If you're a PC gamer who longs to play PlayStation 3 titles but you don't want to purchase a console, PlayStation Now may be worth sampling. For $20 per month (or $100 per year), Sony's cloud-based gaming and streaming service lets you access more than 300 last-generation titles on your rig, with more games being added to the library every week. Assuming that Sony will only add games to the catalog (and not remove them!), there is no real rush to sign up yet, especially since the service lacks a few essentials titles. Still, PlayStation Now has the potential to become a significant player in the PC gaming space, and it will be exciting to see how the service expands and grows in the future.
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It's important to clarify that PlayStation Now is a streaming service, so you don't purchase individual games and download them to your computer as you do with Steam. Think of it as a PlayStation version of Netflix: You aren't saving the media to your device, only playing it. And as with Netflix, when you stop paying the PlayStation Now subscription, you lose access to the library.
With Microsoft making great strides toward unifying its Xbox and Windows gaming communities, it is no real surprise to see Sony lunge for the PC market, too. Unfortunately, PlayStation Now doesn't go the extra mile by letting you play current-generation titles on your PC. Microsoft, on the other hand, merged its Windows 10 and Xbox One game stores, and pushed for cross-buy and cross-platform play between the two system types. Microsoft also features voice chat options via desktop Xbox Live, which PlayStation Now does not. You can, however, message friends.
A PlayStation Now subscription doesn't include PlayStation Plus perks, but there is an upside: Multiplayer is part of the package, so you can enjoy online co-op without signing up for PlayStation Plus.
Sony offers a free seven-day trial, so those who are apprehensive about the service can try before subscribing. Take note that this trial requires your credit card information, and you must cancel your auto-subscription before the trial period ends if the service is not to your liking.
To get started with PlayStation Now, you need a PC running Windows 10, 8, or 7, and a controller. Sony recommends using its DualShock 4, because of its motion-control functionality, but PlayStation Now supports a variety of gamepads. I discovered that an Xbox 360 controller works fine for most games, and the Steam Controller does, too, if you tinker with both Steam and PlayStation Now's settings. However, you cannot use a mouse and keyboard to play games.
In terms of PC requirements, PlayStation Now needs a 5Mbps Internet connection speed, at least a 3.5GHz Intel Core i3 CPU, an Nvidia GeForce 730 or AMD Radeon R7 GPU, 300MB of disk space, and 2GB of RAM for optimal performance. However, the minimum specs are quite pedestrian; you can get by with an Intel Atom 1.33GHz Quad Core CPU and Intel HD 3000 GPU. Simply put, if you've recently bought a computer, you should be able to fire up PlayStation Now.
Jumping Into PlayStation Now
Navigating PlayStation Now feels very similar to making your way around the PSN menu system. In other words, it's a very clunky experience. Using a mouse and keyboard, you can hover over tabs on either side of the menu to cycle through a category of games and scroll up or down the list of categories with the mouse wheel. Navigating the menu with a controller works in much the same way, except you use the D-pad instead of the mouse.
The most egregious issue, however, is the lack of a search box. You can hunt for games by category, or scroll to look for a game alphabetically, but there's no search function to speed up the process. Finding a specific game is tedious.
PlayStation Now offers quite a few notable PS3-exclusive titles, such as Heavenly Sword, the God of War series, the Uncharted games, ICO, Shadow of the Colossus, and Journey. This makes PlayStation Now an appealing package for PC gamers who did not invest in a PS3. That said, there are holes in the lineup, so must-own games, such as Demon's Souls, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, and Red Dead Redemption, are notably absent. It would be nice to see these games make their way onto the platform in the future.
Damming the Stream
Your ISP's connection speed and server ping has a major impact on how responsive the games feel. Depending on the game, input lag can be either negligible or a frustrating ordeal. Wizardry and XCOM, for instance, don't suffer from input latency, because they don't require precision or twitch-based reactions. Likewise, the God of War games feature a lenient combat system, so a little lag doesn't significantly hinder the gameplay.
Conversely, it's difficult to use Devil May Cry 4's Exceed attack. It feels awkward because of the subtle delay. The one time I pulled off a frame-perfect Max-Act Exceed attack was by accident. Latency also impacts executing combos in Ultra Street Fighter IV. On the bright side, it's a cinch to find Ultra Street Fighter IV matches, because PlayStation Now uses PSN for multiplayer connectivity.
I noticed several hiccups besides the latency issues. Compression artifacts are a fairly common sight, for one thing. I advise against playing games in full-screen mode, as any artifact problems you encounter are compounded when viewing the 720p image in 1080p or above. You can, and probably should, be prepared for the occasional hiccup and drop in signal quality.
During my time with PlayStation Now, I only had one major drop in signal quality, which happened as I played through Journey. When this happened, the display suffered from crippling visual artifacts, and lag delayed my inputs by several seconds. This matter corrected itself within a minute, but small stutters and hiccups were a common occurrence among most of the games I played.
Please note that PlayStation Now game streams cannot top 720p resolution or a 60 frames-per-second frame rate. You definitely shouldn't expect PlayStation Now to improve a game's resolution or frame rate. For example, the PS3 version of The Last of Us ran at 30 frames per second, and does so while streaming via PlayStation Plus, too.
Loading a game in PlayStation Plus also takes roughly a minute, which feels like an eternity.
A Bright Future
As it stands, I think $20 for a month's subscription is a steep fee, considering that many top-tier titles are missing in action. Still, if Sony can improve PlayStation Now's latency and artifact issues, the service has a chance to gain traction among PC gamers who long for PS3 titles. Give the seven-day trial a go, and if you like what you see, by all means invest in a subscription. PlayStation Now may very well be the next must-own PC gaming app, someday. It's just not there yet.