PlayStation 3, now.
Sony's game streaming service, PlayStation Now, is live on PlayStation 4. Using technology acquired from its purchase of Gaikai in 2012, Sony's made it possible to play retail and digital PlayStation 3 games on your PlayStation 4, something the system couldn't do before. Though PlayStation Now will work on a slew of devices, including the PS Vita, Sony Bravia TVs and Blu-ray players, PlayStation 4 is the first device to graduate out of beta status, and our early tests indicate that Sony's off to a great start.
PlayStation Now can be used in two ways: monthly subscriptions and individual game rentals. There are currently two subscription tiers that offer unlimited access to over 100 PlayStation 3 games; you can spend $20 for a single month subscription, or save $15 with a three month commitment for $45. If you want a taste of PlayStation Now before committing to a subscription, Sony also offers a free weeklong trial.
Rental pricing is more complicated and it varies from game to game. This is because publishers ultimately have control over pricing and rental periods. In most cases, expect to pay $2 for a four hour rental. Most games offer 90 day rentals for $15 or less, but there are a handful that come in at higher price points. Oddly, racing games seem to be the most expensive of the lot. Nascar '14 costs $40 for 90 days, MotoGP 13 will set you back $30 for the same period, and F1 2013 costs $50 for 90 days. Some games, such as XCOM: Enemy Within, don't offer 90 day rentals at all. It's also the most expensive game per day at $30 per month.
Because you're streaming games over the internet from Sony's servers, it's imperative that you not only have a good internet connection, but also that your network at home is up to the task. According to Sony, you need to be able to download data at a rate of at least 5 mbps. Anything less and you may experience choppy audio and video, rendering some games unplayable. You unfortunately can't control your geographic location, which can have an effect on the number of hops the stream has to make before it lands in your living room. According to Sony, this shouldn't be an issue for the "majority of users."
I tested PlayStation Now on a wired network connection rated at 35 mbps and on a Wi-Fi network rated at 10 mbps. Given that GameSpot's office is in a highly populated area, and not too far from SCEA's San Mateo headquarters, it's a good bet that there's a data center nearby. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that PlayStation Now works really well, even on Wi-Fi.
We have data centers distributed all over North America, so the vast majority of users are within close distance to at least one data center. - SCEA Support
I can't say that I had high hopes of games both looking and playing well, but they did, including latency-sensitive games like Super Street Fighter IV Arcade Edition, which felt every bit as responsive as I needed it to be. Granted, I don't play on a competitive level, but I play enough Street Fighter to understand the speed and rhythm of certain characters, and favorites like Ibuki, Ryu, and El Fuerte felt the same as they always have, even on the technically slower Wi-Fi connection. I also put Final Fantasy XIII and Motorstorm Apocalypse to the test, and apart from a couple of audio glitches, I didn't experience anything that I would consider a barrier to my enjoyment. It was also difficult to identify any difference in performance between our wired and wireless network tests.
Does that mean PlayStation Now is a seamless experience that's as good as playing games straight from a disc? It may be close, but it's not the same. Every game we played exhibited video compression artifacts; groups of blurry pixels that result from Sony reducing the bit-rate of a raw video feed so that it's fit for streaming online. However, it was noticeable, but not overwhelming. The effect was most notable during scenes with predominant mid-tones, but generally speaking, the quality of Sony's video stream is adequate, even if it's not as good as the real thing.
If you're worried about online multiplayer, fear not, because it works exactly as it would if you were playing on an actual PlayStation 3. Whether there are still people playing older games online is another discussion, but on Sony's end, its done a good job of preserving the experience you have with an actual PlayStation 3, compression artifacts aside.
From a technical perspective, Sony's made PlayStation Now a service worth considering. It works as promised, and there are a lot of great games just waiting to be played. Is this something that every PlayStation 4 owner needs to take advantage of though? The simple answer is "no," but I'm willing to bet most people will at least end up renting a game at some point down the road. It's hard to ignore the appeal of having so many games at your fingertips, especially if you never owned a PlayStation 3 or you sold off your library of games to upgrade to a PlayStation 4. For the cost of lunch, you can rent a game for a week, all without leaving your home. Of course, you could also track down and purchase pre-owned physical copies of some of these games and keep them forever rather than for just a few days. If you have a PlayStation 3 and don't feel the need to shelve it just yet, then that's probably the better route to take, but for the PlayStation 4 owner without ready access to Sony's last console, PlayStation Now is a service worth looking into.
It's hard to ignore the appeal of having so many games at your fingertips, especially if you never owned a PlayStation 3.
There are downsides to relying on an always-connected service. You may find yourself in a situation where you've rented a game for a day and Sony gets pummeled with traffic from people trying to overwhelm its servers, potentially making PSN, and PlayStation Now, inaccessible. This happened during the course of our tests, for example. Some people don't blame Sony, but it will be interesting to see how customer service reps respond to people that feel as they've been cheated in some way, even if the issue didn't originate from Sony.
While I won't be subscribing to PlayStation Now on a long term basis, I do plan on using the rental service. There are simply too many great games there that I haven't played, and in my case, there's no room for the PlayStation 3 near my TV. The convenience of streaming, which also negates nasty blu-ray-to-hard-drive installation times, provides instant gratification at mostly reasonable prices. For the moment, PlayStation Now is a solid addition to PlayStation 4. If it can resolve its network stability issues, resurrect older PlayStation libraries, and perhaps integrate a version of the service into PlayStation Plus, Sony could take a major step forward that Microsoft and Nintendo would find hard to match.