Sony's ambitious streaming-only game service is about to hit public beta. Here's what to expect.
Jeff BakalarEditor at Large
Jeff is CNET Editor at Large and a host for CNET video. He's regularly featured on CBS and CBSN. He founded the site's longest-running podcast, The 404 Show, which ran for 10 years. He's currently featured on Giant Bomb's Giant Beastcast podcast and has an unhealthy obsession with ice hockey and pinball.
I've recently become enamored with the idea of replaying games from my past, because unlike a favorite film, I don't often experience a game twice.
Backward compatibility has been a point of contention in previous generations of consoles, but with the arrival of the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4, legacy titles have taken a back seat. While Microsoft has yet to flesh out plans on addressing this void, Sony has aggressively teased PlayStation Now, a game-streaming service that not only chips away at the backward-compatibility shortcomings of the PS4, but will soon offer the ability to stream archive games across multiple Sony platforms.
I've had a few weeks with the closed PlayStation Now beta, and while I'm told almost everything I've seen is subject to change, here are my initial impressions of Sony's ambitious service.
PlayStation Now works as a separate application that can be accessed from the PS4's menu bar. Once inside, you are presented with an interface that resembles the PSN store.
Once you've selected a game you wish to play, you'll then need to choose a tiered rental period. Most titles are available in increments of 4 hours, 7 days, 30 days, and 90 days. Four hours can go for as cheap as $3, while 90 days can be as pricey as $27.
I'm not in love with this kind of pricing model, but I'm also not sure there's a better way around it. Perhaps allowing players to pay the maximum rental price to finish a game might make more sense, but it still seems like a lot to pay for a game you're streaming over the Internet. We'll just have to wait and see how the pricing shakes out.
There are as yet no details about pricing (or launch date, for that matter) outside North America, but the Sony's PlayStation press conference at Gamescom 2014 is coming up next month in Germany, so we'll see if there's any word on that then. In terms of just straight conversion, those rental prices shake out to about just about £1.76/AU$3.17 for the low-end 4-hour period up to £15.84/AU$28.59 for 90 days.
This will undoubtedly change, but the initial offering and variety of games on PS Now isn't that impressive. It's impossible to pass judgment this early in the show, but I was really hoping I'd get to play some blockbuster PS3 titles during the closed beta.
Once you select and pay for a title, you're transported to a wait screen while a connection to the game is made. As soon as it launches you enter a sort of cloud-based PS3 emulation interface where you can overlay the cross-media bar and even check out cloud-saved PS3 files. PS Now save files are synced in the cloud and should be available if you rent the same game again in the future.
Of course the big question hanging over PlayStation Now is, "how well does it work?" So far, so good. The streaming quality is actually pretty impressive, though you can notice a bit of compression artifacts with your nose up to the screen. I played PS Now with a wired and wireless connection and didn't notice much of a difference between the two, but everyone's mileage on that might vary. PS Now has a built-in connection tester I'd recommend trying out before paying for that first rental.
So what about latency? Without a doubt, I found a slight but noticeable lag between inputting a command on the controller and what then happened onscreen. It's not unlike the laggier HDTVs out there that suffer from input delay. If latency is only just noticeable now in the closed beta, I'm quite curious to find out what it will be like once it's opened up to everyone. Will we be able to play a first-person-shooter effectively on PS Now?
I also came across an oddity in the PS Now app that I think is worth mentioning. Some titles available have a "disc only" label in their description, which is defined as a game that "may differ from or lack some of the features that can be found in downloaded or disc-based games." I'm a little fuzzy on what that specifically means, but I take it as a caveat that some DLC or add-on content might not make its way onto the PS Now version of said title.
Again, Sony has been very vocal about the beta's non-final status, though much of that chatter sounds like a safety net. I think the service works well enough right now, but I'd certainly welcome a more aggressive pricing structure out of the gate. The PlayStation Now open beta starts July 31.