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Testing: Gaming on the Nvidia Shield

By Norman Chan

How dedicated gamepad controls work on Android games and evaluating PC game streaming for different genres.

I've been testing the Nvidia Shield for the past three weeks, using it as my sole third-screen device (along with my desktop computer and smartphone). Shield is a high-concept gadget that is billed as part Android device, part game console. And at $300, it's priced accordingly. That's not pocket change--it's money that most people would otherwise spend on a tablet or a dedicated game console, but the promise of Shield is that it can fill the shoes of both without making compromises. At that ambition, it fails. Shield is neither a passable competitor to a tablet like the Nexus 7 or iPad Mini, or a recommended alternative to handheld game console like the Nintendo 3DS or PlayStation Vita.

We'll be discussing in depth its merits as an Android device in a future video, but today, I want to share my experiences using it solely as a game console. That requires breaking my evaluation down into three sections: the design of the physical controls, the Android gaming experience, and, most importantly, the state of its PC game streaming feature. Nvidia has pushed out numerous software updates to Shield since its release at the end of July, so my experience is indicative of Shield in its current state (as of the beginning of September), and addresses some of the early issues called out by early reviewers.

First, let's start with the physical design and feel of the controls.

Gamepad Design

Shield is big for a handheld, and its weight is noticeable. Though it may look like an alternate universe Xbox controller with a hinged 5-inch screen attached, it's substantially heavier in hand. At 580 grams, it's more than twice the weight of a wireless Xbox 360 controller and the PS Vita, and still heavier than the 3DS XL. Granted, that's because there's a lot of hardware packed inside the Shield, but it's something to consider when thinking about a handheld that you're going to theoretically hold for extended periods of time. The good thing is that its weight is sensibly distributed, with the bulk of it in the controller body and not on the screen. I could lay in bed and hold the Shield up with the screen flipped to 180 degrees and play for about half an hour before my arms got tired.

More important to the Shield's controller design is the layout of its buttons, triggers, and thumbsticks. We've said before that our favorite gamepad for PC gaming is the wired Xbox 360 controller, and Nvidia did its best to mimic that design in Shield without being a straight clone. A clone is what I would have preferred (legality permitting), because the Shield's controls fall short of the 360 controller in both layout and implementation. The directional pad and XABY buttons are just fine, but the thumbsticks and triggers both miss the mark. The analog thumbsticks on the Shield--positioned next to each other like on a PlayStation gamepad--feel noticeably looser than those on the 360 gamepad, and also have a significant dead zone in the center. I'm unsure if this is attributed to software or hardware, but my hope is that it's the former so responsiveness can be tightened up in the future. The index finger triggers also give more resistance than those on the 360 gamepad, and the shoulder buttons are a little too high up, in my opinion.

The biggest difference in feel between Shield and the Xbox 360 gamepad is in the relationship between the buttons and your natural grip of the controller. The Xbox 360 gamepad's grip is angled, so that your palm rests away from your thumb and index fingers. That lets your fully-extended thumbs rest naturally on the thumbsticks. On the Shield, the left and right grip is less angled (closer to parallel), so that your thumbs actually naturally rest above the thumbsticks, closer to the directional pad and the XABY buttons. That makes using the thumbsticks feel slightly more unnatural than on the 360 gamepad. It's a subtle ergonomic difference, but one that is noticed over time.

Android Gaming

Android gaming on the Shield is much more fun than on an Android phone or tablet. For the games that support gamepad controls, having a physical gamepad for directional movement makes a big difference whether I was playing a side scroller, shooter, or third-person action game. I've played Android games with a controller plugged into a tablet before, but the fixed gamepad here makes the experience much more seamless and enjoyable.

But gaming on Android is only as good as the games on the platform, and that selection still can't compare to what you'll find on 3DS, Vita, or even iOS. Two games are bundled with Shield--Sonic 4 Episode II THD and Expendable: Rearmed. The former is exemplary of a console port, which runs and looks great on the Shield's Tegra 4 chip, but the game was just not fun. Sonic moves too quickly and the game gives too little sense of your actions in the environments. Expendable: Rearmed is a good example of an Android game designed for touch controls and adapted for gamepad use. It was fun and easy to play, but undemanding and unchallenging. These two scenarios were indicative of almost all the games I downloaded from Nvidia's Tegra Zone menu: they were either console ports of games not necessarily designed for a 5-inch screen, or Android games that felt too superficial and better suited for casual play. Of the former, Crazy Taxi was probably the best experience I had with a port, and the zombie shooter Dead Trigger was the best Android-specific games to utilize Shield's controls.

As I said earlier, Android games on Shield play better than on tablets and phones, but this is not a device that you should buy just to play those games.

PC Game Streaming

The Shield's most notable feature is its ability to stream games playing on local PC. It's a feature that is technically still in beta, but is easily Shield's biggest selling point. Here's how it works. If you have a PC with an Nvidia GeForce 600 series video card with the latest drivers and Nvidia's GeForce Experience software, the Shield will recognize it on a local Wi-Fi network and be able to launch and play games from that PC. GeForce 600 series video cards have a built-in H.264 video encoder that processes video from the memory buffer for streaming, requiring no additional processing on the desktop side. The idea is that with a strong local Wi-Fi signal (Shield has a 802.11n 2x2 radio), Shield can receive compressed 720p game video from your desktop and send gamepad signals back to your PC without noticeable lag. So in testing PC streaming, I wanted to answer four questions: How does the streaming video look? Is controller latency noticeable? How does it perform on different wireless networks? And finally, do PC games play well on this form-factor? These questions were addressed by testing streaming with different game types.

Arcade Games

Officially, Nvidia lists around three dozen games that are supported for Shield streaming. These games, including new-ish titles like Batman: Arkham City, Bioshock: Infinite, Skyrim, and Grand Theft Auto IV, can be launched directly from Shield's TegraZone menu, regardless of whether they were purchased and installed in Steam or Origin. But as it turns out, there are plenty of uncertified games that work just fine as well, which can be launched using Steam's Big Picture Mode. (An updated community spreadsheet of supported games can be found here.) One of those games is Geometry Wars, which was a useful test for PC streaming. It's a two-stick arcade shooter that requires precise controls and response times in the higher stages, with lots of fast-moving objects and visual effects that don't stay static--meaning video compression has to be able to keep up with the action on screen.

Here, I could clearly see the limits of Shield's compressed video stream. The space background of the game looked more dark grey than black, and I noticed lots of compression artifacts in the particle effects, especially around the spiraling wormhole objects. The visual artifacts weren't enough to detract from my ability play the game, but it looked more like an HD video being streamed from YouTube than a game that was being rendered locally. The illusion that PC streaming is trying to create breaks easily when the screen turns fuzzy mid-game.

Geometry Wars looked more like an HD video being streamed from YouTube than a game being rendered locally.

Thankfully, controller latency wasn't a problem in Geometry Wars, and I was able to play without noticing any lag between my thumb movements and on-screen action. The thumbstick dead zone that I mentioned earlier was more of a hindrance for control, and I had to compensate by making more deliberate movements.

More of an issue was occasional network hitches, which I encountered on my 2.4GHz router at home. If the network connection wasn't strong enough (ie. not 3-4 bars of strength), the game would occasionally freeze for half a second while the signal buffers. It looked like a graphics hang that you would sometimes find when playing on a desktop PC, with the difference being that the game was still running on the desktop even though it was hanging on the Shield. That meant when the connection came back, the screen would jump ahead to the game's current state, which more often than not was after I had just died.

Overall, Geometry Wars represents a type of full-screen console game that transfers well to the Shield's screen size and handheld format, if you can get patch technical hitches.

Side-Scrollers

My next test was with side-scrollers, since they're suited for gamepad controls and are a staple of handheld gaming. Again, I went to games that are not on Nvidia's official supported list: Super Meat Boy, Spelunky, and Bionic Commando: Rearmed.

Super Meat Boy, which many reviewers had indicated was a game that they got running on Shield, didn't work for me at all. I could load the game through Steam Big Picture Mode, and the game would show up in full-screen on the Shield, but was unresponsive to the Shield's controls. This was the case on two separate PCs, and even after trying the recommended trick of plugging in other gamepads into my PC when booting up the game. I trust that other people actually got Super Meat Boy working, so my problem is indicative of the varied user experiences when streaming unsupported games on Shield. What works for some people may not work for others; everyone has a unique PC configuration. Just a glance at the first page of Nvidia's Shield community forum gives you a sense of the inconsistent experience people have with PC streaming--that's a reason this is still considered beta.

Spelunky and Bionic Commando: Rearmed, however, worked nearly flawlessly. In Spelunky, the 2D graphics looked great streamed to Shield, with almost none of the video artifacts I saw in Geometry Wars. The same was the case with Bionic Command, which admittedly is a slower-paced game, though rendered in 3D. Both of these games played well on Shield too--it's not surprising that medium-pace side-scrollers are suitable for handheld gaming. If anything, it made me wish that these games would be properly ported over to Android (with proper pricing); they're so much better than the microtransaction-based side-scrollers on Google Play.

Racing Games

The racing genre was up next--once again a type of game that's suited for gamepad controls, even when played on a PC. For this test, I ran DIRT: Showdown, a Codemasters game that runs on the same engine as its siblings Dirt 3 and Grid 2 (all officially supported). Once again, this game type ported smoothly onto Shield's screen and controls, and I actually had more fun playing this slouched on a couch and laying in bed than with a gamepad on my desktop PC. Racing games are perfect leanback experiences, and DIRT's large UI elements (like lap number and player position) made the game look natural on the 5-inch screen, even though it was designed for a PC monitor or living room TV.

Two things surprised me about my time with DIRT on Shield. One was how little visual artifacting I saw on screen, even though the game is very dense in graphical effects. I suppose that's because the number and color value of pixels changing from frame to frame technically isn't as high as on an arcade shooter like Geometry Wars--compression could keep up with DIRT's slow-moving skyline and vehicles shifting from one side of the screen to the other. And because streaming Shield games run at 1280x720, I was also able to crank DIRT up to its maximum graphical settings without dropping below 60 frames per second. On our test PC at the office, which runs on a GeForce 660 Ti, every single game I tested could be cranked up to its max settings with full anti-aliasing.

A notable caveat: Shield streaming is capped at 30Hz, which some people will notice (I didn't). Nvidia has said that its goal is still 60Hz streaming, and that the plan is still to enable that in a future software update.

First-Person Shooters

This is a genre where PC streaming to a 5-inch screen is technically capable, but practically inadequate. Once again, I was amazed by how good a game could look on a handheld, even if it was actually being rendered on a machine 20 feet away. Crysis 3 and Bioshock: Infinite booted up straight from TegraZone, without having to launch Steam Big Picture Mode. And once again I was able to crank the game graphics to their highest settings at 720p.

But both these games were very difficult (read: not fun) to play on Shield, because they just weren't designed for this small a screen. Bioshock's action is relatively fast paced--you're running and looking around for enemies at different heights and distances. But picking out and targeting those enemies on the Shield's screen was really challenging--I just couldn't move the right thumbstick fast or accurately enough to air properly. I actually had to turn on auto-aim to hit targets that were far away from me; they were too small to make out on screen. This is because these games are designed for larger panels where tiny character silhouettes can stand out more in the distance. That's why on handheld-specific shooters, like Android's Dead Trigger, enemies don't move quickly and are designed to fill up more of the HUD. Even in Crysis 3, a slower-paced shooter, I was squinting to make out details on the Shield, putting its screen practically right up to my face. I can't even imagine playing a multi-player or deathmatch game on this setup.

First-person shooters on Shield make for a good tech demo, but not an enjoyable playing experience.

Third-Person Action Games

Finally, I tested a third-person action game on the Shield--something I was actually in the middle of playing: Saints Row IV. In fact, over half of my total time with the game was completed on Shield, after first spending hours playing it with a keyboard and mouse on my desktop. Transitioning from keyboard and mouse controls to gamepad controls took a little getting used to, but of all the game types I tested with Shield, this was the one I had the most fun with. Third-person action doesn't require the same kind of precision as first-person shooters, and the third-person perspective is less demanding of twitch movements. Batman: Arkham City, Assassin's Creed 3, and Devil May Cry 5 are other games that I think will work well with Shield streaming.

Other Testing Notes

The five-inch IPS panel on the Shield is really nice, and on par with the best 720p displays I've seen on smartphones. Given the quality and bitrate of PC streamed video, Shield wouldn't benefit much from a 1080p screen.

Watching downloaded movies and Twitch.TV streamed games on the Shield was also very enjoyable, largely due to the controller base acting as a solid stand to prop up the screen.

The 28.8Whr battery in Shield is massive, especially compared to Android tablets and gaming handhelds. Power drain when streaming PC games was also surprisingly undemanding--about 10% for every hour of gaming.

I'm bummed that there aren't any granular settings for configuring streaming. No resolution settings, quality settings, etc. I'm sure this is to keep Shield as easy to use as possible, but I would like bitrate settings to let users tune streaming to their network. I wasn't able to uncover exactly how much bandwidth PC streaming requires--several users indicated 25mbps--but I suspect that's a bit high.

When PC streaming fails, it fails spectacularly. You can get stuck in Steam Big Picture Mode menus, reach blank screens without any recourse but to jump back to Android desktop, and have your desktop PC resolution left at 1280x720 even after you quit a game. There's no switching to Shield streaming mid-game, either--it has to be done when you launch the game.

I really disliked the configuration of Android home, back, start and volume buttons at the center of the Shield. The Start and Home buttons seem like they should've been swapped, and I kept accidentally hitting the Home button while in the middle of a game. The volume button also activates an on-screen slider for adjusting sound, though the shoulder buttons can be set up to act as volume controls. Dedicated volume buttons for next version, please.

Dolphin and PS2 emulators will work with Shield streaming.