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Amazon Luna hands-on: Plays great, less filling

The company's newly hatched cloud gaming service shows promise, but faces more mature and less expensive competitors.

Lori Grunin Senior Editor / Advice
I've been reviewing hardware and software, devising testing methodology and handed out buying advice for what seems like forever; I'm currently absorbed by computers and gaming hardware, but previously spent many years concentrating on cameras. I've also volunteered with a cat rescue for over 15 years doing adoptions, designing marketing materials, managing volunteers and, of course, photographing cats.
Expertise Photography, PCs and laptops, gaming and gaming accessories
Lori Grunin
5 min read

Luna works on a lot of disparate platforms because it can play in web browsers. But no Android yet.

Lori Grunin/CNET

Amazon's arrived midgame with its Luna Plus cloud-gaming service, in which games run on a powerful remote server that streams them down to less beefy devices, allowing them to play above their capabilities -- a concept sometimes confusingly referred to as "game streaming." Luna Plus faces more established players like Microsoft Game Pass Ultimate, Google Stadia and Nvidia GeForce Now. Based on my gameplay with the early access launch of the newborn service, I'd say Luna Plus has some strengths that make it more than just a face in the crowd, including the ability to run on iPhones, but I still don't know if it will make the cut for my long-term subscription bucks.

Luna Plus just entered early access, and the only way to jump in is by invitation.

If you've ever played on a cloud gaming service, you'll find the in-game experience is pretty much the same for all. That means sometimes seamless, sometimes just a little glitchy and sometimes unplayable. The big differences among them lie in the game choices, supported platforms and how much you have to pay once all the incidentals add up. And for those, Luna stands out for its novelties -- both good and bad.

Watch this: Amazon Luna: Hands-on with the new cloud gaming service

Unlike almost all the others, which offered prelaunch under-construction service for free or which have a free tier, Luna gives you just a seven-day trial before it starts charging you the $6-a-month promo price for access to its vault, dubbed Luna Plus. At the moment, it's completely separate from Amazon Prime Gaming, but it would be a logical step to incorporate Luna Plus under the giant Prime umbrella. The vault currently has a mixed selection of 50 titles, with a few higher-end choices such as Metro Exodus and Control.

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Luna Plus offers an eclectic selection of about 50 games.

Screenshot by Lori Grunin/CNET

But this is the Amazon Prime Video  of gaming services, not the Netflix. That means a lot of a la carte partner channels to subscribe to; the first in the works is Ubisoft. We don't know what the channel pricing looks like yet, but they will probably vary like Prime channels.

Does it mean originals? Amazon bought some companies to set up its own game studios several years ago, but the one game it managed to get out the door, Crucible, was subsequently pulled back into beta and then spiked, while its other big in-development game, New World, has been delayed until May 2021. Amazon's going to have to rely on the same cluster of games as the competition. According to the company, it requires little effort on the developer's part to make a Windows game Luna-compatible, the complete opposite of Stadia, which needs custom development.

Read more at GameSpotHow Amazon plans for Luna to crack the cloud gaming market

Luna Plus' terms of service don't include any warnings about expiring games licenses that will cause the offerings to leave the service when the contract ends, one of the big annoyances of the streaming economy and the net which entangled Nvidia when it launched GeForce Now. But it's likely that it will have the same caveats as the other vault services with respect to games. Nor do we know if there will be some Stadia-like free tier where you can buy games instead of subscribing.

The subscription includes unlimited hours of gameplay for two players at a time, while the upcoming Ubisoft channel only allows one player. So it's also possible Amazon could offer a free tier for one player and limited playtime. 

Lori Grunin/CNET

Luna's biggest surprise when announced was the ability to work on iPhones and iPads Apple's notoriously stringent App Store policies make cloud-gaming apps almost impossible to get through the approval sphincter. Amazon bypassed the store and its intricacies by creating a Safari web app. It requires a tiny little hoop to jump through -- once you sign in on the site, you add it to your home screen -- but after that its operation is indistinguishable from an app. As a workaround, it's pretty good.

It's possible that some of the as-yet unavailable features, such as Twitch integration and multiplayer, might be more difficult to implement without the magic sauce in Apple's app developer's kit, but for the moment it delivers transparent controller support (I tested with the Razer Kishi and an iPhone 8 Plus ). Amazon has said that social features will be the responsibility of the individual game publishers.

Though Luna tops out at 1080p at 60 frames per second for now (4K is on the roadmap), the upscaling quality on a 17-inch 4K screen (i tested with an LG Gram 17 laptop) looks quite good. On Windows and Mac, you can download an app or play in Chrome and there's an app for Fire TV devices. The only difference I could tell between the dedicated app and Chrome on Windows was the jarring Amazon navigation bar at the top of the screen. But Android, still on the roadmap, is currently a big hole in Luna's platform support, an oddity since most of the others debuted on Android phones .

Amazon doesn't list bandwidth requirements for Luna, but otherwise they're the same as the competition: 5GHz Wi-Fi or Ethernet. You can use Xbox or PlayStation controllers as well as keyboard and mouse on desktop. There's no mention of playing over mobile networks, but I didn't have any problems on the iPhone. 

On the laptop, performance was more mixed. Sonic Mania Plus was great; Hard Reset Redux played pretty well, with occasional audio dropout and video stutter; and Metro Exodus had some serious audio and video problems. It scales with graphics complexity and is likely sending more data to the larger laptop screen.

In its current state, there's nothing wrong with Luna, and you can cancel at any time, making it possible to give it a whirl for a month to figure out if the game selection is worth it. And while Microsoft has pledged to take the web app route to get onto the iPhone, the Luna trial is still your best bet. But it'll be a while before Luna Plus feels like it's worth the money compared to, say, clouding through the more mature Game Pass Ultimate.