The exaggerations have increased and fallen in the games in the cloud several times in the past, but has never been so hot as now. Google's announcement of its Stadia platform is the strongest statement of intent so far for a company with the resources to be a major player, while Microsoft's xCloud service will be revealed soon.
The usual questions about bandwidth requirements and business models remain of course. Google is not telling anyone what or how you will pay for the games in Stadia. Many people still prefer to buy physical games through digital downloads, even if they are lucky that internet speeds or limits are not a problem. And particularly in the United States, with its enormous land mass and distributed population, poor Internet connectivity can definitely be a problem.
But it's not like this technology is out of reach everywhere. I live in Japan, where fast Internet access is ubiquitous, and I've played several renowned AAA games that run completely in the cloud. This has been happening for a while: Square Enix released a streaming version of Final Fantasy XIII for the iPhone in 2015, for example. And now, game publishers in Japan are beginning to combine cloud gaming technology with what could be their perfect device. The Nintendo Switch is not powerful enough to run many high-end recent games on its own hardware, but it's a stand-alone portable system with all the controls you'd expect to find in a full-sized console controller. And, of course, Wi-Fi.
Capcom was the first to transmit an AAA game to the Switch with a version of Resident Evil 7 last May, but that was more than a year after the game originally hit the shelves. The biggest release so far is Ubisoft Assassin's Creed Odyssey that hit the Switch store in Japan the same day that retailers started selling their copies of PS4 and Xbox One, giving players a unique opportunity to experience an AAA game for the first time through streaming technology. (It's worth noting that Assassin's Creed Odyssey was also the title used in Google's Project Stream test last year, suggesting that Ubisoft is particularly open to taking its games to broadcast platforms).
Both Odyssey and Resident Evil 7 runs on the GameCloud transmission technology of the Taiwanese company Ubitus; Ubitus has been in Japan for a while, originally launched a cloud version of the Dreamcast classic Sonic Adventure for NTT Docomo in 2011. With the popularity of the Switch and the prevalence of high-speed Internet in Japan, This should be as close as possible to the best possible scenario for the transmission of games. So, with Stadia and xCloud in the making, I decided to play Assassin & # 39; s Creed Odyssey for myself and see where the current state of the art is.
The benefits of cloud games for a system like the Switch is obvious. There's no way the system's mobile class hardware can represent software like Odyssey with anything like the fidelity of a PS4, and the 45-50GB game does not even fit on a game card Switch or in your internal storage. In fact, you could argue that the GameCloud version of Assassin's Creed Odyssey is the Switch's most attractive game.
My biggest surprise was how sensitive the game felt. . Assassin's Creed is not exactly Street Fighter III but its combat system is fast enough that any unpredictable delay makes the game impossible to play. And yet, that has not been a problem for me. According to Japanese standards, the Internet configuration of my home is not impressive (I have a 100 Mbps fiber optic connection and three Google Wi-Fi Internet access points), but playing Odyssey on the Switch is as good as a game of PS3 with an occasionally patchy frame rate. Which means that while I do not want to play something like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice in this way, I think it's good enough for many games.
However, Ubitus seems to have prioritized that responsiveness over image quality, even more than other cloud gaming platforms. Sometimes Odyssey looks great, but in dark scenes, or when you move quickly, or when there is a lot of foliage, that is, the same moments that could pose problems for a video on YouTube, in other words The quality is broken. The colors also look strangely flat everywhere. And you should make sure you're close to your router, since even my mesh network served its purpose in the notoriously weak performance of the Wi-Fi Switch when I tried to play on the roof.
Image quality is not good It is not known in the switch, of course. Innumerable sets of Doom to Xenoblade Chronicles 2 dynamically reduce their resolution to maintain performance, sometimes with alarmingly blurry results. Assassin's Creed Odyssey usually looks better than in those cases, especially when played in hand mode, because the visual elements of the source are clearly of high quality and the perceptible resolution does not fall as much low. But at the beginning, it's strange that you play, it's as if you had control of a Twitch transmission instead of a game that is being generated in front of your eyes.
However, it's undeniably great to have a portable version of Assassin's Creed Odyssey that I can play in bed. I would not buy it through the PC or console versions, but for people who only have a Switch, I do not think it's a terrible purchase … except that the price is crazy. The version of the game based on the cloud is sold by the MSRP of the standard version of 9,072 yen, or around $ 80, and that does not mean that it is the owner, that single price only gives access to 730 days.
I do not really know a Switch owner who is OK with this price structure for an expensive game that requires a good Internet connection and comes with a two-year expiration date. It is possible that there are only Switch owners who are especially interested in this game and who prefer to check it before buying a PS4, but I think that most people who are specifically interested in Assassin & # 39; s Creed should probably buy a PS4. The advantage of games in the cloud is that you do not have to buy expensive hardware; I'm not sure that many people get carried away by the high prices to rent software.
The cloud version of Assassin's Creed Odyssey feels like a technical achievement; sometimes, I even forgot that the game was not running on the local hardware. The low latency is impressive, the quality of the image seems solvable in the short term and, in general, I could see myself watching games in the cloud at least as a test. But there's no way I can recommend someone to buy a full-price transmission game that self-destructs after two years, no matter how good the technology is.
Seeing what the collaboration between Nintendo, Ubisoft and Ubitus has achieved in Japan, it is difficult for me to question the long-term potential of cloud games, at least for some titles. I also believe that Google and Microsoft have the technical skills to make their services work for an important audience. The difficult part will be finding out what price is worth paying.