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Shadow: Cloud Gaming Has Arrived

Gareth Harmer Posted:
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For those who’ve covered gaming for a while, we all remember the horror stories. On Live, Gaikai and others promised us a future without consoles, where we’d play games streamed direct from the cloud. But it didn’t work out - prices were high, quality was low, and our internet was generally too crap to handle it.

Times have changed, and there’s now a new kid on the block. Shadow, a reasonably new service by French company Blade, promises to have cracked the cloud gaming problem. We were pretty impressed with a demo at Gamescom last month, and so we agreed to put the service to the test. Would this new tech deliver remote-play MMO gaming?

Surprisingly, the answer is mostly yes. I tested Shadow with a mix of games, on a variety of internet connections, and a range of devices. Each time, I was able to strike a balance that meant we could play comfortably, whether it’s at 1080p on an Android smartphone, or 4K gaming on meatier wifi. It’s only when I pushed Shadow beyond pure gaming that problems occured, as I’ll reveal.

Inside Shadow’s Paris datacenter

Setting Up

Unlike previous services that worked like a console, where you’d have to buy games before being able to play them, Shadow takes a different approach. After subscribing, I got access to a remote Windows desktop that I could set up however I liked. Download Steam, install the Blizzard launcher, or something else entirely. It’s even possible to use it for CPU or GPU-intensive tasks like 3D modelling. Just no bitcoin, please.

The test Shadow virtual machine came configured as an Intel Xeon E5-266 CPU, running 8 cores at 3.2 GHz. This was coupled with 12GB RAM, a 256GB SSD, and an NVidia GTX 1080 - enough to max out most games comfortably at 1080p, and even push into 4K gaming. I’m told that storage can be increased up to 1TB for an additional monthly fee.

Because it’s in a datacentre, the virtual machine also boasts some incredible internet connectivity. Blade offers the Shadow with a 1Gbps download link and 100Mbps upload, which meant that heavyweight MMOs took a ludicrously short time to download. My own connection to the Shadow service was also respectable, coming in at an average of 30ms regardless of connection.

There is one caveat, and that’s with the local internet connection. In order to stream with very low latency, the video stream is only very slightly compressed. Dip below the 15mbps recommended minimum and those lossy algorithms mean that video and audio quality can tank. I also found that the automatic bitrate feature wasn’t entirely accurate, and ended up setting it myself after looking at speedtest results and doing a bit of fine tuning.

That said, I’m very fortunate that my home internet connection is rated at 350Mbps. I can also easily get 40-50Mbps over 4G on my smartphone with less than half strength signal. In an attempt to see how far I could push Shadow, I even spent some time time testing it with a lower quality 16Mbs ADSL connection in a mix of Wifi conditions, and still managed to achieve a stable session. Despite all this, your mileage may vary depending on the quality and stability of your own connection.

Gaming Performance

In order to get a feel for MMO performance, I started out by testing World of Warcraft. Installing the Blizzard Launcher was very easy, and downloading the game took less than an hour on the Shadow’s 1Gbps connection. I skipped configuring any addons, and went straight into Orgrimmar.

To my surprise, everything worked. In a capital city at 1080p with all the settings at maximum (the ‘10’ preset and Fullscreen Windowed), I got an expected 30 frames per second. Out in the wilds that framerate would soar, just as with a regular gaming PC. The inputs from my MMO mouse were also detected and recognised correctly, making the switch feel seamless.

But the real eye-opener was in my connection from Shadow to WoW’s servers. Since Blizzard’s datacentre is also in Paris, I managed to get an unprecedented 2ms latency to the Aerie Peak EU realm. No wonder it all felt incredibly responsive, despite the latency between my own laptop and the Shadow.

It was a similar story with Destiny 2, although this uses a slightly different server structure. While shooting Fallen wasn’t as quite as satisfying as playing it directly, it was incredibly close. The service also worked with bluetooth controllers on a PC (as expected), Macbook Air, and even on my Android Smartphone (OnePlus 6) over 4G.

To simulate more real-world usage, I installed Steam and downloaded Planet Alpha, a gorgeous and rich platformer that I was part-way through reviewing. By using the Shadow service, I was able to continue working while tethered and when visiting family, even though the connection was at the minimum level required.

That’s not to say that the Shadow service was flawless, as there were a few a few tell-tale signs that I was playing on a streaming service. Firstly, regardless of the bandwidth level chosen, I’d occasionally get a light audio pop. Visually, playing at 1080p was almost clean, but pushing up to 4K would create some visual distortion on lower bandwidth settings particularly during heavy movement.

I also attempted to use some of Shadow’s in-beta features, but these again caused problems. A new USB-over-IP service cialms to be able to stream a microphone and webcam up to Shadow so that they can be used by OBS or similar to broadcast. Unfortunately, these services wouldn’t work on my desktop PC despite repeated attempts. Using a Yeti microphone with my MacBook Air did work, but there was some distortion present despite having a 20Mbps upload connection. I’m hoping that these features improve over time, as I would love to use the service as a remote platform for broadcasting to Twitch etc.

Pricing & Conclusion

In order to keep latency down and performance high, Shadow is only available in limited countries in Europe, and limited East and West coast states in the US. For a no-commitment monthly subscription, prices work out at $34.95, £26.95 or €44.95 for the spec of Shadow virtual machine we tested. That also includes access via Windows, Mac and Android clients, and I’m told that an iOS version is currently in beta. The firm is also working on a set-to-box called Ghost, which we’re told will cost less than the cheapest laptop on the market.

Compared to the price of a similarly-specced gaming rig, Shadow does represent good value, especially if the firm maintains its pledge to keep updating the service with new technology. But it’s the uses beyond being a simple desktop or laptop replacement that interest me more. With Shadow, I can play my existing library of games anywhere I can get a good enough 4G signal or wifi connection, and without needing to invest in a heavy/bulky/expensive gaming laptop.

For me, Shadow is proof that cloud gaming is almost ready to hit prime time, and it’s a service that I’d seriously consider using for those times when I’m not working at my desk. But it’s also clear that Blade needs to work out some of the kinks, particularly if they want to pull in legions of streamers who want flexibility about where they perform. Ultimately though, as a service that lets you play almost any PC game with only a cheap laptop or smartphone, Shadow does the job very well indeed.


Gareth Harmer

Gareth Harmer / Gareth “Gazimoff” Harmer has been blasting and fireballing his way through MMOs for over ten years. When he's not exploring an online world, he can usually be found enthusiastically dissecting and debating them. Follow him on Twitter at @Gazimoff.