Amazon Luna is live, and it’s already out-streaming Google Stadia


Table of Contents1 Cloud gaming, meet blast processing2 No ray tracing in these clouds (yet) Amazon Luna’s first strength, compared to the existing competition, is its incredibly clear sales pitch: pay a monthly fee to access streaming-only games on a variety of devices, with neither confusion as to whether something […]

Amazon Luna’s first strength, compared to the existing competition, is its incredibly clear sales pitch: pay a monthly fee to access streaming-only games on a variety of devices, with neither confusion as to whether something is console- or device-specific, nor whether it requires an a la carte purchase. Its second strength is its price-to-content proposition, offering 50 games in its current beta period at a $5.99/mo rate.

Instead of selling “performance” tier upgrades, like in Stadia or GeForce Now, Amazon has opted for a clever “channel” strategy. Think of how you access various movies and TV series on a streaming box (like, ya know, Amazon Fire TV). You pay Netflix, Hulu, and others a monthly fee, then visit their portals for specific content. Amazon Luna works the same way, with only Amazon’s “Luna+” channel available as of press time. Amazon has already announced that Ubisoft will have its own Luna channel, which will require a separate monthly subscription (price not yet confirmed).

Cloud gaming, meet blast processing

I can’t help but be impressed by this channel-based approach to game streaming. If Luna+’s $5.99/mo cost is representative of what we can expect from each channel, then that might mean a variety of $5-15 subscription options that users can pick up and drop whenever they please, based on the content available—and, really, this is what I wanted from Stadia from the get-go. Plus, Luna+’s seven-day trial is a solid period to estimate how well your ideal cloud-gaming setup runs with Amazon’s service.

Speaking of: what kind of performance can you expect?

I tested Luna through its dedicated Windows app (though it also works on most desktop Web browsers) on a computer with hard-wired Ethernet. The above gallery includes explainers about other supported devices. As of press time, it’s a solid-but-incomplete list, with iOS’ Safari browser making the cut, Android’s Chrome getting left behind, and only Amazon’s latest generation of streaming sticks and set-top boxes qualifying. (With no official Android app yet available, you’re currently out of luck trying to sideload Amazon Luna on other set-top boxes.)

My home Internet connection, served by Comcast in Seattle, maxes out at roughly 275Mbps download, 10Mbps upload. That’s decent enough for every streaming service listed previously in this article, and differences between each are arguably negligible. In my anecdotal experience, at least, I’ve found GeForce Now offers the snappiest controls and highest fidelity of the bunch, with Project xCloud standing out as an incredibly responsive wireless service (since it’s focused on smartphone streaming at this point). But they all exhibit bits of lag and image artifacting, if you look hard enough.

I point all of this out because Luna is, by and large, fine enough as a streaming option in its very first day of public operation. In particular, I have found that image quality from its 1080p feed is incredibly clear, even with fast-moving content.

But my “fastest” game demo, the 2017 “blast processing” rebirth of Sonic Mania, also exposed Luna’s struggle to produce consistent frames of animation. While the game looks quite sharp at any given moment, it rarely produces smudgy or blurry frames of animation; instead, the service has so far opted to drop frames entirely when it cannot keep up with bandwidth constraints. It does so quite sporadically, so catching it has been difficult, as opposed to some sort of constant or reproducible stutter. Sometimes, I’ve seen a few dropped frames in a single three-minute level. Other times, I’ve seen entire 10-minute stretches go by without a dropped frame.

With this in mind, I noticed the Contra Collection in Luna+’s library and immediately loaded it, since it includes difficult NES-era side-scrolling action. Would Luna’s frame-dropping issues lead to dropped inputs? Contra on Luna didn’t definitively answer that for me. If I moved my action hero to a safe spot and hammered the B button, I could consistently shoot my gun without any interruptions due to stutters. But once I resumed running and shooting, as per normal gameplay, I ran into multiple instances where my tap of either command simply didn’t translate to the game. (Result: I died a few times. I also died many more times by simply being rusty at Contra.)

No ray tracing in these clouds (yet)

The only other major caveat as of press time is that the most demanding 3D games on Luna+ right now, Control and Metro Exodus, do not include any options to toggle ray tracing—or, really, to toggle any PC-style visual options. I wasn’t sure what to expect, since Amazon previously confirmed that its Luna server stack would include Nvidia’s ray tracing-capable T4 GPUs… but those are from the Turing generation, whose ray tracing prowess isn’t quite as robust as this year’s Ampere line.

Skipping those computationally expensive effects as part of a wider streaming-service launch is ultimately unsurprising, to ensure crisp gameplay performance whenever possible. But it’s still worth noting—especially since GeForce Now’s paid tier includes selective ray tracing support in its games.

As far as button-tap latency is concerned, I used a slow-motion camera to measure the time between a button tap and an action in a streamed game. My recorded tests showed Luna neck and neck with GeForce Now, since I could directly compare Metro Exodus on both services as controlled with an Xbox gamepad connected via 2.4GHz adapter. GeForce Now consistently enjoyed a control-latency edge over Luna, though only about two or three frames’ worth, and that’s with a game running at 60 frames per second. In other words, Luna lost by only about 0.05 seconds.

GeForce Now enjoys a clearer victory in terms of general smoothness, on the other hand, since it doesn’t drop as many frames as Luna does for the sake of connectivity. Should this simply be an issue of Amazon needing to prioritize smoothness over fidelity, or at least offer that as an option, I’d gladly take a few more smudgy frames to be sure I didn’t miss a single Sonic jump on Luna. I hope Luna’s beta period irons this specific issue out before inviting more users on board.

Otherwise, the half-dozen 3D-powerhouse games on Luna+’s opening slate are all absolutely manageable to play with the mild frame-dropping issues I’ve encountered in the service’s first day. I have noticed a mild “slippiness” of input lag, more in Metro Exodus‘ first-person shooting than any other title, but Luna+ has wisely avoided any twitchy shooters out of the gate. Its emphasis on retro-friendly side-scrollers, on the other hand, is a bit curious, since these are so latency-sensitive… and don’t necessarily flex Amazon’s massive AWS muscles. (I’m also curious how Luna will scale with more users beyond this limited invite-only period.)

Unlike something controllable like a game console, your mileage with a cloud-gaming service, Luna or otherwise, will likely vary based on every variable in your home. What’s your average online connectivity like? How are Amazon’s servers in your part of the world? And does your favorite “gaming” room in your house include easy access to a wired connection so that you can avoid latency hiccups inherent even with 5GHz Wi-Fi bands?

That’s all a decent amount of friction. But from the look of things, Amazon Luna is at least making sure not to pile friction on top of that proposition, making anyone’s path to a seven-day free trial that much easier once the service opens wider to the public.

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