PlayStation Now – Early Impressions

When Sony announced their acquisition of the streaming media service Gaikai a few years ago, many wondered just what their intentions were. Speculations were abound until Sony unveiled PlayStation Now – a game streaming service allowing owners of a range of devices to play PS3 titles (initially) remotely across the internet. While the initial beta version of the service didn’t quote a final price for the service and only offered rental prices on a per-game basis charging for a few days, a week or a month at a time and left many wondering whether the service was something that would appeal to them.

Now that it has been launched properly and running for the last few months and built up a library of over 300 games, I’ve had the chance to get to grips with it properly but how well does it perform on the PS Vita and PlayStation TV and is it really worth the money…?

I was hesitant about making use of PlayStation Now initially. One of the biggest criticisms levied at the Vita is that of Remote Play when used with the PS3. While it performs remarkably well with a PS4, the promises made for PS3 functionality never materialised. While many gamers were agrieved at this, it’s quite understandable. On a technical level, it was integrated into the PS4’s system architecture from day one, but with the PS3 it was essentially patched in as an afterthought. With all the will in the world, it was never going to perform perfectly and as developers pushed the PS3 to its limits it was clear that utilising Remote Play was going to be an uphill struggle. That being the case, when it came to the technology behind PlayStation Now streaming gameplay online, was this going to be something that the Vita was really going to be able to handle?

I’d actually used a game streaming service in the past – the much-maligned OnLive – and when this was first announced I was one of the sceptics about its viability. To be honest I was disappointed by it. I found the video quality to be rather poor, experienced noticeable lag and only certain game genres were playable and worked well – others really just didn’t seem suitable for streaming gameplay for average internet users. It certainly wasn’t a service I felt was worth paying for in the state I found it so any Sony-based service would have to be significantly better to be even worth considering.

PlayStation Now offers gamers two options when it comes to paying for the service. A flat rate subscription at a cost of £12.99 which provides unlimited access to most of the games available on the service or a basic rental service where you pay to rent individual games for anything from a couple of days to a month at a time. While this generally proves to be the more costly option for those who are likely to make extensive use of PS Now, there are a number of titles available exclusively as rental so if you want to have access to everything, it will cost you more than the basic subscription charge. Individual prices can be anything up to £7.99 a month so it can be quite an expensive business…

On loading up the 160Mb app on the Vita, you’re presented with the opening menu giving you the choice to find out more about the service, take out the free trial or a subscription, test your connection speed or look at your personal games library (where any games you have played will be listed). To find a particular game, you have to use the search function at the top of the screen which is based on the search system found in the PS3 version of the PSN Store. Cumbersome but it works… just. Once you find what you want, assuming you have an active subscription just select the game and it will connect to the PlayStation Now server and start to load as if it were a native PS3 title.

Once running, games work incredibly well considering what is actually going on behind the scenes. The games are being run on a bank of PS3s hundreds, if not thousands of miles away, are accepting instructions from you over the internet, executing those, and then sending the on-screen output back to you so you are able to respond and continue playing and all of this is in near to real time. When you stop to think about the raw power needed to make it happen, it’s quite an accomplishment and to make it happen on such a large scale is breathtaking.

To put it to the test, I tried a few games out to try a mixed bag – pretty much the type of game I’d play on a day-to-day basis. From the original beta period was the arcade classic Dragon’s Lair. Being based on a laserdisc video game, this needed smooth visuals and was dependent on quick response times because of the single-button actions needed by the game. Sticking with arcade games, I changed focus and went for the arcade bullet-hell shooter Raiden IV: Overkill. The first outing for the series on the PS One was one of my all-time favourite games on the console, and it was going to be a real challenge to PS Now to see if it could cope with the fast action gameplay.

The final test was the retro arcade collection Capcom Arcade Cabinet. Rather than test a single title out of the games on offer, I decided to try a variety of old-school arcade games just to get a feel for how well the system coped with games that relied on reactions and timing and not always visuals, putting the priority on the gameplay. Despite having a relatively slow internet connection (our maximum speed has been quoted at 16Mbps by our provider but rarely sees us getting more than around 5Mbps), all of the games performed extremely well. I did experience very occasional moments of lag or negligible pauses from time to time, but it was never enough to spoil the gameplay experience and certainly not enough to make the games unplayable. The fact that none of these problems made Raiden IV unplayable certainly proved that the issues weren’t particularly intrusive.

It has to be said that PlayStation Now performs just as well on other devices and as Sony promised, it even manages to perform admirably on compatible Smart TVs. Our 40″ Sony LED TV handled games with no trouble whatsoever and if I am honest, it really made no difference to the gaming experience whether I tried playing them on the Smart TV, PS Vita or PlayStation TV as all three devices seemed to cope equally well and connecting a DualShock 4 to the television was simplicity itself.

The real question for PS Vita owners though is whether or not it is worth paying to use the PlayStation Now service. It’s reasonable to assume that most PS Vita owners also own at least one other console in the PlayStation family. In many cases that is likely to be a PS3 and if that’s the case then PS Now isn’t likely to be the service for you. Many of the games on offer have been included with PlayStation Plus over the last few years so there is a good chance you will already own many of them. Others are low-budget digital-only titles that have been available through the PlayStation Store for several years and the games that have seen a commercial release are again not modern titles.

For games that you feel might see some investment of your time as a gamer, then it may be just as cost effective to buy the physical game for your PS3 and play it that way, especially considering the price of older games on the second-hand market. It’s not that the service is bad in any way, but with the age of the titles on offer, it’s just not particularly good value for money compared to what gamers could get for their money.

Things do change for those of you who don’t own a PS3 giving you access to a new library of games at your disposal, but when you look at the vast library of PS Vita games right now is it really worth paying £12.99 a month to play old games? Personally I don’t believe it is. For PlayStation Now to really appeal to the masses it needs a larger games library with a greater selection of contemporary releases, games available on the service that are genuinely hard to find at retail or through the collectors market (even classic PS One or PSP games that haven’t been released digitally would be a massive step forward).

With many Vita owners opting to have a subscription to PlayStation Plus (which in itself is struggling to maintain its relevance to PS Vita owners at the moment) and games being released continually for the console, it’s hard to justify spending money on old games when there’s such a wealth of high quality new releases to tempt us. Unless an option is presented in the future offering a combined package of PlayStation Now and PlayStation Plus at an affordable price then at the moment it’s just another service that’s not worth spending money on right now.

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