Sony admitted to being surprised when Microsoft announced backwards compatibility for the Xbox One at this year’s E3. Surprised, but not worried, as the company’s PlayStation Now service would be providing gamers with a way to play older titles without hardware hooks and software emulation. The cloud-based service has been available in the US as a subscription package for some time, but it only arrived in the UK last week in beta form. We’ve been putting it through its paces to see if streaming is the future for backwards compatibility.
Built on technology acquired when Sony purchased cloud gaming company Gaikai in 2012, PlayStation Now essentially uses server farms filled with PlayStation 3 consoles to beam gameplay into your home. Although we tested the service on aPS4, it’s already compatible with the PS3 and select Sony Bravia TVs and Blu-ray players – you just need to pair a DualShock 3 or DualShock 4 controller using a USB cable. PS TV and PS Vita compatibility is also on the way, with Sony expecting it to arrive by the end of the year.
The PlayStaton Now experience
PlayStation Now appears as its own section in the PlayStation Store on the PS4. There are a whopping 173 titles available at the time of writing, and while they certainly aren’t all genre classics, there are plenty of big names and recognisable franchises to choose from. You can rent each one for either 48 hours or 30 days, with prices starting from £2.99 for the cheapest two day rentals and reaching £7.99 for the most expensive month-long loans. The loan period starts from the point you first play a game, rather than when you actually make the purchase.
^ The PlayStation Now library is already pretty big, but you’ll have to find it – it’s rather buried here
It’s unclear whether this pay-per-game model will remain when the service exits open beta – in the US it’s possible to pay for either one or three months of the service, giving you unlimited access to the entire library. As it stands, we don’t think £2.99 is extortionate for a two day rental (in fact it reminds us of spending an hour picking out which Mega Drive game to take home for the weekend at Blockbuster Video in the early 90’s) but a subscription option would still be appreciated.
Once you’ve rented a game, your save files are uploaded to the cloud automatically, meaning you can pick up where you left off on any PS Now-compatible device. You could start a game on a PS4, for instance, then continue the action on your Sony TV or Blu-ray player in another room. Only certain TV models from 2014 and newer are compatible, however, and as you’ll still need the controller from your console in order to play, we’re expecting most gamers to stick with their consoles for the time being.
^ Can’t find your PS Now games? They are hidden in the PS Store
After loading it initially through the PlayStation Store, games then appear on the PS4 home screen as you would expect, but opening one up provides an insight into how the system actually works. A connection is made to a server, where a virtual PlayStation 3 boots up, signs into PSN using your account details, and loads your chosen title. You can clearly see the messages and system pop-ups in the top right corner are from a PS3, and despite Sony’s server farms allegedly having more processing power than a retail PS3, loading times appear to be roughly the same. PlayStation Now is an eye-opening reminder just how far Sony has progressed in terms of UI design and responsiveness with the PS4; the PlayStation 3’s menus and flat UI are a stark contrast to the streamlined and attractive PS4 interface.
Once you’re in-game, however, the illusion is complete, As Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video have proved, streaming 1080p video isn’t much of a challenge, but streaming games is a whole different story. Reducing the latency between reading your inputs, sending them to the server, turning those inputs into onscreen actions and sending the video stream back is incredibly difficult, but for the most part Sony has managed to deliver. Unless you have a PS3 right next to you while playing, it’s difficult to spot any serious lag between controller input and on-screen action. We were able to play Uncharted 2’s fast-paced action sequences without any issue, reacting in time to dodge melee attacks and roll between cover before returning fire.
^ At its best, we found it very difficult to spot any compression in a PS Now title
Sony recommends at least a 5MB connection for ideal playing conditions, so our 60MB Virgin cable broadband was technically overkill, but it certainly helped keep response times high. We wouldn’t say the input delay was imperceptible, but you would need to be a die-hard veteran of a particular title in order to notice. We expect fighting games to be the exception; where one-frame links and precise inputs are concerned, we’d still prefer to play the real thing rather than stream it over the internet.
For the most part, games look impressively clear and free from artefacts. Occasionally we could spot a few Netflix-style stream quality shifts, where the image would become blurrier and compressed for a short time, but in our experience streams were consistent for the most part. Our biggest concern is the washed-out colour pallette that affected all the games we tried – with no technical data on how PlayStation Now actually streams games it’s impossible to say with any certainty, but it’s possible the colour depth has been reduced from the original games in order to use less bandwidth. Uncharted simply didn’t have the same level of visual punch or vibrancy on PlayStation Now as it did on a retail PS3.
^ Get used to this screen…
Unlike disc-based or downloaded games, you’re entirely at the mercy of Sony’s PSN servers with PlayStation Now. If they go down for maintenance, there’s simply no way to play any PS Now titles. Expect to see the above screen quite a lot too – a connection test occurs every time you load a PlayStation Now title.
Annoyingly, Uncharted 2 didn’t recognise our cloud game saves from the retail version of the game, meaning we had to start from the beginning rather than reload our completed game and finish collecting the remaining hidden treasures. You get locked out of PS4-specific features like screenshots and game streaming while playing, too.
PlayStation Now is currently restricted to PS3 games, with no word on when other platforms would be arriving on the service. It’s a shame Sony hasn’t been more vocal about this aspect of PlayStation Now, as the addition of PS4 or even PS2-era titles would seriously boost the number of titles available and encourage gamers eager for some nostalgia to give it a try.
Whether Sony has missed the boat on this remains to be seen, however. PlayStation Now executives are keen to point gamers towards classics like The Last of Us, Uncharted and God of War, despite the fact that remastered versions of all three titles are now arriving on the PS4. It’s difficult to see what the appeal of playing a slightly smudgy, upscaled version of the original is when you have hardware capable of doing each title much more justice.
As it stands, PlayStation Now is a brilliant demonstration of what’s possible with streaming technology. If your internet connection can handle it, there are times when it’s virtually indistinguishable from playing a game off a disc or local download. It’s not perfect, however, with visual fidelity restricted by your connection bandwidth and the emulated PS3 experience is slightly jarring when jumping in from the incredibly slick PS4 UI.
Sony’s pricing structure remains in flux too, and until the service exits open beta it remains unclear as to what gamers will actually be asked to pay in order to play. It might not be a direct response to Microsoft’s backwards compatibility win at E3, but it’s a great alternative.