidly refreshing since I could totally see most other games enforcing that limitation on you under similar design. The building is seriously simple yet powerful once you start working with subtraction elements. If you’ve built well, then, combat is sometimes both a struggle and satisfying. Often times I’m sad when I manage to wipe out a wave before they reach my well-built fortification and carefully laid traps.

Overall, I’m having a lot of fun with this game that offers both casual phases and sometimes balls-to-the-wall stressful phases in the same round. In truth, I had a dream about the game last night. I don’t remember ever having a dream about any game I’ve played in the history of my time spent playing games.

The Bad

I learned from the Esteemed Pete of Dragonchasers fame that we can control player invasion, so I set myself to “friends only” and tried to tackle a mission. It did not end well. Looking back after I realized that the difficulty — measured in skulls, of course — was way too high for my level at the time, but I didn’t know how to parse this indicator at first.

The game is still far too vague for its own good, which is something that the devs say they are aware of and will be looking into. The game is technically still in early access. Many games have these “soft launches” which blur the lines between beta, early access, and “they switched the version to 1.0 overnight when no one was paying attention”, but this game almost has a confusing perception filter about it: although I know it’s early access, I can’t understand it in traditional early access terms. Everything about it feels like an official launch, but it’s not.

This label doesn’t save those of us who are working with it now. Last night Mindstrike asked if there was any game plan to storing your XP or recycling items and blueprints. My answer was “not right now”, but in a few months, who knows? At least I know that when the game gets around to explaining all this properly, I’ll be neck-deep in decisions made before the information was formalized, for good or for ill. There will probably be ragrets, and probably some low level anger, assuming I’m still playing when these changes come to pass.

The Ugly

Oh boy. I know I’m going to screw this up, so let me direct you to Pete’s post about Fortnite‘s tryst with Twitch. 

 

I echo Pete’s position almost to tee. I don’t have issues turning on a stream, although no guarantee I’m going to sit around and watch with rapt attention; Fortnite has some seriously boring parts that I can’t imagine make for riveting third party viewing. I am also not opposed to streaming the game myself just to get some free, low-cost in-game crap. Finally, I am an Amazon Prime user, so I get one free “smart enough not to spend his own money on this shit” Twitch subscription that I can move around each month, so I’ll find a really low pop Fortnite streamer, give him or her my sub, and we’ll both make out like bandits. Or maybe I can convince some Fornite friends to create some kind of web-ring-like ecosystem where we all sub to the next one in line until we double back on the initial participant and create a self-sustaining ouroboros of loot.

Notice that nowhere in that paragraph did I indicate that I am excited for what Fortnite is trying to do. My only thought here is how to subvert their intent so I can get the rewards without actively participating. If there was a way to ensure the numbnuts who thought up this marketing masturbation scheme knew that we were reaping rewards without giving a shit about their efforts, that would be so much better.

Why so angry? Pete covered the sentiment: there are bigger fish to fry that affects everyone when streaming isn’t in the equation. Yes, they can work on more than one system at a time, I understand…or they could have maybe had done more up to this point if they hadn’t made a conscious effort to put content behind a “streamwall”. I hope that the devs give this system the same multi-pass consideration that they have promised for their mechanics and UI in an effort to remind people that it is still early access. Forcing people to participate in tasks they really don’t care for in exchange for content is, to me, far worse than pay to win. The money I can recoup; my time spent watching some bearded asshole in a beanie over-emote like a trained seal barking for fish is time I’ll never, ever get back.

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What is a Fortnite?

Posted by on Jul 24, 2017 in Editorial, Featured, Fortnite

[Sorry for the lack of images…I absolutely suck at remembering to take screenshots, so enjoy the stock footage included in this post]

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The name Fortnite is a play on words: A “fortnight” is two weeks, but a “fortnite” is a game about building a “fort” in preparation for the “night”-time onslaught of a band of monsters that have appeared across the planet after the arrival of a mysterious storm.

After some 90%+ of the world’s population mysteriously vanishes in the wake of this mega-storm, those left behind can be assigned to one of two categories. There are the survivors who find themselves stranded in the middle of the maelstrom, and then there are the defenders who find their way to a bunker run by a floating droid named Ray whose organization may or may not be accidentally responsible for the storm. Technically, Ray and her bots were set up to prevent the storm, but something bad (and unknown at the start of the game) happened and things went to hell quickly. So with Ray as the dispatcher, the players assume the role of one of the elite agents who deploy technology to push back the storm while also rescuing survivors. This is accomplished in three phases.

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The first is the gathering phase. A team of four players is placed into an open zone which might be a town or a forest (in the initial rounds). During the first phase, players must destroy trees, rocks, buildings, cars, and an amazing array of pretty much anything in a bid to collect building materials (wood, stone, and metal). Along the way players might uncover crafting materials, ammo, or special unlocks by searching shrubs, bookcases, and bunkers.

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Once the players have located their objective, they need to “activate” it in some way, depending on the story of the round. At this point, they need to build a defendable fortress around the objective, made up of walls, floors, and traps. The building can be as simple or as elaborate as the players see fit (although there are sometimes requirements of the mission to build a certain amount, less than a certain amount, or in a certain direction).

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The final phase is when the monsters show up. They appear where the storm-born lightning strikes and amble in towards the fort. It’s up to the players to actively attack the monsters, but also to use their structure to keep the hoards from plowing through the fort and destroying the objective. Monsters come in different forms, starting in the early rounds with your standard shambling zombie-esque creatures. Then there are the tanking monsters who are harder to kill, and even monsters dressed as baseball players who throw electrified shin-bones at you from a distance.

The game is very reminiscent of Orcs Must Die with the addition of the free-roaming collection phase. You have control over how much material you gather to build walls, floors, and ceilings, so it always behooves players to spend time exploring the map. Players can also uncover survivors being swarmed by monsters ahead of the main event, and helping these NPCs provides rewards. Building is advertised as being easy, and it’s no lie: you decide what you want to build (wall, floor/ceiling, or roof) and the material (wood, brick, or metal) and you just place it where the glowing outline allows. Because the monsters will attack your fort, you have to be able to repair it in the heat of battle, which only requires the right material in inventory and the press of the “F” key as you are running past the damaged structure.

Combat is fairly standard. There are ranged and melee characters, although it seems that (at least with primarily ranged characters) anyone can equip both. Rounds that I have played so far are mostly cases where everyone is on the roof mowing down the waves of monsters. I suspect that as the game progresses and both the objectives and the terrain change over time, different structures and strategies will be needed. So far rounds have ranged from stupidly easy to frantic clusterfucks where the team was running around the perimeter to take on the waves and repair the fortification. I suspect that the former example is how the game was intended to be played.

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Is the game fun? Yes. Yes, it is, although I suspect that there’s a narrow set of conditions under which this is true. For example, the initial collection and exploration phase can take as long as you like. I’ve already had fears that some rando on the team is going to get impatient and start the process while the rest of the team is spread out across the map and insufficiently packed for the next phase. I do prefer co-op games over competitive games, but some people still find ways to make things all about them. I’ve played about 50% of my rounds with all random teams and so far everyone has been either cool or just silent, focusing on the game the way I believe it was intended to be played, but we always remember the worst experience above all else, so I’m dreading the time I end up alongside one of those “blame everyone but themselves” type players. That said, playing the game with friends can be a blast. The game doesn’t come with voice comms, so a Discord setup (PC) is very much recommended.

My only complaint so far — which sounds generous until you understand that it covers everything that isn’t the act of collecting, building, and shooting — is that many pre/post round activities are horribly opaque. There are literally too many systems to enumerate here, and almost none of them are explained well enough in the game. For instance, you get “survivor cards” which can be used to build “teams”. You’re asked to slot some of these cards early on, but you can’t use those teams until you unlock certain nodes on your skill tree which, of course, aren’t nodes you unlock up front. You have two (at the start) avenues of advancement. Your research tree runs on credits earned simply through the passage of time, while skills level based on tokens you earn by completing rounds. Both weapons and playable characters can be assigned XP, but there’s no rhyme or reason to how: should we stockpile XP and test drive characters? Is the XP drop rate such that we can spend with wild abandon? And then there’s the blueprint and inventory system, which you can’t actually use until you are in a game.

We also had a bit of a hiccup in a friends-game where no one could build until I (the party leader and hence the map “owner”) gave the rest of the team permission through the shield generator control panel. I don’t remember that being explained at all, and that was an issue considering one goal of the mission was to expand the fort. I’ve also heard of issues where non-round owners couldn’t build or pick up items; I’m not sure if that’s related to the permission control panel, or just a really annoying bug.

Don’t let this dissuade you from considering the game, however. There is so much crap dropping that experimentation is easy and almost consequence-free. Between rounds, you can take as much time as you like to investigate the systems, although you might not be able to activate or use them early on. What I didn’t know was that Gearbox was involved in creating this game, which explains the game’s keyless lock box system of comically literal loot pinatas that you swing at to unleash a torrent of yet more stuff like XP boosters, blueprints, survivor cards, and materials. Like Borderlands, there’s no shortage of crap to fill up your inventory, and I say that in terms of it being a Good Thing(tm).

Image result for fortnite

Fortnite is a fun group co-op game that’s certainly more enjoyable with friends who can work together and share the same pace. Early on the mechanics are interesting enough between rounds that can range from easy-going to head-on-fire crazy-time. I have no idea what the game will be like in later stages after several dozen rounds of collect-build-defend start to get stale. I do wish the out of round systems were better explained or weren’t accessible until the system was ready to devote time to explain them. There’s a lot going on, and being able to click on things not only raises more questions than they answer but makes me (at least) feel like I’m always only playing at a fraction of the potential I’m allowed simply because the ancillary systems are just a little too black box. Still, the gameplay is fun, the visuals have their own style that lends itself to the sometimes bonkers premise, and the game has enough going for it to be either a primary progression game, or a secondary party game.

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