Playstation Now UK Beta: My Verdict

psvita_imageblock_psnow-logo_us_28apr14So here it is; Sony’s Playstation Now service has finally reached good ‘ol Blighty. Well, in beta form, at least.

Launched last year in the states, PSNow streams Playstation (primarily PS3) games via the internet to your PS4, Vita or PS3, with other, non-Sony devices penciled in for the future. Titles are offered on an individual rental or Playstation Plus-style rotational subscription basis.

Having been invited to the aforementioned beta last week, I feel I’ve now spent enough time with with service to offer some impressions on it.

Sony have been surprisingly generous in terms of the variety of titles on offer for testing. Highlights include Bioshock Infinite, Uncharted 3, Ultra Street Fighter IV and Shadow of The Colossus HD, but aren’t limited to big hits, as a number of indie offerings, such as The Baconing, also feature.

So far, my experience has echoed that of Digital Foundry here. Picture quality is pretty much on par with a PS3 being played locally.  Colours look a touch washed out to me, but without a physical console for comparison, I can’t say for sure if this is simply because I’m used to looking at far higher fidelity PS4 graphics, or if it really is present and presumably some kind of intentional bandwidth saving measure.

The most serious problem, however, is that age-old streaming bugbear: input latency. The first game I booted, Ultra Street Fighter IV, was pretty much unplayable. Beat-’em-ups rely on lightning fast controller response more than any other genre, and pulling off moves and complex combos at exactly the correct moment proves very difficult indeed when everything seems to be operating on around a third of a second delay.

Next up was Irrational’s seminal causality-bothering FPS, Bioshock Infinite. Initial impressions were pretty much the same, as the experience was again marred by noticeable latency. I did retry the game later that evening to find at least a little improvement, but the experience was still not seamless by any stretch of the imagination. During the ensuing extended play session I found myself almost forgetting about the less-than-stellar input response, but it never really went away.

Uncharted 3 fared better than Street Fighter, yet not as well as Bioshock. Some of the quick-time events in particular were made orders of magnitude more confusing by sluggish controls, and panning the camera around in third person was equally awkward. Again, after a while I did find myself able to bear it, but not entirely without reservation.

Finally, I tried Japanese ‘bullet hell’ top down shooter offering, Raiden IV: Overkill. Guess what? More input latency. At least the colours looked noticeably more vibrant this time around, although that may simply be because of the huge static borders around the play area in that particular title, which mean a lot less of the image needs to be redrawn every frame.

So, the million dollar (or 14.99 of them a month) question is: based on the beta, will PSNow be a worthwhile investment for British Playstation enthusiasts? Well, yes and no. I would never, ever consider the individual rentals because they are absurdly expensive. In most cases, you’ll end up paying far and above the going preowned price, and won’t even get to keep the game once your allotted time is up. If you’re that committed to playing past PS3 games, my advice would be to try and pick up one of the classic bulky 40GB or 80GB models on the cheap.

As regards the subscription option, the selection of titles seems pretty generous, but again, it’s $14.99 a month – that’s $35 a quarter. If you factor in a Playstation Plus subscription as well, you’re going to be approaching the $200 a year mark. You can expect a similar price of entry when the service launches proper over here, ergo Playstation Now is perhaps something you’d dabble in now and again, but a little too pricey for a steady diet for most gamers, I’d wager.

Remember, if you are going to take the plunge, you need to be prepared to do so with appropriately tempered expectations.  My broadband connection is a little above the UK national average, and my router is only a month old, so my experience will likely be indicative of most Britons’ who opt to use the service. The fact that it even works at all is, in a way, a technological marvel, but that’s cold comfort when you’re paying a pretty steep premium for a service that is, at this point, difficult to label as anything but inconsistent.

Furthermore, if you want to get philosophical about it, you could argue that subscribers will be indirectly contributing to the slow death of game ownership. I’ve long been of the view that consoles are slowly edging towards an endgame of a Spotify-style business model, and that’s kind of what Playstation Now is, when considered in isolation. You can’t fight it; it’s going to happen eventually, so it’s really a case of how easy you want to make it for Sony, Microsoft et al.

So, I’ll leave you with this thought: by committing $14.99 a month, or whatever it ends up costing here in the UK, you’re effectively justifying a business model that may one day commit your neatly stacked shelf of game discs, and the high street retailers from which there’s a good chance they came, to the annals of history.

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