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Hands-on: Steam's in-home PC game streaming beta already feels like magic

Hayden Dingman | Jan. 30, 2014
Last night I played Assassin's Creed IV on a 2006 MacBook — the cheap, white plastic kind. It's a machine with a 1.83GHz processor and 4GB of RAM, and it might as well have no graphics card at all. It's a machine that was long ago relegated to backup status, good for word processing and Web surfing, and little else.

I streamed to the aforementioned 2006 MacBook just for laughs, but also to a more powerful Origin gaming laptop with an Intel Core i7-2860QM processor and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 460M graphics care. I tried the tech with a slew of games, running the gamut from slow-paced strategy to fast-paced action.

Europa Universalis IV offered the best experience by far. As a traditional strategy game, it's not particularly time-sensitive, so latency is manageable — and by manageable, I mean you just kind of deal with it. Moving the mouse feels sort of floaty, but overall the game is playable.

The same goes for The Stanley Parable. Even though it's a first-person game, you're not relying on twitch reflexes. The controls don't really feel quite right, because years of gaming have conditioned me to know exactly how game movement should react to my input, but you could sit down and play The Stanley Parable over your network and have a grand ol' time.

But what about "twitchier" games?

Just Cause 2 runs surprisingly smoothly for such a graphics-intensive action title. Again, not quite perfect, but I was grapple-parachuting around the island with ease. The hardest part — as you'd expect, if you've ever played a laggy multiplayer game — is shooting at enemies, but even that is possible once your brain adjusts for the latency. The game ran right around 60 frames per second without a hiccup. Star Wars Battlefront II — an older, less-intense game — performed similarly "well enough."

Assassin's Creed IV chugged at first, but it ran better once I dropped the resolution from 1920 by 1080 pixels to 1280 by 720 pixels. That resolution looked like muddy garbage on my host machine's monitor, but on that old MacBook screen the loss of detail was harder to notice. Plus, I was playing Assassin's Creed IV on a 2006 MacBook.

Far Cry 3 was the only game that was actually broken. It ran at sub-30 frames per second and was basically unplayable. If you've ever been in a slow multiplayer match and seen enemies "teleporting" around as the netcode catches up with their actual position, that was how it felt to play Far Cry 3. I'd walk forward a few feet and suddenly the game would decide I'd actually run off a cliff and fallen to my death. Not very fun.

Room for improvement
The weirdest thing about Valve's service is the way it handles latency. Every other streaming service I've ever used — Netflix, OnLive, Nvidia's Shield, Hulu — deals with service slowdowns by first degrading image quality. This is why movie frames sometimes turn into blocky pixels when you're watching Netflix films: It doesn't want to interrupt your viewing by rebuffering, so instead it dips the quality momentarily.

 

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