Game streaming services let you access video games through a system similar to Netflix, sending your commands to and receiving audio and video data from a server somewhere else in the world in real-time. The first attempts at these services, like the now-defunct Onlive, were extremely rough and plagued with input lag, but they’ve come a long way since then. Nvidia’s GeForce Now is one of the best examples, offering a generous library of PC games for a $7.99 monthly subscription, with the option to purchase and play newer AAA titles a la carte. It requires an Nvidia Shield TV, so it’s a bit more limited compared with PlayStation Now and GameFly streaming, which are available on some connected TV platforms. If you have a Shield TV or are open to buying one, however, it’s a technically impressive and economical way to play PC games without a high-end PC.
The Types of GeForce Now
There are two GeForce Now services, and they’re very different beasts. GeForce Now for Shield, reviewed here, is a subscription service that provides unlimited access to a library of more than 100 streaming games for $7.99 per month, with the option to purchase newer, high-profile PC games to play over GeForce Now at retail prices. It requires an Nvidia Shield TV.
GeForce Now for Mac and PC is only available as an early access service, with a wildly different pricing structure. To play streaming games over your Mac or PC, you need to purchase blocks of time on Nvidia’s servers. After a free period of eight hours on a GTX 1060-based PC or four hours on a GTX 1080-based PC, you can purchase a 10-hour block on a GTX 1080 or a 20-hour block on a GTX 1060 for $25. The concept of purchasing processing time on servers isn’t new for science and enterprise projects, but it’s a pretty distinct novelty for gamers. It’s also a very expensive novelty compared with the Shield TV’s $200 price tag and $8 monthly subscription fee.
The game library on GeForce Now is relatively small, but pleasantly diverse. The subscription gives you access to more than 60 games including the first three Batman: Arkham games, five Lego games, Saints Row IV, Thief (2014), Tomb Raider (2013), and sleeper classic Marlow Briggs and the Mask of Death. The service also offers about as many a la carte games, including newer and bigger releases like Lego: The Force Awakens, Mad Max, No Man’s Sky, Shadow Warrior 2, Soma, and The Witcher 3. Most of the games you can purchase include Steam codes, so you can install and play them on your own PC if you wish.
It isn’t the most compelling selection, with the biggest PC games like Battlefield 1 and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare notably absent. However, Nvidia announced a partnership with Ubisoft that will significantly increase the number of AAA games on GeForce Now. Ubisoft will be adding all recent games available on its UPlay service, including Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, Far Cry Primal, For Honor, and Watch Dogs 2. These games will feature cloud-saving and library cross-buying, which means you can play them over GeForce Now simply by buying the games on UPlay (though they still require a subscription).
Nvidia recently upgraded its GeForce Now servers with GeForce GTX 1080 GPUs using the company’s Pascal architecture. This means that the systems running the games that are streaming to your Shield TV are some of the most powerful gaming systems out there. According to Nvidia, the new graphics processors mean GeForce Now can stream recent games like The Witcher 3 at 60 frames per second at up to 1080p resolution. Don’t expect 4K games, though. 4K is hard enough to render locally on a high-end computer; rendering it off-site and then streaming to your Shield TV while maintaining low input lag is a technical feat with too many hurdles to jump over right now.
You need a very fast, reliable Internet connection to get the most out of GeForce Now. Nvidia requires a minimum of 10Mbps down to stream games at all, and 50Mbps to play games in 1080p60. Ideally, that means running an Ethernet cable from your Shield TV to your router. That consistently got the best results in my testing both in PC Labs over a Fios test network, and in home over a cable modem connection. The service worked over Wi-Fi as well, but was much more prone to hiccups and video compression, even when the Shield TV was only a few feet from the router.
Gaming on GeForce Now
I played Devil May Cry 4, Mad Max, and Shadow Warrior 2 on GeForce Now. For DMC4, I relied entirely on a Wi-Fi connection. Dips in speed resulted in proportionate dips in video quality as the service adjusted compression to keep up, but that wasn’t a big problem considering the game is nine years old and already looks very dated compared with more recent titles (the updated Devil May Cry 4 Definitive Edition looks much better, but isn’t available on GeForce Now). More importantly, GeForce Now kept my inputs responsive, consistent, and without any noticeable lag. This is very important for character action games like DMC4, because timing is necessary to both dodge and parry attacks, and to perform combos and complex moves.
I played Shadow Warrior 2 both over Wi-Fi and using a wired connection, and the difference between the two were night and day. Streaming the game over Wi-Fi resulted in regular drops in video quality, but the gameplay remained responsive regardless. Using an Ethernet cable, on the other hand, I couldn’t tell the game was being streamed. It rendered in 1080p and maintained a high frame rate, performing as if I was playing it locally.
Mad Max had similar results. Playing over a wired connection, the wasteland looked good and Max handled responsively for both driving and fighting. Wi-Fi streaming suffered from occasional drops in graphic quality, but stayed very playable.
Nvidia’s GeForce Now is a technically impressive service. If you have a very fast network connection and can run a cable from your Shield TV to your router, your gaming experience will be about the same as if you had a much bigger, more expensive gaming PC connected instead of Nvidia’s microconsole. The library isn’t particularly large, but there are enough games to get your $8 monthly subscription fee’s worth, and the fact that individual game purchases generally include the locally playable PC version means you can play the games you buy on your own terms. The main issue is the requirement of a Shield TV, but the Shield TV itself is a remarkably full-featured, 4K-capable media streamer with impressive power, and worth checking out as a secondary gaming device regardless.