After shaky beginnings, Unreal Engine 4 is gaining traction as one of the most popular multi-platform game engines on the market, so it's a touch surprising that Epic Games itself has taken so long to release a game supporting all current-gen consoles and PC. In some respects, Fortnite's turnout with UE4 is similar to the results from titles from other developers - so yes, PS4 has a more powerful GPU, resulting in a lift to visual quality. However, elsewhere there are surprises: as things stand, Fortnite plays better on Xbox One.
However, don't go into Fortnite expecting an intense graphical showcase designed to push the new engine to its limits - this is no UE4 equivalent to last-gen wonders like Gears of War or even Unreal Tournament. Instead, Fortnite aims for more stylised, cartoon visuals for its intriguing combination of tower defence and third-person shooting gameplay. Its distinct visual style integrates nicely with UE4, with Epic's excellent temporal anti-aliasing solution in particular producing a soft but smooth presentation, light on intricate detail but bright and vibrant, coming alive more through accomplished animation.
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Technologically, the cards are stacked in favour of the PlayStation 4 platforms. The base PS4 release aims for 1080p resolution and 30 frames per second gameplay, while Xbox One lowers the pixel-count to the anticipated 900p. The end result is a little more softness on the Microsoft console, but it's only really apparent on more distant detail in head-to-head comparisons. UE4's extensive post-process pipeline is a great leveller here, and anisotropic filtering is similar on both systems, giving a slightly soupy look to ground textures viewed at oblique angles. Differences are slight otherwise, but there is some sparing evidence of pared back environment detail on Xbox One - though visuals overall do look much the same.
PlayStation 4 Pro retains the same 1080p resolution as the standard console, but Epic aims to ramp up the visual presentation with enhanced draw distance, ambient occlusion, more refined TAA, increased volumetric light resolution, light-shafts and more numerous GPU-driven particles. On paper it's an impressive body of upgrades, but the real-life pay-off looks considerably more subtle to the point where we had trouble telling much of a difference during heated action and even in head-to-head comparisons, with only improved performance making much of a difference to the quality of the gameplay.
And performance really is the key differentiator between the console versions of Fortnite, and where Xbox One offers up a palpable advantage, to the point where we'd rank the experience as a clear improvement over PS4 and more refined than PS4 Pro, even. In terms of the console releases, there's a clear ranking in terms of how smoothly the Fortnite experience plays out.
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At the bottom of the pile sits the standard PlayStation 4, which suffers from three separate performance-related issues - occasional stutter with 100ms frame-time spikes, sustained drops in performance to the mid-20s when the areas fill with entities and finally, improper frame-pacing. The latter ensures that even when Fortnite is operating at its target 30fps, it still feels somewhat jerky; an even, consistent refresh is absent, resulting in jumps above and below the 33ms frame-time ideal.
Next up, there's the PS4 Pro version of the game, which sticks more closely to its target 30fps frame-rate with only minor deviations, though the occasional 100ms stutter still kicks in. We do wonder whether this is perhaps related to netcode functions bearing in mind that the stutter can occur at any moment, regardless of what's happening on-screen. These 100ms spikes also happen on Xbox One, but the overall outlook for Microsoft's console is bolstered by perfectly implemented 33ms frame-pacing, giving a more consistent look, plus a performance level that's very close to the PS4 Pro release overall.
To play Fortnite at its very best, PC is the place to be - we gave the game a run on a typical mainstream gaming rig, combining an RX 580 with a Core i5 6500. For the most part, most gameplay rolled out at 1080p60 with fully ramped up 'epic' settings, but the more challenging, busy scenes could see noticeable drops. Settings tweaks will get the job done though - dropping shadows from the epic to the high preset claws back anything up to 12fps during the run of play and has little impact overall on the quality of the presentation.
As things stand, we had fun with this title, but despite is lengthy gestation period, it is still an early access release with some issues to address. Principally, the PlayStation version could do with a further push for optimisation. Lower performance on base hardware is surprising and could use some tweaking, but sorting out the platform's frame-pacing issues would improve the results significantly. On top of that, it would iron out most of the issues we encountered on PS4 Pro and make that the preferred console release. But right now, if you can't play Fortnite on PC, it's Xbox One that offers the smoothest ride.