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Fortnite Battle Royale Works Surprisingly Well On Mobile, But...

You'll still want to play on console.

Arguably the biggest game in the world right now, with its popularity sending tendrils through to footballer celebrations, seeing hip-hop stars helping to set new records for streaming online, and popping up as the new evil for UK mums trying to keep their stroppy teenage nightmares happy. For the last six months, that’s been restricted to when people could sit down in front of a computer or TV to get their gaming fix, but Epic’s plans have changed from saving the world to taking it over. So how does this big, open shooter handle being shrunk down for mobile?

I’ve got good news, and I’ve got bad news. Fortnite works pretty well on mobile, with touch controls that do a decent enough job of letting you take on the game’s mixture of endless running, scavenging, combat and building, but it also comes with steep hardware demands for a good experience, has been pretty unstable over its first weekend, and naturally pales in comparison to the game on console or PC.

Taking a game from gamepad with its many buttons and up to six usable fingers and thumbs for inputs – admittedly, not too many people use the claw grip, but I do – and reducing all of that down to having just two thumbs able to stab, prod and swipe on a potentially diminutive touchscreen is quite a task. You have analogue movement and strafing on the left side of the screen, while turning and looking is handled with swipes and holds on the right, but there’s then a baffling array of touch buttons to consider as well. Shoot is on the left as a digital button, but really you can tap anywhere that isn’t a button and you’ll shoot, while on the right are buttons for jumping, crouching and aiming down sights.

Now, unlike on console or PC, you can’t move, look and shoot all at the same time, and so the game adds a stickiness to your aim. If you aim at an enemy, moving with your left thumb will turn to circle strafing as your reticule sticks to the enemy. The way this is kept balanced is that the reticule will stick in relation to where you left it, it doesn’t snap to the target, and so you still need to adjust your aim correctly.

Surprisingly, this actually works fairly well. I was able to take long potshots with an assault rifle (holding my phone about an inch from my nose to do so), and land enough shots to take them out, and sniping while scoped was also fairly manageable. OK, I wasn’t getting headshots, but I was doing enough to get a few kills. I would say that the pace of combat is lower and a bit more hit and miss, to the point that I even managed to win a round with a few tense firefights to clutch it at the end.

One of the things that really helps there is an audio direction indicator. Footsteps of enemies, gunfire and chests are all shown on screen, giving you the same kind of heads up that you’d get when playing with a good headset.

It’s really in the moment to moment of getting around and looting that the game feels clunky on mobile, and it’s not exactly that intuitive on console. Running is easy thanks to being able to double tap and auto-sprint, doors open automatically, and inventory management is maybe slightly improved by having auto pick-up and then tapping on items in the world to swap them for what you have equipped. Switching to build mode is a key part of Fortnite and works just the same here, but aiming where you want to construct your ramp or wall is made much more fiddly without real sticks to manipulate here. Another issue is the ease with which you can accidentally shoot when you want to tweak your view of the world, often spoiling your attempt at being a sneaky so and so.

While the game initially only has touchscreen support, there’s no reason why Epic can’t update the game to support MFi controllers. The one question mark here is if they’ll want to. The game does support cross-network play if you use the built-in friends list to join people on other platforms before matchmaking, and that becomes a tacit agreement that you’re going up against other players that might be on PC or console, putting phone players at a significant disadvantage. Controllers might help in the cross-network setting, but when playing solo and just against other mobile players, it could be a significant advantage against those not expecting a disparity.

Playing the game on iPhone 8 actually works pretty nicely. With a 4.7″ screen, this is nowhere near the biggest phone you can have in hand and everything on the screen is pretty tiny, but your focus is always right in the middle of the screen and your thumbs will tend to stay around the outside. A bigger issue is accidentally tapping the jump button when you want to shoot or turn the camera.

Apple’s A11 chip is pretty damn powerful and capable of some really impressive looking graphics, but the scope and scale of Fortnite means that detail has dropped a huge amount compared to console. Where there’s grass on console, there’s none on mobile, draw in distance for shadows is very noticeable in the near distance, and a lot of objects in game have dramatically reduced mesh and texture detail. The cartoony art style helps with this, and your character model and the core lighting engine seem to be pretty close, but it feels like a knockoff.

The game doesn’t reach for the console’s silky smooth 60fps for 30fps instead, and there are noticeable stutters in frame rate at certain points. These could be down to lag spikes from playing online, the game having to stream in new parts of the world, or those moments of action when in combat. There’s also a symptom of the Unreal Engine I thought long banished, where objects off screen pop into existence a fraction of a second too late as the camera pans across to them.

If the iPhone 8 has close to the best possible chipset, then the iPad Air 2 is close to the absolute lowest with its Apple A8X – only the iPad Mini 4 and its standard A8 is lower and able to play. While the game still plays fine, and having a screen many times larger than an iPhone helps with being able to play and control the game, the resolution that the game runs at is just terribly low and detail has been dropped even further, such as a complete lack of shadows. It’s like playing PS3 games at 720p while sat a few feet from a 55″ 4K TV. It looks bad and I’d much rather pick up my iPhone 8 and sacrifice the screen size. Better yet, I’d pick up a gamepad and play on console or PC, but I think that’s a given where possible.

More frustrating are what we hope are just the teething issues of inviting a whole new platform to play a ludicrously popular game. We don’t know the rate at which Epic have been inviting those signing up for the mobile Invite Event, but it’s almost certainly a factor in the matchmaking and log in servers stumbling over the last few days. We also had matches plagued by lag and more than a few times that the app simply crashed and booted us out to the Home Menu in iOS. More than a bit annoying when sitting in 6th. However, into Sunday and the game does seem to be more stable.

While Fortnite on smartphone and tablet is a pretty decent start, it’s hampered by the level of hardware needed to play at high quality, the teething issues of dropping a whole new audience onto Epic’s game servers, and controls feel like a compromise that will struggle when dropped into cross-platform play. It’s going to be ludicrously popular anyway – better to play Fortnite than the other Battle Royale games that have been quickly churned out for mobile, right? – and the game’s future looks good when considering the staggering rate at which Epic have continued to patch, tweak and improve the game on other platforms.

One Comment
  1. Jake Durasamy
    Since: Jun 2016

    Genuinely excellent play towards the end! It’s actually quite impressive that it runs so well, but I don’t think I could handle touch controls.

    As far as “mobile” Fortnight goes, I mean I’d rather see a Switch version in the pipeline, especially if they developing this for mobile hardware. At least then, it’d have actually buttons.

    Comment posted on 19/03/2018 at 13:19.