Imagine a service that lets you play video games on your TV without a console. The games would stream to your TV from a server miles away, so none of the processing would happen in your living room. You'd also have access to a huge library of popular games, ranging from single-player action-adventures to multiplayer first-person shooters.
That service was called OnLive, and it was universally panned by gamers for being an unplayable lag-fest.
Announced at CES 2014, PlayStation Now operates on the same principle as OnLive, but looks to improve on the user experience. It generated a lot of buzz at the show, and we were eager to get our hands on it and see what the hype was all about. Sony was only too happy to oblige.
The PlayStation Now setup at Sony's booth was a demo version—a prototype cobbled together just for the CES launch. As such, it's impossible for us to pass any kind of judgment on how the final product will look and feel.
The demo's interface had very few options. Sony promised us that PlayStation Now would let a user connect to the existing PlayStation Network, meaning players will be able to access their friends and their trophies. As far as what we experienced, though, we were only given a menu with four games to choose from: God of War: Ascension, The Last of Us, Puppeteer, and Beyond: Two Souls.
One of the greatest perks of PlayStation Now is the ability to play games without a console. Yes, players will be able to access PlayStation Now through a PS3, PS4, or PS Vita, but Sony didn't stop there.
The demo setup consisted of only a DualShock controller plugged into a Sony Bravia TV. We were told that the controller needs to be plugged into the TV through USB for its initial setup, but can communicate via BlueTooth after that. This is very good news for people who want their entertainment center to be clutter-free.
PlayStation Now users will be able to either rent games for a set period or subscribe to an ongoing service for unlimited access to every title. There is no word yet on what the prices for each payment model will look like, nor is there any word on what games will be available. The only thing Sony could confirm is that every game that has ever been released on any PlayStation console has the potential to be included in the PlayStation Now library.
When we loaded up God of War: Ascension, we couldn't tell that the game was being streamed. The controls were responsive, animations were smooth, and there was no noticeable screen tearing. It really felt no different from playing the game directly off a disc in a console.
But you shouldn't read that statement as a blanket endorsement of the Playstation Now experience. Sony's demo streamed the game from a server in the same building as the TV we were playing on. That ensured that latency was extremely low and bandwidth was extremely high.
In other words, the demo was in no way an accurate representation of how PlayStation Now will perform in real life, where most users game hundreds of miles from the nearest Sony server and often use their system's WiFi connection, which only adds more latency.
Latency problems were part of what killed OnLive, and they could just as easily spell doom for PlayStation Now. The fact that the demo was purposefully run under the best possible conditions certainly left us skeptical. On top of that, none of the games on display were first-person shooters or fighters, which require extremely quick input without any lag. A game like Street Fighter IV or Call of Duty: Ghosts would have made better tests for frame rate drops or unresponsive controls.
Without a more realistic setup, it's simply impossible to accurately judge PlayStation Now's performance at this stage.
The PlayStation Now sounds amazing in theory, but Sony's booth at CES 2014 did little to show us how it works in practice. Our biggest concern with any video game streaming service is lag, which can render games unplayable. From what we saw, we can't accurately determine whether PlayStation Now will make a worthy replacement for owning a console and running the games off physical media.
We hope PlayStation Now delivers on its promises, but our experience at Sony's booth left us skeptical at the very least, and cautiously optimistic at best. In its current form, it certainly didn't live up to the hype—there's no guarantee that PlayStation Now won't quietly evaporate before its intended release date.
PlayStation Now will enter closed beta at the end of January 2014. Sony plans on releasing the service in the summer of 2014. Prices for game rental and subscription are yet to be determined.