There have been rumors for months that Google was planning a gaming platform that would stream over the internet, and then Google just announced Project Stream last week with no fanfare whatsoever. This invite-only test of Google’s game streaming technology comes with free access to the new Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey until the test wraps up early next year. I’ve been playing with Project Stream for the last several days. It’s impressive for an initial test, but still clearly a test. It might be the way you play games in the future, though.
Getting Set Up
Project Stream runs entirely inside the Chrome browser, so it should work on almost any computer. Similar to game streaming services like Nvidia’s GeForce Now, Project Stream doesn’t render the games on your local machine. Instead, all the heavy lifting happens in the cloud, and you just get an HD video stream of the game. Your control inputs get streamed back to the server running the game instance, and the results come back down.
Google says on the sign-up page that you need to have at least 25Mbps of download bandwidth, but as we’ll find out later, there’s a little wiggle room there. Since the test only runs a single game, you’ll need a Ubisoft account as well. It’s a good idea to make this ahead of time. To gain access, you have to request an invite from Google and wait for the email.
You can play Assassin’s Creed with your keyboard and mouse. You could even use a trackpad on your laptop if you really hate yourself. It’s better to grab a supported game controller like the Xbox One controller for Windows.
Playing a Game
While the sign-up page suggests 25Mbps, that’s just a general benchmark for what your ISP claims you’ll get. Many connections are a little slower in practice. You need a sustained download speed of 15Mbps to the Project Stream servers — this might vary based on your location. You also need ping of less than 40ms and packet loss under 5 percent. If you clear all those hurdles, you can advance on to the game. However, you need to perform this test every time you connect to Project Stream.
Once that’s done, the game loads in the browser. You’ll be prompted to enter full-screen mode, which hides all the browser UI elements. This is the full version of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey with Ubisoft online features and (regrettably) microtransactions. The Stream version comes with 1,000 Helix credits, which is enough to buy the XP boost add-on. You should do that. The only thing that’s “missing” is the settings menu for graphics — the game runs at high settings on Google’s servers, so there’s nothing to change on your end.
I’m not going to get in-depth on how good or not good the new Assassin’s Creed game is, but I will say it’s pretty similar to last year’s AC: Origins. There are some minor improvements to the leveling system, combat, and dialog. It starts in 431 BCE on the Greek island Kephallonia before expanding to most of ancient Greece.
The game understands a keyboard and mouse or a game controller, but you need to connect the controller before booting. Even using a wireless controller, I don’t detect any control lag compared with playing a game locally. Since this is essentially an HD video streaming to your computer, Google can adjust the quality on the fly to keep the game responsive. That’s more important than always having the best visuals, so things can get a little weird sometimes. My PC reports the stream uses under 10Mbps most of the time.
When your connection is good, AC: Odyssey on Project Stream looks great. The game has all the fancy visual effects enabled, and there’s an acceptable level of detail. If you really scrutinize it, Odyssey on Stream looks more like a video than a locally rendered game. On occasion, Project Stream pops up a notification at the bottom, telling you that your connection is too slow. When this happens, the video quality will drop a notch and get a little fuzzy. This is especially noticeable in dark areas of the game — it looks more compressed, and edges get soft.
If your connection ever drops, even for a second, Project Stream immediately kills the game session. That means you could lose progress, and you need to go through the connection check again to start playing. On the plus side, your progress lives in the cloud. You can log in with any computer and pick up where you left off.
I used Project Stream on a desktop PC that would have no trouble running the game locally. The gaming PC would have rendered the game better, but that’s not the intended use case. I also played Odyssey on a Chromebook, and it worked just as well as the powerful desktop PC. That’s what makes this approach so cool. Sadly, Project Stream doesn’t work on phones. You can get pretty close if you request the desktop site, but the “Play” dialog doesn’t work.
This is just a test of Project Stream, but it’s already surprisingly solid. I’ve played the game at what I assume are peak times in the afternoon, and it works as well as it does later at night. Although, the throughput is sometimes right on the border between full-quality and not good enough. I have a fast connection at home, so Google is probably rationing bandwidth so everyone can play.
Project Stream could be the first game streaming platform that actually makes sense. It works on anything that can run Chrome, and Google is good at video compression. The fuzzy video when your connection slows down is bothersome, but not surprising. It’s certainly better than anything you can manage running a game locally on a general-use laptop.
Where Google could really make its mark is with non-computer devices. Imagine if you could use Project Stream to play high-end games with a Chromecast on your TV or on your phone. That’s where I hope this technology ends up, but Google will have to cope with the realities of internet access. Many consumers are stuck with capped plans that limit how much data they can download. If you have to stream all your games, that could quickly put you over the cap.
Project Stream is free right now, but getting people to pay for it is another thing entirely. The current test runs through January 2019. The final version, if there is one, will launch at some point after that.
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