Amazon's Cloud Gaming Is Still a Work in Progress, but It Has Potential

Illustration for article titled Amazon's Cloud Gaming Is Still a Work in Progress, but It Has Potential
Photo: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo

When Luna works it handles games as effortlessly as a local computer. That’s a pleasant surprise for someone like me who is generally skeptical of cloud gaming platforms but has come to embrace them over the last year. After many, many hours of playing games on other platforms like GeForce Now, Shadow, and Stadia, and seeing how well they handle cloud gaming, I was a little more hopeful with Luna. There are many things about this fledging cloud gaming service that I love, like the controller, but also some things that I don’t love so much, like network performance: one of the main pillars of any successful cloud gaming platform. Luna has a ways to go before anyone would feel 100% justified spending any amount of money on its service. I think Amazon may have rushed the beta a bit when it could have taken the time to learn from Stadia’s mistakes.

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Luna is still in a limited beta, so I expected there to be some glitches here and here, but not as many as I did. Because Luna is only available to a select number of users at the moment, I won’t be diving into latency tests or anything like that until it’s fully launched. But I have spent enough time with Luna to say it has the potential to be another good option for anyone who wants to ditch their gaming PC or console. Provided it can fix the network issues that plague it.

I hope Amazon doesn’t change much about the Luna controller itself because it’s fantastic. I’m not one to fall in love with a controller because they’re usually designed for bigger hands, but I was pleasantly surprised at how comfortable the Luna controller was in my hands. The buttons and thumbsticks are laid out like an Xbox controller, but its overall size is smaller. I was able to wrap my fingers all the way around the back and my thumbs and index fingers didn’t feel like they were stretching a bit too far to reach all the controls. It’s honestly the best controller I have ever held.

Like the whole controller, the buttons themselves are sturdy and have a firm but gentle click when you press down. The purple accents around the bottom of the thumbsticks are also a nice pop of color against all that flat black. Compared to Google’s Stadia controller, it’s way more attractive. (Subjectively, purple is a better color than orange.)

Unlike the Stadia controller when it first released, Bluetooth is enabled on the Luna controller out the box, although you most likely will need to install the Luna controller driver on your PC or Mac before you are able to use it. Setting the controller up with FireTV or on your phone is much more seamless because there are no other extra downloads required aside from the Luna controller app, and once you power on the controller, it’s instantly connected. You can also use the controller to navigate through all other apps included with FireTV, which is a nice extra perk.

Because Luna is still in beta, there’s no option to share screenshots (although you can link your account to your Twitch account and stream directly to that), and you’re stuck with 1080p and an “auto” sound setting. No 4K resolution or 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound. I imagine these features will be available in the future for an additional fee, though; To get 4K resolution on Stadia, you have to have a $10/month Pro account, otherwise, you are limited to 1080p and lower. It’s totally plausible that Amazon might do something similar with Luna.

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Like GeForce Now, Luna has stand-alone PC and macOS apps, as well as web support for iOS. You can also use it directly in your Chrome browser. The only thing it doesn’t have at the moment that its competitors do is Android functionality, which is a shame because I would have liked to see how it ran on my phone rather than just on my PC and MacBook Air.

All that finally brings me to performance: How is it playing on Amazon Luna? Well...playing games during across the morning, afternoon, and evening hours was interesting—and by interesting I mean it’s probably best if Luna stays in beta for a little bit. There are still a lot of kinks to work out. Compared to how GeForce Now and Stadia run on my PC and MacBook Air, which is near-perfect, I encountered much more pixilation, lag, rubberbanding, warped sound, longer loading times, and unresponsiveness to my inputs—even with a super-fast download speed. But things get stranger still.

I had some issues trying to walk around in Control.

Every time I fired up a game in Luna, my internet speed would tank. Where I usually get at least 200 Mbps on 5.0 GHz wifi, that number would drop to 100 Mbps or lower within seconds of launching a game. That’s something I have never experienced with GeForce Now and Stadia. But 100 Mbps should still be more than enough to run games on Luna without a hitch, right? Especially since Amazon says the recommended minimum speed is 10 Mbps?

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Not really.

Switching to another computer closer to my router (like, almost literally right next to my router) helped alleviate some of the issues I was experiencing. It didn’t completely get rid of them, but it made the games playable. (Only switching to an Ethernet connection made Luna work seamlessly.) GeForce Now and Stadia gameplay from this computer was the same as on my PC in the other room, so that tells me whatever is going on is more likely a network issue on Amazon’s end rather than on my end.

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Luna could be too data-hungry right now, causing bandwidth saturation, when all available bandwidth in a given direction is utilized by a large upload or download. (Many GeForce Now users experienced similar issues a few years before its official launch.) This would explain all the issues I had when trying to use Luna from a specific PC. Cloud gaming is naturally data-hungry anyway, capable of consuming as much as 10 GB per hour at 1080p depending on the game. It’s possible the games on Luna are using more data than what is normal. Thank goodness that I don’t have a data cap! If you do definitely wait until the beta has resolved the issue.

I ran into the same lag issues with my 3rd-gen FireTV stick, although not as severe. But any time the connection dropped, the connection to the Luna controller was lost too. Luna would say it reconnected the controller to the cloud, but no amount of button mashing would get my character to move on-screen nor bring up a pause screen. I had to back-out of the Luna app with the home button on the FireTV remote and basically hard-restart the game.

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The issues I have right now with Luna are annoying, but largely because this isn’t the first, or even second, cloud gaming platform to launch, and you’d think Amazon would have learned from the mistakes of others. A bad beta launch aside, I’m actually kind of excited about Luna. I am concerned about what the subscription price will be after Luna officially launches since the $6 a month price is not set in stone, but as long as it’s not more expensive than Stadia or even Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, it has a strong chance of retaining users because of its channel subscription model. Performance consistency absolutely needs to be addressed first though, as I suspect most users would want to play Luna wirelessly with a controller instead of on their PC via Ethernet. But if Luna can build up its base library to at least the equivalent of Stadia’s and implement a screenshot sharing feature in addition to that, it has a good shot of attracting lasting users faster than Stadia.

Staff Reporter, Reviews at Gizmodo. Formerly PC Gamer, Maximum PC.

DISCUSSION

genejacket
Gene Jacket

It’s...ok, I guess. I should preface by saying that I haven’t tried the Luna channel yet, but I already have Ubisoft+, so that’s what I’ve tested both through chrome and with the dedicated windows app and have had more or less the same issues as Joanna.

Initial load times are insane to get into a game, but once you’re in they’re as fast as playing off a nice ssd. The video stream is super compressed and muddy looking. It’s not awful, and looks good once it’s buffered and you’re standing still (say, in AC Valhalla) but in motion it’s rough. Audio is compressed but I didn’t experience any glitches or anything. It’s less than ideal, I don’t know what the bitrate is, but it seems to be around 128 or slightly higher, so it’s fine. The input lag has definitely been the worst part, for me. In Valhalla, it’s annoying but I could see myself getting used to it since the game doesn’t require precision. I tried playing Far Cry 5 using M/KB and it was utterly unplayable, so controller is definitely recommended. All of this stuff should get worked out, but it is weird that Luna entered beta with the same issues that Stadia had 2 years ago in its beta.

Speaking of the controller, it’s pretty nice! My XB1 controller has been having some issues of late and I’ve been thinking about replacing it anyway, so once I got into Luna I went ahead and got controller. It’s your standard XB/Switch Pro controller layout, though the sticks and face buttons are slightly smaller than the XB controllers (they may be that way on Switch, but I don’t have one to compare), but not so small as to be annoying. If you’ve seen pics of it, you’ll see that the face is matte black, while the grips are a lighter shade, and it turns out that’s because the backside of the grips are covered in a slightly rubberized texture that feels real good to hold. I haven’t used it enough to break it in just yet, so the buttons all have some real solid resistance and a nice tactile click when pressed...we’ll see how long that lasts. My only real complaints about it are 1. The stick clicks, which are so light that you’ll likely hit them constantly without meaning to, and 2. The bumpers/triggers, the former of which are positioned closer to the edges (if you’re holding it, they actuate in the middle of your finger rather than the tips), and the latter of which just have zero resistance, are super short, and have no travel. Again, I’ll get used to it and it doesn’t ruin anything, but I’m so used to the XB1 controller that it feels weird...but the accents and lighting on it are purple, so that’s an automatic win for me.

I’ll keep checking it out periodically to see how it’s shaping up, I’m super into the idea of cloud gaming, but no one has nailed it just yet...hopefully Amazon can get the issues worked out sooner rather than later and in a few months Luna kicks all kinds of ass.