Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: I’m a huge supporter of Playstation Now.
Netflix, Spotify, Marvel Unlimited – show me a subscription service for content I want and I’ll show you my wallet. When it comes to film, TV, music and comics, roughly 90% of what I consume nowadays is streamed or downloaded. Physical media? Pah!
Games, obviously, are the sticking point. Sure, there’s digital downloads available on every platform (even Nintendo), yet it’s the one area I normally always go for the disc release. Why is that? Well, price plays a large part of it for starters. When I’m dropping £30-40 on a title, I want to really get my money’s worth. Whether this means trading it in against a future purchase or just sharing a game amongst friends, there’s not enough of an incentive right now to go fully digital for me. Cost-wise, it’s often cheaper to get the physical media (which is insane), and the convenience of not having to get up to change discs every so often isn’t that big of a selling point.
So that’s why I was so excited about Playstation Now. The idea of paying a lump sum every month ($20 in the States, $15 if you buy a 3-month pass) for unlimited gaming is a total no-brainer. Sure it wasn’t perfect – the catalogue was a little old (PS3 only right now, with previous consoles to come) and it was perhaps just a little too pricey – but having potentially huge back catalogs instantly streamed across my PS4 and Vita (for one monthly cost) seemed well worth it.
Until I tried it last night.
Last night was the launch of the Private UK Beta. It’s been going on in the US for a while now, and I’d been looking forward to it coming across the pond. When I got my acceptance email on Wednesday morning I was at work, so I excitedly plugged my code into the Playstation Store and asked my PS4 to download and install the program. I’d been planning on starting the second half of Season 7 of Mad Men last night, but was happy to put that off to give Sony’s service a try.
Playstation Now recommends that your internet is 5Mbps minimum, so the first thing I did was run a speed test. My PS4 is on wifi, but it sits pretty close to the router, so I was pleased to see my speed clocking in at 5.2Mbps.
When you start up the service, the first thing to notice is that it looks a lot like the PSN store. Same menus, same interface. Only instead of buying a game, you rent them instead, either for two or thirty days. There’s no pricing just yet, and crucially no monthly subscription service either, so it will be interesting to see if the UK gets the same insane rental charges the US have.
The choice of games is rather small – around 50 or so – but hey, it’s a Beta. Skimming the list, I decided to give God of War: Ascension a go. I’d enjoyed the previous five games and figured the action-platformer would be a good test of any lag.
Well, I didn’t get past the purchase screen. Before it allows you to play a game, Playstation Now runs a connection test to check you can run it. Waiting patiently, I was rewarded with the digital equivalent of my PS4 laughing at me and switching itself off. To be fair to Sony, they do recommend a wired internet connection.
So I ran an ethernet cable across my hall into the living room and ran another speed test; 15Mbps. Excellent. Jumping back into God of War, I got the virtual thumbs up and the game started.
I was impressed: in a matter of seconds I was watching the various studio logos and legal junk that always precedes the main menu. I played around for a few moments on the options screen, just moving the cursor around. There was no discernible lag, and when I began a new game and the voiceover kicked in, it genuinely was just like running the game from a disc. The picture quality was sharp and the sound was crisp. Pretty great, I thought.
Only I didn’t get much more than thirty seconds in. That was when I had to take control of Kratos, who was chained to a platform and being slapped by a one-armed woman for some reason (classic Kratos). Suddenly the picture quality went kaleidoscopic and it was impossible to see anything. A ‘slow connection’ warning appeared, I couldn’t move properly and the sound was stuck in some horrifying, high-pitched scream. Thankfully the game crashed shortly after, throwing me back to the PS4 dash.
Chalking that one up to bad luck, I decided to go for something slower paced. Beyond: Two Souls had been on my “to play” list for a while, so why not. Again, the initial speed test was fine and the game loaded up in moments – still very impressive. In less than a minute I’d gone from selecting the title in the store to watching Ellen Page sit in a police station with a shaved head.
As before, the graphics and sound were top notch. There was no evidence I could see of artefacting, and the lip-sync was perfect. The entire opening cinematic went by without a hitch – no lagging, no crashing. When I took control, things took a bit of a dip, but they weren’t too bad. Movement was a little ‘gloopy’, with a noticeable delay in pushing the stick and the character moving. However I was never 100% sure that this was the streaming and not the way the game’s been designed (I’m sure people who have played the title before can confirm). I did experience the ‘slow connection’ warning at one point, however, and Ellen tried her very best to walk through a wall for a good ten seconds (despite my hands being nowhere near the controls), perhaps she thought she was back in X-Men 3.
Next up, I went for Dirt 3. A racing game would be a fine way to test out lag, I thought, and I was very quickly loading up the tutorial track. It really can’t be stated enough how impressive this part of it is – leaping from game to dashboard to game is seamless and very, very quick. It’s just like starting and stopping a film on Netflix.
After waiting for the incredibly annoying woman to finish telling me all the crap about how to race, I was off. And like Beyond, I had that nagging feeling that I wasn’t in complete control of my car. There definitely was a little bit of a delay in the controls – fractions of seconds at most, however – and whilst it was slightly odd, it was still very playable.
Very playable for a lap, anyway. Then the dreaded warning appeared, closely followed by pixelation, and in the moments before I lost control I had already driven off the road. A few more seconds of looped audio and the title crashed.
This was starting to get rather annoying.
On to Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. Here, the lag was again discernible, but I was able to run about racking up headshots with relative ease (mad skillz, obvs). I was even getting quite into the weird 80s vibe that Ubisoft had going on, but of course any enjoyment didn’t last long. Another crash out.
I was beginning to see a pattern here. A supremely impressive start that got me into each game in moments, followed by a decent thirty seconds of gameplay, followed by all hell breaking loose.
Finally, I decided to give some multiplayer a go. You know, just for a laugh. Dead or Alive 5, you say? Don’t mind if I do.
Didn’t even get past the menu screens.
And so my evening ended up being a rather disappointing experience by all accounts. At the end of the day this was only a Beta, and stuff like this is what Betas are for (incidentally, if any readers out there had a different experience to mine, I’d love to hear about it). The potential of the service is there and easy to see – who wouldn’t love having an entire consoles back catalog available to dip in and out of? Catching up on classics or just replaying old favourites, there’s no doubt the concept is sound and (depending on price) potentially worth it.
When it works, however briefly, it’s genuinely impressive stuff, and I’m certain that there’s a place for Playstation Now alongside services like Spotify and Netflix. If last night is anything to go by, however, it may just be a little while longer before we’re there.
Mr Draper, I’ll see you tonight.