Last week, Epic and Samsung took the wraps off a huge Fortnite promotion—albeit after the surprise had been ruined by leakers. Fortnite‘s mobile version was indeed launching on Android, as Epic had already promised, but only Samsung phone users (and only certain models) would get exclusive access, for a limited time.
Any Android handset and tablet owner can hunt for and install the game’s APK, but as of press time, Samsung’s exclusivity deal means the game won’t boot beyond a title screen on most devices. This is notable, in part, because of Epic’s choice to forgo the Google Play app store, which is likely driving users to download and install the APK without a clear answer about device compatibility. (Google has since chosen to address the game’s Play workaround.)
But testing the free-to-play shooter on my own Galaxy S8+, one of the Android version’s first compatible phones, has revealed another notable tidbit: that Epic’s self-imposed hardware limit hasn’t made the game run smoothly in the slightest.
The mobile-shooter warfield
Before getting into what the Samsung launch has gotten wrong, let’s review why we were previously optimistic about Epic’s game on Android.
Fortnite is currently playable on both Nintendo Switch and iOS—decidedly lower-power devices than PC and console—yet still achieves something close to stable 30fps performance, with settings dialed down to a reasonable extent. Should you play Fortnite on a newer iPhone, like the X, you can expect a slightly smeary resolution, though not as bad as the just-above-480p blur party of 2015’s iPhone 6S. Yet in either case, at least the game sticks somewhere near a 30fps refresh (with settings, expectedly, dialed down compared to its home-version peers).
There’s also the matter of PUBG Mobile‘s launch across the Android spectrum in March. I was limited to an “ancient” Nexus 6 from 2014 on that version’s launch day, and yet its visuals and performance proved pleasantly surprising, even at that admittedly early point. PUBG Mobile‘s Android performance has since improved, and as of press time, we have enjoyed near-30fps performance and clear (albeit less-than-native) resolution on a Galaxy S8+ with all settings cranked to the maximum of “high.”
Which is to say: the visual and networking demands of a giant-world, 100-player shooting game have been thoroughly addressed in the mobile space this year. Acceptable compromises will get you onto either PUBG or Fortnite‘s big-battle islands on many modern devices—and in smooth fashion—to boot.
For the mobile-shooter uninitiated: by default, you’ll be stuck with touchscreen controls while playing Fortnite on a tablet or smartphone (though we haven’t tried testing external keyboards or mice). Nobody who grew up with either a PC’s keyboard-mouse combo or a console’s gamepad will be swayed by touch controls being superior by any means, but like PUBG Mobile before it, Fortnite plays serviceably enough, especially when you factor in the convenience of having accessible 3D action on a phone. It’s easier to customize those on-screen buttons with Fortnite than with PUBG Mobile, as well.
Home team, away performance
But Fortnite on Android, as of press time, is a rare example of Epic’s homegrown Unreal Engine 4 shooter lagging behind PUBG (which also uses UE4) on the same platform. Fortnite continues to enjoy a performance lead over PUBG on comparable PCs and consoles, particularly when comparing the games on Xbox One and Xbox One X. That lead evaporates to some extent when comparing both games on iOS, but they’re generally neck and neck there.
Fortnite, on the other hand, turns in surprisingly sloppy performance as of Android version 5.2. Having only one compatible Samsung device, we can’t comprehensively speak to how well Fortnite works on other Samsung phones, but our in-house Galaxy S8+ couldn’t get anywhere near 30fps performance without dropping to its “low” visual preset, which summarily does the following: drops the resolution to somewhere around 480p, removes all traces of anti-aliasing, drops texture resolution, simplifies all in-game geometry, and removes all shadows.
Even after cutting so many corners, Fortnite on the S8+ only teeters on the edge of 30fps performance, with acceptable, iOS- and Switch-like stutters when aiming the game’s camera at simpler scenes. Adding more up-close geometry or open, far-away views tanks this performance somewhere between 18 to 25fps with significant frame-time jumps and stutters.
My tests saw this stuttering issue improve to a decent extent after at least one patch (I didn’t regularly update over the weekend). Even so, I continued running into the same problem: I’d reach a zone that was populated with a few live players, with at least one of them using the game’s construct-on-the-fly abilities, over one of the island’s prebuilt towns. This mix of live players, existing structures, and additional player-made towers to the sky, consistently brought the frame rate down to Goldeneye 64 levels.
One great way to illustrate the performance gap is the “drop”: the opening portion of both games in which players skydive thousands of meters to a detailed island below. PUBG Mobile somehow sticks close to 30fps on Galaxy S8+ during its drop sequence, even while rendering clear content below and other divers in players’ vicinity. On the same device, Fortnite stumbles, with frame rates that sometimes seem to dive below 20fps and an island that looks like N64 mush.
My only reprieve during testing on my S8+ came when I stumbled upon a sniper rifle complete with heat vision. With this thing, I could hide behind a boulder, turn on my scope, and see tiny two-pixel blips of heat in my field of view. That was the difference-maker. Pop, pop, pop. I had the edge over my resolution-challenged peers (since, as of press time, this version only matchmakes with other smartphone players).
How long until a fix?
Part of me wants to assume that this article will serve as a hilarious historical relic, made irrelevant by a sweeping optimization patch for the game’s Android version. But that same part of me looks at the game’s solid performance on Nintendo Switch and modern iOS devices and wonders: what’s so tricky for Epic about Android? How could the developer not have it figured out in time for this Samsung-exclusive launch, well before opening the floodgates to other manufacturers’ devices? And how come an Unreal Engine 4 licensee like PUBG Corp has it figured out in ways that Epic doesn’t?
As someone with admittedly zero experience creating UE4 content, I know better than to fake like I know how to optimize 3D software on a platform as maddeningly diverse as Android. But if you might argue that PUBG is in any way a “simpler” game to render, let me point you to PUBG Corp’s inability to work similar wonders on Xbox One.
Epic Games did not answer our questions about Fortnite‘s Android performance in time for this article’s publication. Hopefully, fans will get more answers as this version starts launching more widely across the Android ecosystem.