25/09/2020

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Nvidia GeForce Now review: Good cloud-gaming tech hits publisher reality check

At the beginning of February 2020 when this photo was taken, Doom and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition, as well as the Bioshock and Borderlands franchises were supported. By the beginning of March they’d been pulled over licensing disputes.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Nvidia’s GeForce Now cloud-gaming service has been available on the company’s Nvidia Shield streamer and was in beta for PC, Mac and Android phones for a while. But the version that launched in early 2020 was a scaled-back shadow of the full-featured prerelease version. The launch version lacked many options that made the service so appealing, including the ability to play games that weren’t officially supported. 

Like

  • Impressively stable gameplay
  • Doesn’t require that you buy new versions of games

Don’t Like

  • Your ability to play a specific game may be at the mercy of IP licensing contracts
  • Awful discoverability

Things got worse: Shortly after launch, big game publishers began asking Nvidia to remove support for their games, in at least one case claiming that the licensing contracts only covered the beta and not the commercial release. Until Nvidia resolves these issues, it’s hard to recommend GeForce Now, which otherwise delivers a great cloud-gaming experience.  

These are the major publishers whose games are unavailable on GeForce Now as of this writing: Activision, Bethesda Softworks, Blizzard, Capcom, Electronic Arts, Konami, Remedy, Rockstar Games and Square Enix. 

GeForce Now plans

Free Founders
Cost Free $4.99 (£4.99) a month for 12 months; free initial 90-day trial 
Availability Now Now. This is a limited-time offer based on system capacity. It will end once paying members start experiencing wait.
Quality 1080/60p 1080/60p
Perks None Priority access, RTX ray-tracing acceleration
Free games No n/a
Game discounts No n/a
Restrictions 1 hour per session limit 6 hours per session limit
Platforms Nvidia Shield, MacOS, Windows 10, Android; Chrome OS (early 2020) Nvidia Shield, MacOS, Windows 10, Android; Chrome OS (early 2020)

Even when Nvidia manages to get it all straightened out, the here-for-a-year-then-gone streaming business model for games you’ve licensed yourself will remain a problem: You don’t actually own any game with DRM that requires a store launcher or publisher login. When you look at comments about the service, you see a lot of people who pay $60 or more for games specifically to use with GeForce Now, either because they want to play on mobile or because they lack the system power necessary to play locally. If that’s your plan, don’t do it.  

There’s another big reason you might not want to use that strategy: price. At the moment, GFN has two tiers. You can play for free and or pay $4.99 a month for Founders membership. Nvidia hasn’t said how much the subscriptions will cost once it decides to sunset the Founders’ plan, or when it plans to do so. 

If you already own games you want to use with GeForce Now, on the other hand, there’s little downside and a lot of upside. That’s also true if you’re only planning to play free games such as Fortnite or DOTA 2. 

Like Google Stadia, Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass for PC (aka Project xCloud) and other cloud-gaming services, GFN renders and streams supported games from its data centers to phones, PCs and Macs so you can play on devices that might otherwise not be able to run them. One added benefit is you don’t have to deal with keeping the system updated or worry about stability.  


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GFN differs from those in that it works with games you’ve already paid for (primarily on Steam) rather than requiring you buy a special version of the game (like Stadia) or stream games from a particular subscription library (like xCloud or Sony PlayStation Now). It’s also similar to virtual machine services like Shadow; it provides you with an entire, persistent Windows system in the cloud (that you can access via phone as well as other devices), which means you can essentially play any existing Windows game.  That’s a more expensive solution, though.

How it works

You boot up the Android app, Windows app or Mac OS app — sorry, no iOS app for the forseeable future — find a supported game in your Steam library (or one of a few you’ve gotten directly from Ubisoft or Epic Game Store) and play. There are also about 50 to 60 standard free-to-play games. The app connects to the closest datacenter, which hosts the engine to render the games and stream them to you. Syncing and account management is handled by the respective services.

This is what it looks like when GeForce Now boots you out after the one hour limit is reached on the free tier and you start another session.


Screenshot by Lori Grunin/CNET

If you’re using the free tier, you can only play in 1-hour increments, compared to the 6 hours you get with Founders. You can have an unlimited number of sessions — launch back into the game — but you might not be able to get back in immediately since Founders are always ahead of you in line. The length of the wait is seems to be dependent on where you are and the time of day. The longest wait I had on the free plan (the northeast data center) was about 5 minutes, even at what I thought would be at peak gametime, but I’ve seen others mention longer wait times.

The 1-hour limit is fine for some games. It’s about how long I can survive in Don’t Starve. But, for example, that game usually invokes permadeath, and you can usually only force a loadable-in-future save while quitting, which is the last thing you want to do since there might be a queue to get back in. The only files you can save locally are screenshots and gameplay captures via the Windows Game Bar. 

To use GeForce now, you need a consistent connection of 15 megabits per second for 720p at 60fps and 25 Mbps for 1,920×1,080 at 60 frames per second. I got 1080p on desktop, while on a Razer Phone 2 it ran at 720p. It can generally run on almost any PC or Mac with a CPU or GPU that’s less than 10 years old as long as it supports DirectX 9 and has a 64-bit operating system or an Android phone with 2GB RAM, running at least Android 5.0 (Lollipop) or later, and support for OpenGL ES3.2 higher. (Here are the detailed system requirements).

In addition to jumping to the front of the sign-in queue, the Founders plan turns on RTX ray-tracing acceleration for use with games that support it. I could see obvious improvements in some of the lighting and reflections with it on for Wolfenstein: Youngblood, but nothing that vastly improves the experience of the game. 

But I was impressed with GeForce Now’s performance on the Razer equipped with a Junglecat gamepad and a Dell XPS 13 with an Xbox Wireless Controller — even over my generally meh home network, which usually makes cloud-gaming services gag. It’s hard to tell if the slight (but occasionally frustrating) response lag I experience in Cuphead, Yakuza Kiwami, Don’t Starve and others is the Bluetooth-connected controller, the game, the service or just me. Or all of the above.

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It’s also worth noting that every setup I play on, including on a full-fat gaming desktop via our lab Fios network over Wi-Fi, serves up random “spotty connection” errors and occasional degradation in the video quality. There’s been no audio dropout, which was an issue for me early on and can be a problem with cloud gaming. The impact on battery life was also decent, or at least not as bad as expected.

One of the biggest frustrations is Nvidia’s opacity about the games you can play on it, which is exacerbated at the moment by the number of publishers that have pulled out. There’s no complete list of available games as there was during the beta, likely because of the withdrawing publishers. For all but the highlighted games, you’re forced to search one by one through Nvidia’s bare-bones interface to see if a game is there. More annoying, when games are pulled, they silently disappear from your library with no notification or comment. Nvidia hasn’t published a comprehensive list of affected games, so you have to actively check the forum or Twitter feed for updates.

At its best, GeForce Now can be a seamless experience, nearly indistinguishable from playing a game installed on the machine in front of you. But even then, fast-paced first-person shooters are the most sensitive to network and backend issues, and more often feel just a few split-seconds off, enough to distract from the experience. 

If the game catalog was larger and one could be confident in games sticking around, it would be well worth a few bucks a month for access. But while we used to think the technical issues were going to be the service’s biggest obstacle, it turns out the business model was the hidden danger lurking around the corner the whole time.