As streaming services prepare to reach their peak, we’ve decided to dive in, testing out Shadow from Blade Group, a streaming service that rents out a dedicated Windows 10 gaming experience. Here’s what we think so far with more to come over the course of this summer.
In a lot of ways, I’m the perfect target for a company looking to expand its services such as this. I’m against game streaming as a whole. To be honest, I abhor the idea that I no longer will actually own what I play, but rather, I’m loaned what I play. I hate the idea of not having the rights to a physical game and being able to play it without being connected to the internet. But you have to understand why.
I grew up in the age of Atari and the NES. I was raised in the 80’s, born in 85, and began my earliest adventures in gaming by the time I was six months old, clicking and clacking my way into games such as Super Mario Bros., Bubble Bop, and that all-time favorite of mine: The Legend of Zelda.
Over the years, I’ve stood fast against streaming services, feeling bad as I watch their approach come to an end, and abruptly cease to exist. While I felt bad for the employees, I didn’t feel bad for what their overlords were attempting to do, which is everything I stand against as a gamer. I was one who nearly wept at the death of instruction manuals, the scent of fresh papery-plastic pages, and the sound of the warning labels pulling apart when I removed them from the case.
Nothing gets better than that. I was also one who face-palmed when Sony purchase the streaming service Gaikai, knowing that they were only looking to expand PlayStation Now, before making it so that the games download locally into a cache folder of sorts. Still not a good move, backward compatibility would have saved the headache (oh, hey Xbox and PC gaming).
But now, here we are. Google Stadia is on its way, OnLive has disappeared, and Blade Shadow seems to have a lot to offer for those of us with low-end PCs or a PC that has died, giving us an alternative to enjoy the games we do, but at what cost?
What is Blade’s Shadow service?
Just what it sounds like. Shadow is a streaming service from Blade, which allows you to have your own PC, on their servers, and they allow you to do whatever you want with it (within reason), in order to play games, video edit, and even photo edit if you wish. You can fully install whatever you like, mods, photo editing software, and even video editing software – if you have the licenses for those products.
Along with that information, you also need a Microsoft account, you’re being leased a fully-licensed version of Windows 10 Home to use, and enjoy at your disposal (again, within reason). From there, the world is yours, and you can do what you want, with all the safety you can imagine at your disposal. This means installing whatever games you want, whatever clients you want (again, within reason), and enjoy the service as you wish.
From there, it’s a streaming service on their cloud, quite literally a cloud that you can enjoy at your disposal. But, at a cost, which comes in at a price we’ll discuss later in, as we don’t want to instantly make you turn away from what I have to say.
Now, let’s talk about benchmarked devices – not the Shadow.
As I was saying earlier, I’m the ideal customer. I live in Rural Oklahoma, an hour southwest of Tulsa, and almost an hour north of Oklahoma City. The nearest data center to me is down in Dallas, TX, a whopping 350 hike just over the hills to the south and a place I love to call my home away from home thanks to my QuakeCon family.
Our home internet is what you would consider ideal with a 5GHz Wi-Fi AC-2600 Nighthawk router, backed by a 200Mbps internet, with a 25mb upload speed. Not horrible, but it’s what you would expect for where I live and for the cost that we pay. While could go up to the 400mbps package, that means more tools for the trade and a significant boost to our costs in what we already play.
This means our ping is low, or should be low, and that our primary gaming machine is hooked up directly to the router, but for these tests, I decided to not use that machine as we know what it’s capable of. Instead, I opted for something lower end than the specs Scarlet has. A quarter of the hardware specs to be quite honest. No dedicated GPU, just a 2nd generation Intel Core i5-4340 clocked at 2.3GHz with 8GB of RAM.
The other machine I used for the test is half that strength, an HP Stream laptop, clocking in with only 4GB of RAM, 4GB of onboard memory, 1.27GHz processing power, and no GPU of any sort. So for my tests, these machines are adequate devices, allowing me to truly see just how powerful cloud gaming, with a latency of 15-20MS, actually is.
These machines can barely touch some games from five years ago, let alone games of today, and it’s unfathomable to think (no, my gaming laptop can’t even run half of 7 years ago’s games, so I left this device off to the side) that they could try some of today’s biggest hitters.
Here’s my experience so far, some of it not so great, the rest absolutely astounding
As all things go, my first test consisted of some low-end games, primarily titles such as the upcoming Ion Maiden from 3D Realms, Corpse Party: Sweet Sachiko’s Birthday Bash from XSEED Games, the recently released DUSK from New Blood Interactive, and lastly DOOM (2016) from id Software and Bethesda. Being I decided to test Shadow hardwired, my first test went as you would expect after nearly an hour and a half of setting up my software, getting my controller synced, and finding just the proper bandwidth settings for Shadow to use.
To be honest, I was astounded as I blasted my way through the terrorists in Ion Maiden, seamlessly blasting my way through countless hordes, watching their bodies splatter in mist when a grenade went off, and all of this in 1080p without a hitch. The same would go for DUSK. I’d play it from beginning to end without a hitch, finding the game to do just as I would hope, allowing me to blast, shoot, and bounce my way through every level within a few hours time.
Corpse Party: Sweet Sachiko’s Birthday Bash would play much the same. I’d go through every ounce the game had to offer without so much as a hitch. Graphically or performance wise. It looked as if I had installed the game directly on my Sony Vaio itself. However, unfortunately, due to the HP Stream’s limitations, I found using a service like Shadow was impossible.
The low-end specs, the inability to stream consistent 1080p video, and even the reliance on some system resources was too much for the poor PC netbook to handle. On the Vaio, however, I was impressed with how well Shadow continued to work, allowing me to bounce between games I’ve mentioned and a few I have not mentioned such as Dauntless.
Not everything went as planned with DOOM, but a restart seemed to fix it
Anyone that knows me, knows I’m a fan of DOOM. I’ve eaten, slept, and drank DOOM since the day I turned 10. But now, I noticed something off once I got the game to install (which worked flawlessly for those of you wondering). I noticed my video feed from Shadow began to change.
Things would begin to pixelate, not having that refined polish that I had come to expect from my adventures on our gaming PC I use for reviews and for streaming. Performance wise, my Shadow was eating right through the game at a rock-solid 200fps, only consuming about 10% of every core that the machine has available to it.
Here’s where things got a little worse. It was gritty, the controller would begin to stop responding, and when I switched to mouse and keyboard, it continued to perform as it were. Responses were delayed, sometimes not responding at all, and even forcing me to have my machine reboot itself through the controller interface.
After the reboot, things went back to flawless, I threw the game into Vulkan graphics settings, and off I went, once more blasting my way through the endless hordes of Hell itself. However, it made me wonder, if DOOM had this small issue, what would happen with other games that were older such as F.E.A.R. or even Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning?
Well, why not go one step further, and get something a bit more demanding such as Crysis or something reliant on fan-made patches such as Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines? So I did. That’s where things got interesting to say the least.
Let’s mod the games and see how they work
One thing I like about modding is very evident: Do whatever the Hell you want to your game. So, off I went, scrounging around both NexusMods and Moddb for whatever I could get my hands on. For Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines I’d grab an unofficial patch, which implemented a 1080p element to the game, fixed various bugs, and made the game more akin to that of what the tabletop/LARP has to offer.
After a bit of tweaking, I was able to get Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines up and running, allowing myself to run about, smacking, stabbing, or even using my characters cunningness to how I’d prefer to play. Impressively enough, it works, and it’s rather enjoyable for what it is. I was able to play, mod, and even get my games to play without a hitch, that included keybindings on both my keyboard and my mouse.
Performance wise, the game ran smooth, sitting at the games hard locked 60fps (not sure if that’s the unofficial patch or not). From there, I’d go to Crysis, a game known for being used as a benchmarking tool of sorts. After all, in its prime, no one could run it, literally, no one could run the game on its highest settings.
But here I was, quietly leaning back in my chair, playing Crysis from Crytek on the highest settings (1080p of course), without a single hitch. Minus the known crashes on Windows 10 x64. It was spectacular, but you know what would be more spectacular? An online game. A dedicated online game such as Quake Champions and or Dauntless.
Off I went again. This is where things got… Weird.
Online games, these will make or break a service, and this includes Shadow
One of the things about the current generation I’ve continued to make a ruckus about is our over-dependence of online infrastructures to enjoy the games we do. Many games are going towards the idea of Games as a Service, an approach that allows them to tweak their games as they need, ensuring that their games work how they wish them to actually work.
Booting up Quake Champions, thank you Bethesda for providing a code to the All-Access pass, I’ve been able to go even further with my experience. Booting it up was flawless, settings were detected on Ultra-High and on my way I went, except, there was a catch. It wasn’t running as flawless as I’d hoped.
Unlike DOOM, this one’s an online-focused title. Its sole purpose is to be an always-online arena shooter that fans can jump into at any given time. This is where the mess really began to show. I was hitting infrequent inputs, the lag would crop up, and the server ping wouldn’t match what I was actually getting to experience.
Unfortunately, some of this could very well be the distance (even with a 15ms ping) from me, to Shadow, to the Quake Champions servers. However, even with this hiccup, I’m determined to continue on, helping perfect this premium service, and to do that, I decided as of Monday (4/22/2019) to move to a mobile device.
Shadow’s promise is any game, anywhere, any device.
To keep up with what Shadow had to offer, it was time to turn my Sprint 4G LTE connection into a mobile gaming platform. For those of you, that must know, you can see up above, the speeds I get depending on the device I am on. My devices of choice were my Samsung S7 Edge and a Samsung Tab S2.
Now bear in mind, they highly advise a high-speed internet where ever you plan on going. Due to the fact I am in rural Oklahoma, in a small town halfway between two of Oklahoma’s largest cities, internet and LTE connections aren’t near as reliable as they would be in cities such as Chicago, San Diego, or even Dallas, where fiber internet and 5G are rolling out in waves.
Through Sprint, my 4LTE isn’t the best at all when reaching areas such as Dallas (as seen above). I get a rough connection of around 10-15mbps down, with a rough estimate of around 13-14mbps upload, with a ping of 39ms and jitter of approximately 15ms, bringing my total connection delay to around 54ms.
Because of this, gaming on the go isn’t ideal and is best left for when I’m in cities such as Tulsa or OKC, which support higher-end 4G LTE. Knowing that bit of information, I still went ahead and gave this option a whirl, downloading Shadow.
Just like before, I’d log in, able to toggle my onscreen Android keyboard, and onto Steam I went. Again, Bluetooth keyboard to enter my password for Steam (I’m picky about having my account saved anywhere) once again. Once done, I was ready to access my games, or so I thought.
There came the setup process. I’d have to sync an Xbox One S model controller to the tablet and my phone via Bluetooth and on my merry way. I highly suggest using a good set of headphones for this experience as it does help a lot when playing games such as Dead Space 2, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, DUSK, or AMID EVIL. Dauntless being another that worked rather well.
Surprisingly enough. I wasn’t hindered by such a tiny screen, believe it or not, it felt just fine, not too awkward, not too limiting, just right thanks to Steam’s Big Picture mode. I do suggest getting a blue-tooth keyboard if you plan on linking your tablet to a TV or something of the sort.
Even with these buttery smooth experiences, is it something that’s worth experiencing and putting your money down on at this time? That’s what we need to talk about.
I’m not fully sold on Shadow – yet
When it comes to the idea of not being able to use my old gaming laptop, an ASUS ROG G53SX-DH71, but, unfortunately, the GPU is out of commission anymore. While this is a great alternative, I’m not sure how I feel about in the long run. I love the idea of playing games in 4K, with minimal impact on my hardware, I like the idea of not having a huge hulking computer in my room, but if my internet is down? I like the idea of being able to play my games, I like the idea of them being ready as soon as I need them.
My only drawback? The 250GB of data storage, which truly, only lets you install 2-3 of today’s biggest games, and it leaves no room for anything else. But if that’s what you’re there for, then that’s what you’re there for. With the high-end Nvidia GPUs, Intel Xeon server CPUs, 12GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD. Nothing can really go wrong all that much.
But for now. I remain a skeptic, but we’ll see how that changes in the upcoming months as I ditch the idea of a super mega PC for this as a reviewing PC alternative for the time being. I’ll need to live with this alternative, I’ll need to feel it out a bit more, and before long, I really need to get into the nitty-gritty tidbits of what a PC-as-a-service option feels like moving forward.
Editor’s Note: Our membership to Shadow has been provided to us by Blade Group allowing us to go hands-on for an undisclosed period. We’ll provide more input about the experience over time.
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About the Writer(s):
Dustin is our native console gamer, PlayStation and Nintendo reviewer who has an appetite for anything that crosses the borders from across the big pond. His interest in JRPG’s, Anime, Handheld Gaming, and Pizza is insatiable. His elitist attitude gives him direction, want, and a need for the hardest difficulties in games, which is fun to watch, and hilarity at its finest. You can find him over on Twitter or Facebook.