Fortnite for iOS First Look: It's fun, but desktop players will eat you alive

Fortnite: Battle Royale for the iPhone and iPad is a virtuosic port, but desktop and console players definitely have the advantage in crossplay matches.

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It hasn’t even been a fortnight since we learned that Fortnite: Battle Royale, Epic Games’ wildly popular multiplayer survival shooter, would be coming to iOS, and yet now it’s already on my iPhone and iPad, running far more smoothly than I’d expect from a freshly-minted beta. Only a comparatively small group of players currently have access, but what I’ve seen so far suggests that Epic wouldn’t have to do much to fling open the gates to the wider public. (You can sign up for the beta here.)

It’s hard to overemphasize how bold this release is. It’s exciting enough that we can play a game on our phones at the height of its popularity on Mac, PC, Xbox One, and PS4, but also because Fortnite allows us to play against players on those systems from our handheld devices. And yes, that means all at the same time. (Thanks to a spat between Sony and Microsoft, you currently have to deal with separate queues for PS4 or Xbox.)

Playing it feels a little like looking into the future: a future where resource-hogging, action-heavy games on desktops and consoles share living space on smartphones with barely a change in experience. We’ve seen this kind of things with Minecraft and Hearthstone, of course, but Fortnite is a different beast entirely. This is a game where the slightest hesitation or dawdling equates to death.

Fortnite: Battle Royale, if you haven’t heard, is a free-to-play survival game that builds off ideas in both the 2000 film Battle Royale and The Hunger Games book and films. In essence, you drop out of a bus floating in the sky and fight 99 other players to the death until only one is left standing. The main Fortnite game for Mac and PC is a paid game that’s based on building forts and fighting off zombies, but if we’re being honest, almost no one plays it in comparison. This—the battle royale—is the main attraction for gaming in 2018 so far.

Fornite on iPad Leif Johnson/Epic

In Fortnite, you can truly get the drop on somebody.

While you’re trying to stay alive, you also scrounge for weapons and armor boosts in ramshackle buildings littered across a sprawling island map. That’s much the same formula found in the rival PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (which is also heading to iOS, possibly this weekend), but Fortnite distinguishes itself by letting you tear down the scattered shanties and use their materials to build your own forts where you please. For that matter, you can build ramps that can reach to the sky. Epic clearly isn’t going for realism here.

The right touch?

Sound appealing? Keep in mind that Epic allows us who play Fortnite on mobile devices to choose to play in the same matches with folks armed to the teeth with keyboards and mice and gaming controllers—oh, my! (Controller support is apparently coming to Fortnite for iOS eventually, but it’s not here yet.)

This sounds like a recipe for disaster. In such a setup, PC players might as well be a belligerent space-age civilization encountering a long-hidden Amazonian tribe armed only with handcrafted bows and arrows.

But surprisingly, it works! Or, at least, it works well enough. All the controls are on the screen, so you use your thumbs to navigate in the 3D spaces and press various buttons to activate the weapons you’ve picked up or to sneak or crouch. To fire off whatever weapon you’re carrying, you simply tap the right side of the screen.

I find I far prefer the experience on my 12.9-inch first generation iPad Pro than on the iPhone, even though it doesn’t handle the framerates as well. The iPad Pro gives me plenty of room to maneuver and look for enemy players without smothering screen with my fingers.

In either case, though, lining up the camera for the perfect shot at another player requires a ridiculous degree of dexterity for aiming a shot, when such an action is barely more involved than blinking an eyelid with a mouse or a gamepad. That's not so much a problem when you're playing solely against iPhone players. But when you're in crossplay, you're basically a walking target unless you're running with a highly protective squad of three friends on a Mac, PC, or a console.

img 1264 Leif Johnson/Epic

Struggling to aim, we went on like this for several seconds.

Nor are the touch controls all that revolutionary. In fact, it’s kind of par for the course for a lot of shooters that have tried to make the leap to iOS. Fortnite’s brilliance, though, lies in what it does with sound.

Loud and clear

Sound lies at the heart of the experience of both Fortnite and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, as the slightest noise can warn you when someone’s hunting you. They’re the kind of games best played with over-ear headphones with the volume pumped to the max.

iPhone and iPad users, though, will often find themselves playing on crowded buses or in crypt-quiet waiting rooms in doctor’s offices. Fortnite’s solution is to change those audio cues into visual cues in the form of small footprints or circles that pop up on the screen from the direction where sounds of footsteps or gunshots are coming. Some players worry that, counterintuitively, this might give mobile users an edge over their PC and console counterparts. Having played Fortnite: Battle Royale, I believe it merely helps overcome the handicap of having to play almost entirely with gestures.

img 1267 Leif Johnson/IDG

Help is the key word here. I’m still of the opinion that mobile players are going to be absolutely slaughtered when they’re thrown into the same matches with their PC and console players.

Déjà vu

Fortnite’s visual cues are also what mainly sets Fortnite for iOS apart from Fortcraft, a—let’s admit it—shameless Fortnite knockoff that we previewed on our Apple Arcade show earlier this week. Many other critics dismissed Fortcraft, but I was frankly surprised at how well it worked, and in some ways I actually prefer it over Fortnite’s movement. Playing on my iPad Pro, Fortcraft’s controls feel slightly more fluid.

But now, only a couple of days later, the bona fide, real-deal Fortnite is here (at least for some of us). Aside from the necessary UI changes, it’s essentially the same game we play on our MacBooks and PS4s, right down to the account you use to log in with. The only bug I really saw was that the game would sign me out if I peeked at another app (which may be intentional). The only real annoyance? Fortnite for iOS is so popular right now that I found myself waiting in lengthy queues before getting in. Provided you're only playing against players who are on iPhone or iPads, it's pretty fantastic.

Fortnite: logging in Leif Johnson/Epic

Expect to see a lot of this.

Perhaps most importantly, it proves that these kinds of conversions from Mac, PC, and mobile games need not be the impossible tasks that other developers seem to consider them. It runs beautifully, although it made the iPhone 7 Plus I was playing on a little hot to the touch (and again, the iPad Pro had slight performance issues). Had I not known that Fortnite was originally conceived as a cooperative build-and-survive game that had nothing to do with battles royale, I’d almost believe that the Pixar-esque framerate-friendly style was aimed at mobile devices all along.

Watch us play Fortnite live

Join us on Tuesday, March 20 at 11 a.m. Pacific for our next Apple Arcade show on Twitter via Periscope or on YouTube where we’ll be showing you Fortnite on both an iPhone and an iPad. Provided PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds also releases for iOS within the next couple of days, we’ll be showing that off as well.

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