It’s been a wild three days for Fortnite. First, the battle royale game expanded with Lego Fortnitea full survival crafting game with extensive brick-building. Just one day later, Psyonix dropped its latest game, the excellent Rocket Racingin the app. Epic Games is completing its hat trick today with Fortnite Festivala music experience crafted by Guitar Hero-maker Harmonix. It’s a fitting way to cap off a festive few days for the most popular game around — or, at least, it sounds like one on paper.
In reality, Fortnite Festival is the oddest addition to the live service game’s new offerings. It essentially adds both Rock Band and Fuser into Fortnite, though each is implemented in a way that doesn’t quite live up to their full counterparts. Whereas Rocket Racing feels like a fully original game that could have stood on its own, Fortnite Festival plays more like the bonus mode you’d probably expect from this endeavor.
Though I enjoyed what I played at an early demo event ahead of its launch, it leaves me hoping that Harmonix’s talents are relegated to Fortnite experiences going forward. It’s simply too talented to be making musical emotes.
Fortnite Festival adds two elements to the live service game. First, there’s “Main Stage” mode, which is Rock Band without the plastic instruments. It’s the exact same rhythm game setup, where players can choose between drums, guitar, bass, and vocals. Up to four players can jam together, playing along to a rotating selection of licensed songs. The initial list of tracks includes heavy hitters from Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance to Weezer’s Buddy Holly. It’s a good selection of songs to start, showing off Harmonix’s eye for crafting strong, multi-generational playlists.
Once a song starts, players have to hit the right notes by pressing four buttons. It’s the same tried-and-true hook that made Guitar Hero a sensation, but it loses something without the plastic instruments. Recreating drums and vocal lines by tapping keys or pressing controller buttons doesn’t have the same rock star fantasy attached to it. Considering that its buttons can be remapped, I’m hopeful that someone will find a way to get some of Harmonix’s old peripherals working with it eventually. Billie Elish’s Bad Guy begs to be played on a plastic bass.
There’s some nostalgic fun in that, but the new mode really misses a golden opportunity in its “jam stage” mode. Here, Harmonix takes the tech behind Fuser and crams it into a much less elegant package. That means players can create collaborative music mash-ups by dropping individual tracks from a selection of songs. I could start pounding out Queens of the Stone Age’s Go With the Flow on drums, while a few friends could join my jam circle and add guitar from The Killers’ Mr. Brightside and vocals from Olivia Rodrigo’s Vampire. Everything will snap to the selected key and tempo, just like Fuser.
Well … not exactly like Fuser; there isn’t a game structure behind that idea. Players aren’t getting scored on mixes. It plays out as an emote system, where players simply bring up a wheel of songs and activate one track to start a jam circle. With no rhyme or reason, “jams” tend to become an unmixed mess of tracks that don’t fit together. Drums completely overpower any guitar track, while vocals from songs like The Cranberries’ Zombie just don’t seem to fit in. The first jam session devolved into such unlistenable chaos that I burst out laughing during my session. That’s not to mention that simply sitting around watching your avatar bang out a steady drum beat just isn’t as fun as actively mixing tracks together on the fly with intent.
It seems like the jam system isn’t so much meant to be taken as a game in itself and more as a new expression option that can be used across Fortnite. I can start jam sessions within the battle royale mode if I so choose, which is a genuinely funny thought. Imagine being cornered during a shootout and just busting out Mr. Brightside’s guitar line in hopes that it causes a temporary jam session between enemies. And imagine how much funnier that would be if it ended with a far-off sniper hearing it all in the distance and taking everyone down.
Even so, both modes feel like lesser imitations of Harmonix’s best games. They also come with some potentially pricey microtransactions, as players will have to pay 500 V-Bucks to buy additional songs and their instrument tracks (though some will be offered for free). It all leaves me wondering if Epic Games bought Harmonix for its music game expertise or for what value it could bring to the Fortnite shop.
If I sound a little down on all this, it’s out of respect for what I know Harmonix is capable of. It’s a studio that created several generation-defining experiences and unsung heroes in games like Fuser. I know it has more to give than playing its greatest hits, like a once-popular headlining act getting demoted to an opening act nostalgia slot. Hopefully, Fortnite Festival is only meant as a way to introduce younger generations to Harmonix, paving the way for a newfound popularity that can fuel its next standalone game. Fortnite needs to be a springboard for Epic Games’ talented roster of studios, not an endpoint.
Fortnite Festival is available in Fortnite now for free.