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Fortnite's maximalism still works in its new cyberpunk season

After a handful of eclectic recent chapters, Fortnite's latest is taking a theme and running with it. Chapter Four, Season Two of Fortnite went live over the weekend, revamping the game's central island (which got a full makeover last season) while going full futuristic.

The result is a cyberpunk fever dream, with Fortnite's bucolic rolling hills punctuated by 20-story-tall glowing skateboard rails, neon katakana and towering holographic samurai, because cyberpunk aesthetics in this particular genre of fantasy future still necessitate a mélange of Japanese imagery, apparently.

With the exception of a few less fun dud seasons here and there, Fortnite generally brings a lot to the table for casual players, who can either play for free or buy its seasonal battle pass for $9.50. The new season is no different, with a new area featuring hot springs and cherry blossoms (Japan again!), a handful of new inscrutably named weapons and some unique perks known as "reality augments" to make gameplay more interesting. So far, it's as fun as it is chaotic, which of course is Fortnite's raison d'être (that and selling a bunch of irresistible virtual stuff).

The new season continues the recent theme of expanding mobility across the island, with street bikes replacing last season's dirt bikes and a wild new version of aerial parkour that makes for dynamic battles high up in Mega City, the new Tokyo-ish futuristic hot-drop combat hub. Epic's ongoing upgrades to the battle royale mode's means of getting around make the game feel more dynamic (i.e. less running from the storm on foot) and serve as a showcase for whatever Unreal Engine is capable of at the moment, from more fluid in-game movement to increasingly destructible environments and the like.

That Epic has managed to keep the game feeling fresh for this long without any kind of thematic identity beyond Fortnite's polished cartoon look and zany vibes is pretty remarkable. Other long-running live service games (think Final Fantasy XIV, Destiny 2, World of Warcraft and even relative newcomers like Genshin Impact and Apex Legends) generally hew more closely to a genre or theme, whether it's sci-fi, high fantasy or post-apocalypse lite.

Epic changes up the live service battle royale's feel from chapter to chapter and often even within the shorter three-month seasons in between each of the game's major shakeups. But unlike more traditional games, Fortnite doesn't need to maintain any ongoing theme, particularly coherent story or visual identity from season to season. One of Epic's cleverest turns is that the game's unifying feature can be summed up as "more is more."

Fortnite Chapter 4 Season 2
Fortnite Chapter 4 Season 2

Image Credits: Fortnite

One season might center on medieval knights or shirtless body building catmen while the next is about shimmery goo you can scoot around in. That model also lends itself well to Epic's relentless and surely lucrative smorgasbord of tie-ins with major pop culture touchstones, from the Mandalorian and the Marvel Cinematic Universe to Indiana Jones and a whole cast of anime favorites. For an idea of the breadth of these crossovers, at the time of writing the Fortnite store was selling an avatar of Horizon Zero Dawn's Aloy and a very solid likeness of Michael B. Jordan from the Creed films that steered well clear of the uncanny valley.

Other games have taken a bite out of the live service shooter pie in recent years (Valorant and Apex Legends, to name a few), but Fortnite's formula still works six years after its battle royale mode debuted. There's way more stuff in the game these days — ads for virtual concerts, avatar packs, TV characters, wild boar — but Epic seems to be successfully leveraging that maximalism to keep the game relevant. A few seasons ago, how could you not tune in on Twitch or drop in from the battle bus to see Dragon Ball Z's Goku leap onto a cel-shaded cloud and blast Darth Vader into atoms?

Fortnite's recent focus on quests and in-game errands is another bit of the puzzle. There's a lot of stuff to do each season beyond just shooting other players. You can grab a few friends, hop into the game and roll around the map in a giant hamster ball, knocking off whatever unhinged tasks wind up on the game's weekly to-do lists. By doing that stuff and unlocking the skins and other virtual miscellany on the seasonal battle pass in the process, you wind up having a good time, even if your crew can't aim to save your life.

It's a good game loop and one that's fun to dip in and out of as a casual player every few months so things don't get too stale (or too tense — no-stakes Fortnite tends to be the most fun, from my experience). Hardcore players can bicker over gun balancing and SBMM formulas, but the game's real appeal is just bouncing around the map and seeing what happens. It's usually something funny or dumb, most often both.

These days, it's hard to get a read on just how many people are playing Fortnite, particularly in light of its app store absence, but the game remains popular enough to stay in Twitch's most-watched rotation along with a handful of other online multiplayer hits similarly powered by regular infusions of fresh content. The player base may ebb and flow, but Epic likely banks on the fact that the right character can pull plenty of intermittent players back into a seasonal subscription. And Fortnite's creative mode is a whole other world unto itself, with about half of Fortnite playtime already spent in player-made maps, even though Epic's creator monetization options aren't exactly inspiring at the moment. We'll definitely be hearing more about Fortnite Creative as approachable game design systems continue to unfurl in the coming years.

Fortnite still has a place in the esports world, of course, but at its heart the game is a playground for unexpected pop culture crossovers and viral moments. A battle royale inexplicably full of Disney IP really should feel like a cynical cash grab, but mostly it winds up being a good time. And if we're still talking about the metaverse (are we still talking about the metaverse?), Epic has laid some serious groundwork here with a technically impressive virtual amusement park — complete with gift shops, of course — which years after launch still doubles as one of the most fun shooters around.