It’s been a big week for Fortnite.
Following a major ‘Big Bang Event’ featuring rap legend Eminem and the game’s original battle royale map, Epic debuted a new season that includes Family Guy’s Peter Griffin and Metal Gear’s Snake. If that wasn’t enough, three brand-new experiences that will launch for free within Fortnite — Lego Fortnite, Rocket Racing and Fortnite Festival.
All in all, that’s a lot of new content for the over-six-year-old game.
And yet, I keep coming back to Fortnite Festival. While the survival crafting sandbox of Lego Fortnite and Rocket League-inspired races of Rocket Racing are wholly impressive games unto themselves, it’s that musical experience that’s commanded my attention. Drawing from developer Harmonix’s history with Rock Band, Fortnite Festival proves to be utterly original in a way I’ve never seen from a game.
— Abel Tesfaye (@theweeknd) December 6, 2023
At first glance, it might look like a rhythm game, and indeed, those elements are there. Like in Rock Band and similar titles, a core part of Fortnite Festival — the ‘Main Stage’ mode — has you matching button inputs to the tune of a song, with different difficulty levels scaling up the challenge accordingly. Now, I’ll admit to struggling at first to get used to this. On PS5, I found the default left-right-square-circle D-pad setup a bit more challenging than other rhythm games I’ve played. That said, I’m inherently not great at the genre, to begin with (plus I didn’t think to check if there were any options to remap the buttons), so hopefully, some configuration options will be in the final build.
But it’s the social elements of Fortnite Festival that truly grabbed my eye. With a party of four, you’ll have to decide who gets lead, drums, vocals, or bass. Right away, this presented a fun little fight to get between my group of media, and it’s easy to see how that would only intensify with actual friends.
That collaborative decision-making extends to Fortnite Festival’s robust song catalogue, which features new tracks as well as those already in Fortnite. The most notable of these come from Toronto’s own The Weeknd, the first ‘Music Icon’ to be featured in the experience. This means that in addition to actually getting to play as different versions of the popstar (including his iconic red suit), you’ll also get to jam out to hits like “Blinding Lights,” “Save Your Tears,” “Take My Breath” and “The Hills.” These join an eclectic selection that includes Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” Nine Inch Nails’ The Hand That Feeds,” and Olivia Rodrigo’s “Vampire.” Altogether, Epic promises “hundreds” of songs in the first year.
But getting these licences is only one part of the equation, and it’s how you engage with these songs that’s truly compelling. First, there’s just that innate appeal of getting a group of your friends together to perform these iconic songs. Seeing my party of colourful Fortnite characters — consisting of different The Weeknd skins and Peely the giant anthropomorphic banana — dramatically take to the stage to perform “Blinding Lights” is exactly the sort of goofy fun that only Fortnite can provide.
Those Fortnite flourishes can also be felt in smaller yet equally meaningful ways. When it’s not your part of the song, you can activate a boost metre to increase your band’s score or just jam out using your equipped emotes. As you successfully land notes and reach new milestones, you’ll complete in-game challenges and get progress for the larger battle pass. And because this is Fortnite, you can choose from all kinds of quirky mic stands, guitars, drums and other instruments to further personalize your experience.
But the most purely entertaining part of Fortnite Festival is its second mode: Jam Stage. Here, players are allowed to express themselves in staggeringly inventive and thoroughly engrossing ways. In this mode, you and up to three friends effectively become the world’s greatest — or worst — DJs.Once you each equip up to eight songs, you’ll all head on up to an empty stage and start performing one of them. But unlike the Main Stage, there aren’t timing-based rhythm mechanics here. Instead, simply selecting the band role will have your character automatically play the appropriate parts of the song. Your job, then, is to remix what’s being played in real-time by changing the tempo/key, song loop, BPM and more, all while your band members are doing the same.
These are graciously simple and intuitive controls that can lead to some absolutely wild mash-ups. While my tactical vest The Weeknd played a fast-paced version of “The Hills,” my teammates rotated between a deepened rendition of “Gangnam Style” and higher-pitched takes on “Bad Romance” and DNCE’s “Cake by the Ocean.”
If it sounds like a gleefully chaotic mess, that’s because it definitely was, and that’s the point. I’ve never been in a band, but on a broader level, Fortnite Festival nonetheless captures that unmitigated joy of hanging with friends and just getting wild. Who cares if it sounds any good — it’s your band.
That said, the mechanics are fluid enough that you can absolutely tinker away until you find something that you think sounds better. Because you have eight songs in your kit, you can freely hop between them all any any given time. Considering that works out to up to 32 different songs for a given party, plus the various vocal and instrumental roles within each track, there’s an almost mind-blowing amount of possibilities for the musical hodgepodges you can create.
The only real downside at the moment is the lack of options to save your creations. For now, Harmonix says these are meant to be “in the moment” performances between you and your friends, so there’s no in-game way to capture them. The only workaround is to use your console’s built-in recording features, like the PS5 Share button. Hopefully, though, Harmonix will add a dedicated in-game system that can take a more inventive and stylized recording — perhaps one with neat visual touches like zipping to each band member — than the generic clips generated by console capture.
For now, though, I’ve certainly appreciated that “in the moment” appeal. There is, undoubtedly, something magical about making something only for you and your friends. And if nothing else, you can invite people into your Jam Stage to watch you perform if you want to have your own little private performance.
But above all else, I’m just in awe of how immersive and innovative Fortnite Festival is, even at this early stage. With remarkably satisfying and approachable controls, Fortnite’s expansive customization options and a sizeable and diverse music catalogue, it’s an experience unlike any other. There’s so much potential here, and I’m so excited to see how Harmonix continues to build on it.
Image credit: Epic