Ah, the promise of cloud-based gaming. Many have tried, all have failed in the pursuit of the Holy Grail of streaming gaming goodness, from widely publicized bombs like OnLive to more low-key affairs like the Gaikai/PlayStation Now and NVIDIA’s GeForce Now options. Each and every one promised fans a glimpse into the “future of gaming” without the fuss of dedicated hardware, though such promises were quickly broken as actually using said services required…lots of dedicated hardware. Hey, we’re sure even the NVIDIA Shield and PlayStation TV have their fans, right?
Snarks aside, you’ll forgive our reluctance at not getting super excited when hearing about Google’s Project Stream, the search engine giant’s latest attempt to enter the gaming market in the most direct way possible: via their own Chrome browser. The advantages Google brings with them to the streaming table are obvious; they’re one of the world’s biggest tech companies, arguably the most sophisticated at data delivery, have unbelievably awesome existing infrastructure and – critically – Scrooge McDuck levels of expendable cash they don’t mind wasting.
If anyone is qualified to deliver a game-changing service that, literally, changes the way we play games, Google is certainly on the short list. Plus, they’ve partnered with Ubisoft to deliver the goods in the form of a AAA-blockbuster game you’ll actually want to play with Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, one of the year’s best.
Project Stream also comes at just the right time as most consumers have become incredibly happy with streaming their favorite content. Services like Netflix, Hulu, Prime Video, Spotify, Apple Music and many others have proved that owning stuff is so yesterday, so why not try adding games to the list of content available at the push of a button? While others like Microsoft have gone the client-route with services like Game Pass, Google wants you to trust them completely for your gaming needs, relying on their dedicated services (and your internet ISP) to deliver the same thrills and stealth kills you’d find elsewhere.
The premise is simple: high-quality gaming delivered directly to your Chrome browser, eliminating the need for expensive hardware, huge installs, updates and patches without loss in performance. If any of this sounds familiar that’s because it mimics the promise of Google’s own Chrome OS platform. That didn’t quite work out as some would have liked, but super cheap Chromebooks did establish Google as a contender and, as a bonus, forced the industry to confront different markets by releasing competitively priced Windows laptops to compete.
Can Google’s Project Stream have a similar effect on the notoriously cloistered gaming industry, which is basically dominated by Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo? It may already have: a version of Project Stream is actually being used to test streaming capabilities on Nintendo’s Switch in Japan only (for now), so they may already have.
This preview of the Project Stream Beta is the collective assessment of several editors here at Popzara, trying the service using a variety of hardware, internet connections and individual biases. Honestly, none went in expecting to be impressed; after playing with it for a solid week, however, everyone’s mind was changed. What happened and why the change in opinion what we’re talking about here.
One quick note: this feature isn’t a review of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, the actual game; our own Cory Galliher already did that, and really liked it. A lot. Here’s a snippet to whet your stealth-kill whistles:
“Assassin’s Creed Origins was one of the best games of last year – I’d argue perhaps the best straight up – and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey carries that torch and runs with it. It may not be the genre-setting spectacle Origins was, but it certainly continues to refine the exquisite template that not only helped save Ubisoft’s franchise from itself, but redefined what an open-world experience could be.” Read the full review by clicking right HERE!
Technical Requirements: Bare Minimum
It doesn’t take much to get Project Stream up and running. In fact, it barely takes anything at all, minus a computer running the latest Chrome browser and competent internet connection. Google recommends a wired USB controller, though any wired Xbox (360 or One) or Sony DualShock 4 controller will work just fine. Besides – even though you technically can – you really shouldn’t be playing Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey with a keyboard and mouse anyway.
You’ll also either need to use or create an Ubisoft account, though as a blessing there’s no need to use their horrid UPlay service (yuck!). We can also confirm that using an existing Ubisoft account will NOT transfer saves between the PC/console version of Assassin’s Creed and the Cloud version, meaning you can’t leave one version and resume on the other. I suppose they’re technically different, for now, but in a world of Netflix “resuming” this stood out as a disappointment.
When we said “computers” we meant just that: Windows, Mac, Linux and even Chromebooks all work great with Project Stream (provided they have the latest Chrome build). In full disclosure we tested the service on a variety of machines ranging from custom builds running bleeding-edge GeForce RTX GPUs, mid-range models, budget laptops like the Kangaroo Notebook and even bottom-level Chromebooks are all good to go.
A word of caution regarding Chromebooks: Google’s OS have a known quirk where it gets stuck in a reboot loop whenever a Xbox One gamepad is connected, likely due to insufficient power draw. We’re not certain how committed Google is in fixing this considering their track record with new ideas, but if you’re anxious to give your Chrome OS device a new lease on (gaming) life, just remember to use the right controller setup.
Project Stream definitely makes a great first impression with few requirements. The service runs exclusively on the Chrome browser, no exceptions, and you’ll have to pass a mandatory speed/latency test before you can start the game.
The latter part can be hit-or-miss, depending on well your ISP communicates with Google’s servers, but it mostly works with the two major service providers we tested with at (minimum) 200 Mbps: Comcast Xfinity and Spectrum. However, if the service’s internal benchmarking doesn’t reach the minimum data rate (15 Mbps rate, 40ms ping, 5% data loss) it won’t work. There were instances where our connection wasn’t quite strong enough during busier times of the day, but more often than not we were able to play without a hitch.
Performance: Near Console-Quality
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is a phenomenally beautiful game – one of the best we’ve seen in years. It’s a game that takes powerful hardware to really make it sing, like the latest GeForce RTX cards or an Xbox One X console. So making Ubisoft’s latest stealthy kill-o-thon the marquee test on a potential new on-demand gaming service was a brave choice. But was it a wise one?
In a strange way, trying to talk about Project Stream’s technical performance mirrors the same issues of trying to talk about the actual game’s performance using standalone PC hardware: benchmarking is going to vary wildly depending on what your processor speed, memory and GPU setup is. With something like Project Stream, that variable is going to be your internet connection, which depending on what area you live in, time of day, and data plan you have will render your situation just as unique. Everything you read or see concerning Project Stream should be taken as an individual experience – it’s still in beta, after all.
So how’s the game look when everything is running as expected? Pretty great, actually, though even this statement needs a little explaining. Generally, the entire game is presented through your browser – each and every detail you’d expect had the game been running on traditional hardware. Absolutely nothing is lost, from the sprawling landscapes, epic music, right down to the funny cutscenes.
However, despite how impressive it was seeing such an expansive game rendered on-the-fly using little more than Chrome, the entire presentation looks like there’s a persistent gauzy filter over the stream, like a slightly fuzzy overlay. If you’ve played other streaming services you’ve seen this dreaded filter before, so it doesn’t come as much of a surprise. There’s also the ugly artifacting and occasional video lag at times, especially when attempting to play during busy internet times. None of this is surprising, especially if you’re a heavy streaming video service user (good luck binging Netflix at peak times!).
And yet, despite the persistent fuzz and occasional glitch, the game’s overall performance was far better than even the grumpiest naysayer would have imagined. True, this isn’t the ideal way to experience you want to experience the rich world of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, but it’ll do in a pinch. More critically, it controls almost perfectly, with no discernible input lag present throughout our entire testing. Honestly, this was the single most impressive thing about Project Stream, and most of our enthusiasm is centered around how seamless controlling the game was.
Honestly, Google’s promise of having Project Stream running the game at 60fps out of the gate was a bit premature – it struggles to reach 30fps at the best of times – but this is Google and we’re used to seeing hyperbole out of new technology. One huge concern, of course, was just how much data is being used to stream a game of this complexity, and how that could possibly affect both performance and data caps for heavy users.
Conclusion: Quite Possibly Maybe
We went in skeptical that Google’s Project Stream might represent the future of on-demand gaming, let alone regular gaming, and came away convinced otherwise. That’s a huge admission right there, one that we’re happy to concede to. But there are many, many questions that need resolved before anyone could reasonably recommend or predict success for this potential service and/or technology; just what exactly Project Stream actually is, or what it could be (or even what it could be called) is pure speculation right now.
Currently, there’s not even the whisper of pricing, distribution, licensing or anything remotely signaling where the service will eventually end up, and how it might be consumed. Even Google’s website doesn’t contain much in the way of answers, apart from a basic FAQ to set things up. This gives the impression that Project Stream may be more middleware than straightforward service, which would suit most of us just fine as our only real worry, ironically, is Google itself. Despite their success in search, Android and Chrome, this is a company with a notoriously bad track record in pushing and supporting content platforms, especially ones like this.
Project Stream represents the first honest-to-goodness on-demand gaming service that could actually work, and it would be a shame to see such raw potential abandoned like so many of their other “projects”. We’d actually feel a little more confident if the tech was backed by a company with a better history in content distribution, like Microsoft or even Amazon. Heck, even Apple would help calm the jitters.
As it stands, it seems more than capable of delivering a competent on-demand experience that nearly – but not entirely – replicates the “real thing” enough to satisfy casual users. But it’s fun to speculate the possibilities of just how “game changing” it could be.
The likeliest application seems to be platform-agnostic streaming on compatible platforms like the Apple TV, Fire TV, Roku or even Smart TV systems. Add a controller and you’ve suddenly opened up a world of gaming options on platforms that were never designed to play AAA titles before; it wouldn’t matter if they’re slightly degraded experiences as long as the price was right (read: cheap or non-existent). Even long-forgotten Mac and Linux users would suddenly have access to games they’d otherwise miss out on, provided they don’t have consoles like the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One.
One is tempted to suggest a radical idea: full-featured demos or even a return to game rentals. What a difference actually having access to the full game (or version of it) while browsing instead of passively watching a game trailer would make. Having to purchase full versions of new games simply to try them out is prohibitive, both in pricing and simple experimentation; instant access would open up games many would have otherwise never taken chances on simply out of curiosity.
This has been proven in the world of streaming video; it’s actually called the “Netflix Effect”, where previously unpopular shows have suddenly become hits after easy-access made them readily available. See Breaking Bad and Mad Men for prime examples.
But making this a standalone distribution service to compete directly with console and PC platforms (at full price) would, in our opinion, effectively render it DOA. It’s just doesn’t offer that caliber and serving users even a slightly diminished experience under the allure of instant-gratification would be a recipe for failure. We’ll have to wait and see what Google, Ubisoft, or any other interested parties does with the technology, and pray they don’t screw it up. The simple fact they were able to change the hearts and minds of these naysayers is enough to keep us interested until then.