PlayStation Now for PC is the surprise OnLive replacement I didn't know I wanted

PlayStation Now streams surprisingly well, and lets PC gamers play Sony exclusives.

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The new God of War releases this week, and by all accounts it’s fantastic. So fantastic in fact that last week I bought the God of War Saga Collection for PlayStation 3, wanting to play through the original Gods of War again (and III for the first time) before delving into the new one. And all that would’ve been just a fun little detour for me, given the fact they’re PlayStation exclusives and thus not fodder for PCWorld.

Faced with the prospect of hooking up a PS3 though, I suddenly thought “Wait...aren’t those games available on PCs via PlayStation Now?”

PlayStation Now, for those who don’t know, is Sony’s “solution” for backwards compatibility. Instead of building in native support or even emulated support like the Xbox One, Sony instead leveraged the remnants of its Gaikai acquisition to stream games across the internet. The service includes games spanning from PS2 era (albeit remastered for PS3) all the way up through recent PS4 games, for $20 per month, $45 for three months, or (occasionally) $100 for a full year.

So I gave it a shot.

Runs like Hermes

It’s the first time I’ve remote-streamed a game in a while, and I’m impressed. My last serious go was probably 2010, subscribing to OnLive and playing through The Witcher. It was playable, but barely—I usually had about a second of latency to compensate for, which made an action-RPG doable but shooters a longshot.

The Witcher The Witcher

It may not look like much now, but in 2010 being able to stream The Witcher to my MacBook while I sat in bed seemed like magic.

Proof-of-concept tech, in other words. Internet speeds weren’t high enough, server infrastructure wasn’t there. A single second doesn’t sound like much, but in games that feels like an eternity of lag—definitely enough to know “I’m not playing this on my local machine.”

I’ve dabbled here and there with other self-proclaimed “OnLive replacements” since, but there hasn’t been a service with the same catalog and reach—or at least, not one that’s easily accessible. The closest is probably GeForce Now for the Shield TV, but...well, that requires owning an Nvidia Shield TV, which is a costly set-top box.

Then there’s GeForce Now for PCs. That one sounds promising, from my colleague Brad Chacos’s writeup, but it’s still in a waitlisted beta stage at the moment. And it also loses the whole “Netflix for Games” aspect, for whatever reason. Unlike GeForce Now for the Nvidia Shield, the GeForce Now service on PC and Mac only allows you to play games you already purchased through Steam or Uplay, plus a handful of standalone hits like Fortnite and League of Legends. That’s great if you want to do some gaming on a laptop, maybe in bed or on vacation, but it doesn’t really help those of us who have a powerful desktop waiting.

Surprise, surprise: PlayStation Now is the service I wanted.

PlayStation Now IDG / Hayden Dingman

I do wish the interface were a bit more mouse-and-keyboard friendly. Netflix ruined UI for everyone.

Weird, right? I mean, it’s very much a PlayStation service first and foremost, and Sony’s been notoriously reticent to support PC. Microsoft’s “Xbox Play Anywhere” initiative has seen all its first-party games hit PC day-and-date the past few years, but Sony’s not exactly in a rush to do the same with Uncharted, God of WarHorizon: Zero Dawn, Bloodborne, and the like. It’s why I own a PlayStation 4 Pro—because those games are truly exclusive to Sony’s platform.

Yet here’s Sony with this oddly extensive OnLive replacement, with full PC support. And it works!

At least, it worked for me. Sony offers a free seven-day PlayStation Now trial, so I signed up for that last week, booted up the original God of War and told myself I’d give it five minutes. I did the usual latency test: Scrolling through the main menu, seeing how quick it would respond.

God of War II - PlayStation Now IDG / Hayden Dingman

I’d like to pretend there was some huge revelation, but the only revelation from my time with PlayStation Now is that it felt normal. The menu worked like a menu. I’d say there’s maybe a quarter or even as little as an eighth of a second of latency. Even on the low end that’s 125 milliseconds, which means it’s still noticeable to the observant player. I wouldn’t want to compete in professional Counter-Strike tournaments this way or anything.

After eight or nine hours I finished God of War though, completely through PlayStation Now. That includes all the annoying quicktime events the series is known for, reflexively hitting Triangle or Square on command with only a second leeway. I thought for sure those would be the sticking point, the feature that would make God-of-War-over-the-internet a nonstarter, but with the exception of one or two “I could’ve sworn I pressed that button in time” moments I didn’t have any issue. I even made it through the infamous spiked columns section without taking any damage. (There’s a trophy for that accomplishment.)

And as I said, there’s full PC support. That was really the selling point for me. Like the aforementioned Xbox Play Anywhere program, PlayStation Now games all support cloud saves. I’ve been bouncing back and forth between my couch and my desk all week as I blitzed through God of War and its sequel.

God of War II - PlayStation Now IDG / Hayden Dingman

Now, some caveats. First of all, it does warn you to use a DualShock 4 for the best experience. DualShock support for the PC is notoriously spotty, so I was worried—worried enough I actually played the original God of War with my usual Xbox One controller. That works fine, so long as you’re playing a PS3 game and, of course, have the DualShock button layout memorized.

God of War III Remastered is a PS4 game though, so I bowed to pressure and plugged in a DualShock—there’s no Xbox replacement for that big touchpad in the center. Either DualShock PC drivers have gotten a lot better or PlayStation Now is just better at support, because it worked perfectly. It even utilized the lightbar correctly.

The second issue: You’re capped at 720p resolution. You can easily fullscreen it, but for some reason that’s the highest any PlayStation Now game streams. I assume it’s a limitation of the PlayStation 4 hardware, but it’s a shame Sony won’t support 1080p streams on PC. Then again, I definitely saw more stuttering on PC as is—I even had PlayStation Now freeze up on me once. Sony needs to work on its PC support still.

God of War III - PlayStation Now IDG / Hayden Dingman

Regardless, it’s the weakest point for PlayStation Now at the moment. 720p is fine, especially playing remasters of old PS2 games. Hell, before the PS3-era remasters those games were probably 720p to begin with. I started to notice the weak points more as I moved into God of War III and a few other PS4 games though—blurry text, noisy shadows, some missing detail. A higher-quality option would be great for those whose internet can support it.

Though that feeds into our third and final problem: The internet, or “Your experience may vary from mine.” Repeat: I don’t know if PlayStation Now works for you. First and foremost, I live in San Francisco and thus I assume there’s a PlayStation Now hub not too far from me. Undoubtedly my low-latency play is due in part to that aspect. If you live in a more rural area, PlayStation Now may be unusable. That’s presumably why there’s a seven-day trial, so you can test your own connection before committing. Smart.

Even so, it definitely hasn’t been as seamless as playing off a local machine. Stutters happen. Glitches happen. One cutscene, the tension was ruined by Athena getting stuck in a loop, repeating the same line of dialogue four times in a row before finally moving on. There’s also the data cap hanging over my head. In theory PlayStation Now is using about a GB of data per hour, the same as SD video on Netflix. That’s not much, but given how high my internet usage already is month-to-month...well, an extra 20GB to 40GB could be the difference between staying under our 1TB cap or not.

God of War III - PlayStation Now IDG / Hayden Dingman

Bottom line

When my seven-day trial ran out I purchased a subscription though. I didn’t own a PS3 last generation, and despite playing quite a few games on a roommate’s machine I still missed out on a few—God of War III for instance. The Sly Cooper remasters. Unfinished Swan, predecessor to our 2017 Game of the Year What Remains of Edith Finch. Oh, and The Darkness is on there, which is great because the sequel came to PC but the original never did. This list shows all 600-plus PlayStation Now games.

Whether PlayStation Now works for you? Or whether it’s worth $100 for a year’s subscription (or the more outrageous $20 per month)? Hard to say. I definitely would prefer to see Sony support actual backwards compatibility next generation instead of a half-step, and I think the prices on PlayStation Now probably need to come down a bit to attract a wider audience.

But it’s pretty cool to me that PC players can get in on PlayStation Now. I had a funny moment, playing God of War II on my desktop machine through PlayStation Now while taking screenshots through Microsoft’s Xbox app. If that’s not PC gaming, I don’t know what is.

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