It was a disappointing announcement when, around the unveiling of the PlayStation 4, Sony revealed that its latest console wouldn’t come with native backwards compatibility for older PS3 titles. However, it at least had a ready alternative planned – having acquired game-streaming service Gaikai, the PS4 would offer last-gen games on demand, over the web, with a new rental service called PlayStation Now.
Problem was, it wasn’t ready at launch. Only now, roughly a year and a half after the PS4 hit UK shelves, PlayStation Now been made available on our shores in an Open Beta form. Has it been worth the wait?
I’d say so, yes. While it’s not quite as reliable as simply popping your old discs into a new machine, my few days with PlayStation Now have proved surprisingly smooth to play with and simple to set up.
Though I’ve been using PlayStation Now on a PS4 console, the service is available on the PS3 too, as well as a selection of Sony Bravia TVs. All that’s required is a broadband connection of a minimum of 5Mbps, and a DualShock 3 or DualShock 4 controller, and you’re pretty much good to go. PlayStation Vita and PlayStation TV hardware is expected to get PlayStation Now compatibility later this year.
PlayStation Now Pricing and Games
At present, games are offered up over two-day or 30-day rental periods, priced between £2.99 or £7.99 depending on the title. Unlike Microsoft’s recent announcement of backwards compatibility for the Xbox One (letting you re-download supported games from its back catalogue that you already own, free of charge), you’ll have to pay to play any game you may already have bought on the earlier console, which now looks a little stingy in light of the Xbox move. However, a Netflix-like all-you-can-eat subscription service is planned too, which could ramp up the value for money. At present, no details have been shared on its launch. And of course, if you never owned a PS3, this is a simple way to play all those old classics for the first time, without having to track down the old console and games.
When it comes to using the service on PS4, you might initially struggle to find the PlayStation Now offering. I’d expected it to be served by its own application portal, listing all the available games, but instead you have to delve into the PlayStation Store where it now has its own section. Here, you’ll also find a connection test, letting you check if your broadband is up to scratch to stream the games smoothly.
There are currently around 150 games ready to stream (a small number less if you count episodic titles as single games) and, while not completely comprehensive by any stretch (no Metal Gear or GTA games, just for starters), the quality of what is on offer is high. From Mass Effect 2 through to Uncharted 2, XCom: Enemy Within to Shadow of the Colossus, there are plenty of triple-A titles to sink your teeth into.
Upon firing up a game, you’re presented with its file size, though this doesn’t seem to have any bearing on whether or not you can play the game, seeing as it’s being streamed rather than downloaded – I couldn’t spot any cache on my hard drive, for instance. After a few moments pause on the PS4, I was presented with the familiar PS3 interface, with my game of choice was being emulated on some super-computer server somewhere off in PlayStation land.
I’ve mostly been playing Uncharted 2: Among Thieves during my time with PlayStation Now. It seemed a good choice given its intricate visual details and mixture of twitchy-shooting and quick-reaction platforming. Considering game streaming inevitably brings with it a degree of lag and input latency, an action game like this would put PlayStation Now to the test. Plus, I’m a veteran of the game; having completed it the first time around, I’d be able to spot any major differences.
What surprised me most of all was how relatively little input lag there was. According to a quick laptop speed test, my connection hovers around the 40Mbps mark, which is a pretty solid fibre broadband speed. But with controller commands being sent from a Bluetooth connection to the console, down the wires to Sony’s servers before hero Drake’s response was beamed back down to my console and TV, I was impressed by how imperceptible the delay was. My aim remained true when shooting grunts, and I never overstepped a ledge before a crucial jump. The only notable difference was when using the DualShock 4 controller, the left and right areas of the touchpad respectively replaced the PS3's Select and Start buttons, missing from the PS4 pad.
There was at times what seemed to be a little Netflix-like adaptive stream quality shifting taking place, when the image would become a little fuzzier, but for the most part the stream was consistent. What was more off putting seemed to be the colour reproduction – to my eyes, everything looks a little washed-out and lacking in saturation when playing with PlayStation Now. Obviously, you can tinker with your TV’s settings to counter that, but it’s a little annoying when jumping from PS Now to basically anything else.
As an Open Beta, there’s still plenty of time for new features and improvements to be made to PlayStation Now (hence this being a “hands-on” rather than “full” review). But it’s off to a good start – the game selection is good, the rental pricing is at least a match for the good ol’ days of Blockbuster even if it can’t match Microsoft’s current Xbox offer for returning players, and the servers seem to be holding up well. If the subscription service isn’t too expensive and comes complete with an enticing library of games, maybe we’ll be able to put the lack of backwards compatibility behind us once and for all.