Hands on: PlayStation Now review

PlayStation Now is a pricey premium for backlogged gamers

What is a hands on review?
TODO alt text

Our Early Verdict

There's a lot to look forward to with PlayStation Now, so long as Sony adopts a better model to attract budget-conscious gamers to the platform.

For

  • Decent library
  • No storage concerns
  • PS1 and PS2 games coming

Against

  • Rentals are pricey
  • Few must-play games
  • Connection drop = game over

Update: PlayStation Now is out on the PlayStation Vita and PlayStation TV systems.

Update #2: PlayStation Now will see a limited release in Japan starting early next week.

Original review below...

A lot can change in two years. Take, for example, PlayStation Now.

On July 2, 2012, Sony bought the then-barely-known cloud gaming service, GaiKai, to the tune of $380 million (£242 million). The decision was met with tepid excitement and heaps of skepticism.

The excitement made sense. Though a foreign idea at the time, game-streaming sounded like an ambitious way to replace the derelict brick and mortar rental stores. (Sorry, Blockbuster!) The skepticism, however, was also understandable.

How could the average user expect a stable, quick connection for an entire gaming session? And how could Sony price it so that both consumers and developers get a fair deal?

It's with these questions in mind that we fast-forward to July 2014, wherein the fruit of that union is finally ready for harvest. It's called PlayStation Now, and if you haven't heard of it, it's kind of a big deal.

PlayStation Now review

When it started, the private beta was only open to a select few. Now, the feature's open and available to PS4, PS3, PlayStation Vita and PlayStation TV owners the world over, with plans to expand to both Sony and Samsung TVs in the near future.

What follows is my experience with the service and fly-by-night phenomena many didn't believe could even work two short years ago.

Great expectations

We had hoped back then, perhaps somewhat naively, that PlayStation Now would be the Netflix of video game streaming. That we could shell out a paltry $8.99 a month and access any game we choose forever - so long as we didn't let our subscription lapse.

What we got isn't the evolution of Netflix. That's not to say it's bad, mind you. It's just … different.

Update: In the time since its inception, PlayStation Now has added a subscription option. The service will cost $19.99 per month or $45 if you sign up for three months. Skeptical? Sony is offering a seven-day trial for free.

Let's start at the beginning. PlayStation Now's interface is incredibly subdued. There are only four tabs: Welcome, All Games, Connection Test, and My PS Now Games.

Exploring the Welcome tab reminds you to use a wired connection for the best results and, before you begin streaming a title, test your connection. (If you're wondering, yes you can pass the test if you're using a wireless signal. We managed to pass the test on Wi-Fi, though that may not have been an accurate assessment.)

Sony promised close to 100 titles before the beta goes live, among them first-party behemoths like The Last of Us, God of War: Ascension and Ratchet & Clank: Into the Nexus.

PlayStation Now

Game Library

Sony delivered. Sort of.

There are now over 100 games available to stream, everything from triple-A masterpieces like The Last of Us and God of War: Ascension to smaller indie darlings. My only complaint is that games aren't added as quickly as I'd like. It'd be nice to see a new, must-play game added every week, but so far that hasn't happened. Not to say that this can't or won't change as soon as the beta switches from private to public.

But the good titles are worth the price of entry - which I'll get to soon enough, don't worry. Games like Saints Row 3, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, Darksiders and Catherine are all up for grabs.

Sadly, some of the 85 games are discount bin fodder, and have been for the past few years. I don't know anyone lining up to play Heavy Fire: Shattered Spear or Jimmie Johnson's Anything with Wheels. But the variety offered here should be enough to please a diverse set of tastes.

Pricing

PlayStation Now could offer the biggest and best games from the company's 20-year foray into game consoles, but if the pricing is wrong, none of it will matter. Nailing down exactly what PlayStation Now's pricing is and how this will shake out, however, is a little tough.

From now games are divided into four rental periods (four hours, seven days, 30 days and 90 days) or all-you-can-play for $20 a month. The price between the first two rental periods typically only differs by one to two dollars, but there's a major jump in cost that happens between the 30 and 90-day levels.

PlayStation Now
PlayStation Now's subscription model adds up quick.

However, once you purchase time with a game, you can't buy additional time. Ideally, you should be able to buy a four-hour demo for $2.99 and, once you've decided you like it, unlock 7-day access by paying the difference.

As it stands, you'll need to wait out the four hours and pay the full 7-day price. There's no way to transition from one to another without waiting out the time for which you paid.

Thankfully, the rental period begins the first time you play the game not when you purchase it. However, you must start your game within 30 days of purchasing the rental or that money is wasted.

Here's a table of three games, one early PS3 game; one PSN game; and one more recent PS3 game displaying not only the difference in price over each time period, but the difference between games altogether as well:

  • Metal Gear Solid 4: 4 hours - $ 3.99, 7 days - $7.99, 30 days - $12.99, 90 days - $14.99
  • Mega Man 9: 4 hours - $2.99, 7 days - $3.99, 30 days - $5.99, 90 days - $7.99
  • Deus Ex: Human Revolution: 4 hours - $4.99, 7 days - $6.99, 30 days - $14.99, 90 days - $29.99

Taken at face value, these don't seem so bad. Reasonably, this is what brick and mortar stores used to charge for rentals, and while the upper-end seems a bit too high, it may make sense once more recent - and better - games fill out the catalog.

But dig in a bit deeper, and these logical prices stop making sense.

Take, for example, Metal Gear Solid 4: it's $7.99 to rent for seven days - not a terrible price when it's isolated without a comparison. But when this game goes for $6.99 used at GameStop, it seems a lot less sensible. Though, the point can be made that you would need an actual PS3 console to play that disc, thanks to the lack of backwards compatibility on the PS4. So, this argument can swing either way.

Where I can see PlayStation Now finding some traction is with gamers supplementing their PS4 experience with rentals - or, crazier, users giving up their physical media collection completely. This depends largely on how quickly games come to the store. But, in a perfect world in which games launch simultaneously on retail and PS Now, you could be playing the week's biggest game without leaving your couch for the pittance of $6.99.

There's a lot of potential here, but the pricing model isn't all that consumer-friendly.

Stream quality

Games take about 15 seconds to load up, and seem a hair faster than they were at CES. Single player worked seamlessly in Guacamelee!, and local multiplayer wasn't a problem either.

I also noticed that since CES, there was little to no signal degradation. Everything came through in crystal-clear HD or not at all. The only time I saw some stuttering and screen tearing was during an intense, input-heavy game, like Dead or Alive 5.

PlayStation Now review
Long time, no see CES.

Whether PlayStation Now can support multiplayer games online, however, remains to be seen. I can only imagine that a signal being relayed from a local PlayStation 4 to a PS Now server then to the game server and back would be too slow to play online. Whether that turns out to be true, though, remains to be seen and is something that requires confirmation from Sony.

What I do know is that you really want to heed Sony's advice on an ethernet cable. A lost connection to your router will boot you from the game whether you've saved 10 seconds ago or 10 minutes ago. I got booted from games multiple times due to a bad connection. Though, this may have to do with the amount of dedicated servers for the beta, and not something indicative of the final service.

It's hard to judge the service on this brief, partial display. Once more server space becomes dedicated to PlayStation Now, many of these complaints may become a moot point.

We liked

As promised, Sony delivered a slew of games. Picking which one of the 80-plus games to download first is a difficult decision, and this is only the beginning. Plus, rentals don't take up any space on your hard drive, and there's zero download time - just a quick 20 second setup before you play each game.

Finally, the service now spans the entirety of Sony's gaming and media devices and has clear intentions on expanding onto smartphones and televisions in the near future.

We disliked

It would've be great to cut yourself off entirely from a console, but that doesn't seem possible with PlayStation Now in its current state. There's just not enough of a selection without getting the latest releases on there every week, and even if they were, the prices add up quickly.

Games can sometimes be more for a seven day rental than their retail price. Frankly, I wish PlayStation Now would borrow EA Access's better, consumer-friendly pricing system.

Early verdict

Sony has time to fix the problem with its PlayStation Now pricing model, lack of flexibility, and has plans to step up the amount of content available to stream. There's a lot to look forward to with the service. That is, so long as Sony can adopt a better model to attract the most gamers to the platform.

What is a hands on review?

'Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.