Fortnite revives the rock band with a festival game featuring the Weeknd

Epic Games and Harmonix have teamed up to bring the rhythm back to gaming with the Fortnite Festival, featuring none other than the “Blinding Lights” singer

The Weeknd dances Fortnite while you cut Queens of the Stone Age’s “Go With the Flow” on an Xbox controller.

No, this is not a fever dream. This is the real Fortnite Festival, Epic’s new free-to-play music video game set in the world of Fortnite. Developed in tandem with Epic subsidiary Harmonix, the game revives the once-popular, long-deemed rhythm genre that spawned blockbuster hits like Dance Dance Revolution, Guitar Hero and Rock Band. These games dominated the late 2000s, but game publishers effectively stopped investing in the concept after Activision’s 2015 entry, Guitar Hero Live, flopped.

In Fortnite Festival, players can choose between jam mode (more on that later) and the main stage, where they’ll recognize that classic “note highway” format – the notes corresponding to the buttons fly across the screen like a stone on a roller coaster . You can customize your avatar and tool; choose between vocals, guitar, bass, keys or drums; and choose songs from artists ranging from Olivia Rodrigo to Nine Inch Nails. With cross-console and online compatibility, players can get together with up to three other party members.

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

“I can have a jam session from my console in Boston with a middle-aged woman on her computer in Brazil and a teenager in Singapore on her mobile device,” Rigopoulos says. “This kind of reach is a real privilege for a game creator. A lot 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, the festival will run in seasons, and the Weeknd is the face of the first, which launches on December 9. Players can choose two versions of the music superstar as avatars, and several of his songs — including “Blinding Lights,” “Save Your Tears” and “The Hills” — are available for play. Fortnite has previously partnered with music artists like Travis Scott and Ariana Grande to host virtual concerts, but Festival marks a new level of music integration on the platform.

Still, while Fortnite Festival offers “the first full AAA music game” for free, the gameplay itself is nothing revolutionary, and Rigopulos is the first to admit it.

“A lot of the ideas you see in this game are the best and most popular ideas from some of our previous games, but they come together in this new form in the multiplayer social context of Fortnite,” he says.

Because of this, fans of Harmonix’s most famous rhythm games will be able to jump back into the groove, choosing between four levels (easy, medium, hard, expert) and dancing with their fingers on the buttons to keep up with the song. There’s one caveat: while Rock Band lets players jam out in their living rooms using controllers shaped like real instruments—guitars adorned with knobs 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 peripherals on the tool at launch, but that’s something we want to support,” says Rigopoulos. “This is a priority for us. We are already actively working on it.”

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

It’s been more than two decades since Harmonix began fusing rhythm with video games, but bringing the magic of music into interactive games never gets old for Rigopoulos.

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

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