There is unease in the Fortnite community. Not about the unnatural, purple storm clouds encroaching overhead - you get used to those. Instead, there is a growing fear that something else is coming: the end of the game once simply known as Fortnite.
I am referring to Fortnite: Save the World, the strange builder-shooter Epic launched into early access last summer. The subtitle became necessary a couple of months later, to distinguish Fortnite from its Battle Royale mode - an open tribute to PUBG that has since exploded in popularity to the tune of 45 million players, overshadowing its parent.
“Save the World will definitely continue,” Epic said to reassure fans last week, “and we have more to bring you in the coming months.”
This is not the kind of statement you issue to players who feel the future of their favoured mode is secure. Indeed, there is a perception that Save the World is being neglected while its PvP namesake is updated from strength to strength. And those concerns have a life-or-death edge, with the sudden cancellation of Epic’s MOBA, Paragon, in the rear-view mirror. Until its closure in January, Paragon’s team were writing sunny statements about the future of their game too.
Let us be clear - Fortnite: Battle Royale is an extraordinary accomplishment. Designed and released in just a few months last year, it shrewdly capitalised on the direction PC gaming was headed. But Fortnite: Save the World is an altogether more unusual game that took Epic over half a decade to develop alongside Unreal Engine 4. The idea that one could supplant the other - worse, shuffle around in its skin, wearing its name tag - is one that makes me feel a bit queasy.
This was never just some mode. Even before Battle Royale, Fortnite was on track to become Epic’s most successful game ever. Epic Games, lest we forget, made Gears of bloody War. The original Fortnite was, and still is, a game capable of resonating with people on a huge scale.
The appeal of Save the World is tricky to describe precisely because it does not replicate the formula of any other game. Yes, there are elements of some of the biggest gaming phenomenons of the last decade in there: the tree-whacking and construction of Minecraft; the traps and waves of tower defence. But it all comes together like a magpie’s nest - a beautiful amalgam of repurposed parts.
It is difficult to imagine a game paced better than Save the World for the meandering, distracted nature of co-op with friends. In the first phase of a match you head out into a procedurally-generated map, hacking cars apart for their bolts and homes for their bricks, nattering over VOIP all the while. Then somebody happens across the objective - a doohickey that must be defended at all costs - and the building process begins.
Sometimes you whack together something simple-but-effective from metal sheets and stand on top of your makeshift fort with a sniper rifle. On other occasions, when you sense your team is feeling patient and ambitious, you might lay down elaborate funnels to steer zombies into trap gauntlets. The ceiling gas trap alone is potent - but combined with the stunning force of a floodlight, it can melt away even the beefier baddies. Fortnite encourages you to get carried away like this: only once you are ready do you trigger the device and bring down the undead on your shared creation. The battle, like the ramparts, is messy and spectacular.
Why is a game as distinct as this at risk? Frustratingly, there are a couple of barriers standing in the way of Save the World’s continued success, like well-placed chicanes in one of its maps. The first is a price tag. One of the key factors in Fortnite: Battle Royale’s world-eating victory is the fact that it is absolutely free. The plan was always that Save the World would go free-to-play, too, but in Early Access it costs £34.99. That might be a reasonable ask for a new triple-A game, but it looks miserly when placed next to Battle Royale on Fortnite’s front page.
The second wall is a horrendously complicated progression system - a web of hero levelling, item development, and base management that presents itself as a frankly bewildering array of menus. This is the way of the contemporary triple-A game: designed to be a hobby that hooks you in daily over the course of years and months, rather than a once-and-done campaign. Got your head around the skill trees? Good, because you need that spare bandwidth to start thinking about the research tree. And no, we won’t have any more of your ridiculous claims that these two concepts could have been consolidated into one easy-to-read screen.
Give it enough time and that cycle of looting, recycling, and upgrading becomes inoffensive busywork, something to do absent-mindedly between matches. But for new players it only serves to intimidate while also belying the simple and approachable game beneath.
For Save the World devotees, Fortnite: Battle Royale is a strange experience. It looks like the game we love - a rubbery cartoon landscape threatened by a big, purple cloud. The building tools are there, too, best used for cover during the closing moments of a match. But it is, fundamentally, a different game. An incredibly tense and exciting game, at the forefront of its genre, sure, but not a unique one. Save the World, by contrast, stands alone. If it were no longer maintained and allowed to crumble, nobody would build another game like it in its place. For that reason, it deserves better than to be a forgotten casualty in the war of the Battle Royales.