If it's taken to its logical extreme, Google's Project Stream could revolutionize PC gaming.
This gaming initiative from Google allows, in theory, any computer — no matter how old or underpowered — to run top-of-the-line, big-budget games, provided they have a strong enough Internet connection. There was every reason to be skeptical of Google's claims, but having tried it for myself, I can say that it mostly works. And if it mostly works now, who's to say it couldn't completely work in the not-too-distant future?
In case you're just now reading about it for the first time, the key to Project Stream is right in its name. Instead of rendering a game on your computer, which requires a tremendous amount of graphical and processing power, Google runs the game somewhere on a server farm, and you stream it more-or-less instantaneously to your own machine.
To be sure, it's not the first service of its kind — GeForce Now and PlayStation Now do almost the same thing — but Project Stream is one of the most ambitious, by virtue of testing a brand-new, extremely demanding game: Assassin's Creed Odyssey.
Project Stream is currently running an open test for a limited number of users, in which they get to play Assassin's Creed Odyssey, free of charge, in its entirety, until Jan. 2019. The only hard-and-fast requirement for streaming the game is an Internet download speed of at least 15 Mbps, somewhat less than you'd need to stream a 4K video.
Buy Assassin's Creed Odyssey on Amazon.com (opens in new tab)
I tried Project Stream on my gaming rig and, unsurprisingly, it ran just fine. But that wasn't really that interesting to me; my desktop has a powerful Wi-Fi card, and can run Assassin's Creed Odyssey just fine without having to stream it. Instead, I decided to put Google's "stream on almost any machine" claim to the test.
The ship of Theseus
Since we're discussing Assassin's Creed Odyssey, let's talk about the philosophical problem called the "Ship of Theseus." Theseus sailed a mighty ship to Knossos in order to slay the Minotaur. The Greeks decided to immortalize the ship by putting it on display. But over time, the sails deteriorated, the wood rotted, the metal rusted and so on, with the caretakers replacing each piece. At what point is the repaired ship no longer the original ship of Theseus?
That's my laptop, a Lenovo G550, in a nutshell. I bought it in 2010, after my aunts (correctly) pointed out that it was time to retire my old college laptop, which was loading websites about as quickly as the Antikythera Mechanism.
For a while, it ran well. And then, it ran less well. And then, it started getting just as sluggish as the machine it replaced. But I can't get rid of it it just yet, partially because I'm saving my money for other things; partially because I've replaced every part of it piecemeal, and I'm intent on getting my money's worth out of every $6 power cable and $40 battery pack.
In other words: There is no way, in my wildest dreams, that I would ever be able to play Minesweeper on this old clunker, much less Assassin's Creed Odyssey. If I tried to install the game from Steam, the computer would probably self-destruct in protest.
Project Stream performance
But I did play it, and there's even video proof. The setup process was extremely simple: I visited the Project Stream website in Chrome, logged into my Google account and my Ubisoft account, plugged in my Xbox Controller, and booted up the game. That was it. From there, all I had to do was select "New Game," just as I'd done on my PS4, and dive into the Animus to explore ancient Greece.
The only thing that gave me trouble was the 15 Mbps download speed requirement. Having an ancient computer also means having an ancient Wi-Fi card. I tried on both my work and home networks, but I could not get the G550 to run Project Stream wirelessly for love or money. Even plugged in with an Ethernet cable (which Google recommends), my streaming quality was inconsistent. Sometimes I'd get resolutions approximating 720p, while other times, everything looked blurry and indistinct.
Combat was also a bit on the laggy side, with critical split-second delays between my commands and Kassandra's execution. If I had been performing late-game assassinations instead of first-level combat tutorials, I would have been spotted and killed before you can say "."
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And yet, for all that, I was actually playing a modern blockbuster PC game on a laptop that usually struggles to open Microsoft Word. Since the limiting factor seemed to be my Internet speed rather than my PC's specs, I could even theoretically invest in a USB Ethernet or wireless adapter and have a much more faithful Assassin's Creed experience.
A long way to go
To be fair, while Project Stream impressed me with its sheer boldness and basic functionality, I don't think I'd want to play the entire game this way. The lag was noticeable, as was the game's choppy performance and low-res appearance.
Even on my gaming rig, the game seemed to max out at 720p with limited textures. Having played the whole game and seen just how gorgeous it can be, that's hardly the ideal way to experience Assassin's Creed Odyssey.
And yet, Project Stream is still very much in its early stages — and I tested it on an unusually underpowered machine. The idea isn't to be able to play games flawlessly on hardware purchased during the Peloponnesian War; it's to bring AAA games to the average consumer who doesn't want to drop $1,000 on a gaming rig. Based on early impressions, I think Project Stream may be able to just that. Fine-tuning the visual experience can always come later.