April 16, 2024

The Weeknd is doing a Fortnite dance as you shred Queens of the Stone Age’s “Go With the Flow” on an Xbox controller.

No, this is not a fever dream. It’s the very real Fortnite Festival, Epic’s new, free music video game built inside the world of Fortnite. Developed in tandem with Epic subsidiary Harmonix, the game revives the once-popular, long-thought-dead rhythm genre, which spawned blockbuster hits like Dance Dance Revolution, Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Those games dominated the late 2000s, but game publishers basically stopped investing in the concept after Activision’s 2015 entry, Guitar Hero Live, fell flat.

In Fortnite Festival, players can choose between the “jam” mode (more on that later) and the main stage, where they’ll recognize that classic “note highway” format — notes corresponding with buttons fly across the screen like a rock ‘n’ roll treadmill. You can customize your avatar and instrument; choose between vocals, guitar, bass, keys or drums; and select songs by artists ranging from Olivia Rodrigo to Nine Inch Nails. With cross-console and online compatibility, players can squad up with up to three other band members.

“We want to make sure that whether you’re a 14-year-old girl or a 55-year-old guy, there’s going to be something in the game that you’re incredibly excited about,” Alex Rigopulos, co-founder and chairman of Harmonix, tells Variety at Epic Games‘ private New York preview event. With Rock Band, Dance Central and the first two Guitar Hero installments, Rigopulos has spearheaded some of the most important video games in the rhythm genre. But when Epic Games acquired Harmonix in 2021, it opened the opportunity for the music gaming company to tap into Fortnite’s unprecedented player base, which last month hit 100 million.

“I can have a jam session from my console in Boston with a middle-aged woman on her PC in Brazil and a teenager in Singapore on her mobile device,” Rigopulos says. “That kind of reach is a real privilege for a game creator. A big part of the motivation was: Let’s do the biggest thing we’ve ever done with music and do it in Fortnite, because that’s where we reach the biggest audience.”

Epic Games

Like Fortnite, Festival will operate in seasons, and the Weeknd is the face of the inaugural one, which launched Dec. 9. Players can choose two versions of the music superstar as avatars, and a handful of his songs — including “Blinding Lights,” “Save Your Tears” and “The Hills” — are available to play. Fortnite has previously teamed with music artists like Travis Scott and Ariana Grande to put on virtual concerts, but Festival marks a new level of music integration on the platform.

Still, while Fortnite Festival offers the “first full-blown AAA music game” at no cost, the gameplay itself is nothing revolutionary, and Rigopulos is the first to admit it.

“Many of the ideas that you’re seeing in this game are the best and most popular ideas from some of our previous games, but they’re being put together in this new form inside the multiplayer social context of Fortnite,” he says.

Because of this, fans of Harmonix’s most famous rhythm games will be able to slip right back into the groove, selecting between four levels (easy, medium, hard, expert) and dancing their fingers across the buttons to keep up with the song. There’s one caveat: whereas Rock Band allowed players to jam out in their living rooms using controllers shaped like real instruments — guitars adorned with buttons and a strum bar, a USB microphone and an electronic drum kit — Fortnite Festival players are limited to regular controllers and computer keyboards… for now.

“You won’t be able to use instrument peripherals at launch, but it’s absolutely something that we want to support,” Rigopulos says. “It’s a priority for us. We’re already actively working on it.”

For more casual gameplay, Fortnite Festival offers a “jam system,” which allows players to interact with each other and the music library in fun, wacky ways. With up to four band members per jam session, players can switch between instruments and songs as easily as emotes, combining, say, the drum part from Weezer’s “Buddy Holly,” the guitar riff from the Killers’ “Mr. Brightside” and the vocals from KT Tunstall’s “Suddenly I See.” By tinkering with the tempo, key and major versus minor scale, players can create on-the-fly mashups that sound surprisingly good — or at least funny. The jam system is also available within Fortnite’s signature battle royale mode, meaning players can stop firing at each other mid-game and start an impromptu band, if they so choose.

It’s been over two decades since Harmonix started fusing rhythm with video games, but imbuing the magic of music into interactive gaming never gets old for Rigopulos.

“I was getting goosebumps. I was getting chills!” he says of watching people preview Fortnite Festival at a recent Epic Games showcase. “It’s a reminder of this emotional power of music that sets it apart from every other art form. It filled me with a renewed sense of excitement about what we’re about to do here.”

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