Thoughts on the Nvidia Shield TV Pro

Or, An Idiot’s Guide to Local Gamestreaming

Having recently built a new PC, I was frustrated with the lack of an easy way to play games from that machine (in my office) on my living room TV. I tried using SteamLink on the TV itself, which was a working solution but found the performance to be pretty poor; poor enough to stop me from using it altogether.

Amazon.com: NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV Pro 4K HDR Streaming Media Player;  High Performance, Dolby Vision, 3GB RAM, 2x USB, Works with Alexa:  Electronics

As a result, I tentatively splashed out on an Nvidia Shield TV Pro. It’s a box that can play all your streaming favourites (Netflix, iPlayer et al) and also stream games from a PC on the local internet using Nvidia’s proprietary Gamestream software. The USP of the shield is Nvidia’s homemade AI Upscaling technology which will take a lower resolution image and increase it to 4K using magic AI algorithms (or something). I bought the box from Amazon on the condition I could return it if things didn’t work out. Long story short, I did keep the Shield but using it has been such an experience I felt the need to write about it. There’s a lot of articles out there espousing the Shield as a top-of-the-range steaming box, but surprisingly little on the range of issues that accompany it.

Fair warning, this is an article aimed at people seriously considering getting a Shield, people currently wrestling with one, or nerds. It’s going to get technical so abandon faith all ye who enter here.

My first impressions of the box were very positive. The UI was snappy, a delight in comparison to my TV’s built in software. The remote control was ergonomic and the whole thing had a quality feel. So far so good.

I immediately ran into problems when I started to use Gamestream. I tried to play Immortals Fenyx Rising from my PC on the TV and the game could not be detected. Thus began my first foray into the sprawling and esoteric online Nvidia community. After a little research, it turns out you can add games manually to the Geforce Experience windows app which will then become available to play on the Shield. Once I had done this, it worked pretty well.

Immortals Fenyx Rising is Ubisoft's over-the-top take on Breath of the Wild  – and it works | TechRadar

However, it raised the question: why wasn’t the game automatically detected (unlike some others that were)? There were vague allusions on forums to some games being “Gamestream Optimised” but I couldn’t find any official word on that. Did these secret “optimised” games run better on Gamestream?

At this point it seems a good time to mention that there is pretty much no online documentation for the Shield – AT ALL. There is a “user guide” on the Nvidia website which amounts to “plug it in and hope for the best”. The GFE Windows app helpfully links you to a now defunct page: originally supposed to be a list of Gamestream optimised games, it now shows games available on Geforce Now (related conspiracy theory detailed below). The scant information that is available is spread in an internet breadcrumb trail between Nvidia’s clunky forums and reddit.

Further problems arose when I tried to improve my Gamestreaming experience using the settings in the app. There isn’t much to play with, essentially just resolution and max bitrate. Once again, I was left puzzling over what “resolution” actually meant to the app, for it didn’t always output the requested resolution. Sometimes it explicitly told me my requested resolution wasn’t available. I could even change the resolution of the settings directly in the game I was playing – what effect did that have?

(If anyone is stumbling upon this article trying to solve that particular riddle: it turns out that Gamestream has the ability to change both the resolution of the monitor being streamed, and the in-game settings (as long as the game is on the sacred, secret “officially optimised” list). So the Gamestream will do its best to output the resolution you have asked for. This is actually quite a cool feature, if only it had any signposting)

Speaking of monitors, one of the most bizarre quirks I have run into is the inability of the Shield to intelligently stream the screen that the game is playing on. In fact, for my unmodified (very standard) dual-screen setup, Gamestream exclusively streamed the wrong screen. I have delved deep into this one too and can provide the peculiar explanation here, which is one of the most mind-blowing pieces of programming oversight I’ve ever witnessed (and I used to be a very bad software developer myself).

How to Setup a Dual Monitor Display - Chillblast Learn

Here goes: A GPU has a specific order it checks for connected screens in order to display the startup info for a PC, and the BIOS menu if you activate it. For Nvidia cards this is VGA > DVI-A > DVI-D > HDMI > DisplayPort. As far as I can tell, this is hardcoded and not customisable. Now, Gamestream will ONLY stream the first one of these that your PC has connected. This also cannot be changed.

In my case, my main screen (used for games) is connected by DisplayPort and a secondary screen connected by DVI. The GPU hits the DVI screen first and therefore, when it is connected, that is the ONLY screen that Gamestream will show. This can be solved by unplugging the second screen and restarting the PC, but I don’t want to do that every time I want to Gamestream!

A further arcane mystery of the Shield ( I’m getting to the end now, I promise) is how AI upscaling works. I’ll skip to the explanation on this one, but needless to say the UI itself doesn’t signpost this at all and I only found THE TRUTH after more forum crawling. Essentially, when AI upscaling is active any input below 4K will be scaled up to 4K using Nvidia’s algorithms. This means that you can improve your streaming by asking for a lower resolution and letting the box upscale it. This applies to all possible inputs (Youtube, Netflix) but the results I’ve seen have been mixed. There are a variety of unexplained settings to accompany this that I have yet to master.

In a strange twist, from forum posts I discovered a separate, third-party app called Moonlight which seems to be objectively better than the native Gamestream app in every way. I was surprised other apps were even allowed to connect to a PC with Gamestream enabled but here we are. The Moonlight app has more settings to customise, and they are more clearly explained. I have solved many of my problems by using the Moonlight app and I’d encourage anyone experimenting with Gamestream to try it out.

Moonlight Game Streaming - Apps on Google Play

To sum up, using Gamestream on the Nvidia shield is not a plug-and-play experience. It’s more of a plug-and-spend-two-weeks-poring-over-three-year-old-reddit-posts experience. And sitting here as I am, at what I hope is the end of my saga, I am left wondering why is Gamestream – one of the flagship features of the device, heralded prominently on its Amazon page – so shit? 

Don’t worry, internet wisdom has got the answer. Basically, Nvidia has ended up competing with itself with its Gamestream (local game streaming) and Geforce Now (internet game streaming) services. And you have to pay for Geforce Now. So perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the former list of Gamestream games has been replaced with a Geforce Now page. Perhaps the apparent neglect of Gamestream is an intentional ruse to drive gamers toward the paid Geforce Now service. Of course, this is all conjecture and there has been no official abandonment of Gamestream support, but in light of the removal of the official list of Gamestream games Nvidia’s silence is conspicuous. If this tinfoil hat theory is true, it’s a very shady move from Nvidia; they use Gamestream as a selling point for the Shield. Indeed, that’s specifically why I bought it and inadvertently wandered into the mess described above.

And yet, despite all of this, I would actually recommend the Nvidia Shield to users looking for a premium experience. Content streaming platforms like Prime Video are well optimised and can be upscaled if you like and, when it’s working, the game streaming capabilities are exactly what I’ve been looking for.

Watch Dogs: Legion Review

To begin with the good, Watch Dogs: Legion’s rendering of London is quite phenomenal. The iconic areas are suitably recognisable and some of the less well-known parts are still true to life. I have found myself recognising streets that I used to run down and feeling nostalgic about pubs once frequented. The streets teem with a diverse population that makes London feel alive and realistic. There have been reports of poor performance on PC but it runs well on my admittedly beefy machine *humblebrag*.

WD:L is an open-world action game set in a near-future London, which casts an underground resistance movement against authoritarian forces wrestling for control of the city. The player will use cameras, traps, drones and an incredibly useful spiderbot to take down those who seek power.

The flagship feature of WD:L is the “play-as-anyone” technology. It is possible to recruit any NPC to your ragtag team of resistance fighters, and it works fairly well. After completing a couple of procedurally generated missions, the character is now yours to control and comes with their own unique skills and abilities. This is good fun and the visual variety in “agents” is tremendous, but the downside of this effort is there simply isn’t enough voice-acting to go round. This leads to repeats and awkward dialogue. For these reasons, the story (wisely) doesn’t hang on the player character at any point and is carried by supporting characters. However, the occasional inclusion of the player character rarely works.

The moment-to-moment gameplay in WD:L is fun, but can be repetitive and, on the default difficulty, too easy. Each scenario almost always involves infiltrating a building. With upgrades easily obtained in the first hour of play, you can do this using drones and your trusty spiderbot without ever entering the building. On the occasions when the player is needed in-person, it’s trivial to “neutralise” all the enemies patrolling the area before you breeze through a corridor of corpses. Despite DedSec’s vague ethos of non-lethality, there is no punishment for hacking a drone with a machine gun and mowing the guards down.

When the player is required to do some shooting themselves (how last-century!), the mechanics are competent but sometimes buggy. Due to some interaction between the crouch, cover and gun systems I was, more than once, left pulling the trigger but no bullets were coming out. Frustrating in clutch situations.

While moving through the world of Legion I can’t help but miss the sense of fluidity that comes with other open-world games, most notably Ubisoft’s own Assassin’s Creed. WD:L feels a little stunted in comparison. This seems intentional, as the game encourages more calculated, careful strategies for problem-solving but when this turns out to lack much flair and creativity it ends up feeling awkward. Fingers crossed for Assassin’s Creed Valhalla next week.

The most interesting combat occurs in the pseudo-boss battles which involve holding a point against waves of incoming enemies using all the skills at your disposal. It is very satisfying to defend a point while a download is happening with a swarm of drones helping you, some of whom have been hacked moments before to turn on their masters. Not to give too much away, but the final boss is a fun spin on this which, while not entirely awe-inspiring, felt appropriately climactic.

The city of near-future London is thoroughly enjoyable to explore, but there’s very little incentive to do so. Available to be collected we have ETO (in-game currency) and Tech points (used for upgrading skills). ETO can only be spent on buying new clothes. Perhaps this belies a sad lack of imagination on my part, but I have no interest in customising the look of a character (they already look wacky enough!) so the ETO is literally worthless. The Tech Points unlock and improve skills, which are shared between all agents. This is more-or-less the extent of progression in WD:L. I unlocked most of the skills I used after a few hours, so there was little need to seek out more (plus you are rewarded with them for completion of story missions!). When I identified Tech Points late game I simply ignored them if they were even slightly out of my way.

The small remainder of the game’s progression is built into the Agent Recruitment system. Some agents have unique skills and skills that improve the whole team, such as faster recovery from injury. This is very light and the combination with Tech Points means you don’t get much out of exploring the world except for its own sake.

The story is where the game is at its weakest, rolling out cliche after cliche about the dangers of technology, governmental oversight and authoritarian ideologies. To be fair, the conclusion of the parallel narratives was gratifying, if heavy-handed. It’s always nice to see an ideologue die by the sword that they lived by. However, the overall tone is so up-and-down as to be almost offensive. It is possible to have your street-magician character, adorned with pink LED-illuminated jacket and top hat, helping to free victims of human trafficking or modern-day slavery. The game can accidentally, though inevitably, make light of some very dark and important themes.

Additionally, so predictable is the story that when the third-act twist was revealed, it was something I had thought was assumed from literally the opening sequence of the game. And I had been skipping through the boring, stunted dialogue.

As a native to the north of England myself, it struck me as odd how much this game treats London as an island, its own sovereign state. There is literally no mention of how the game’s events are affecting other parts of the country. Are they also under the control of technocratic authoritarians? I realise this would only really bother Brits, but as London-centric as things in the UK tend to be, even this was extreme. It broke the immersion because this was so clearly a marketing decision – London holds much more capital on the world stage than Liverpool or Birmingham, so they were just ignored completely. Also, to be picky, there were a few annoying non-britishisms that snuck into the script. I’ve been a british nerd my whole life and have never attended a “science fair”.

Overall, Watch Dogs: Legion is an enjoyable but bland romp. I have to give it credit for having something to say, I was just luke-warm on the execution. Generally, this is one that can only confidently be recommended to fans of the series. To everyone else, you might be better off finding your open-world kicks elsewhere.

Northern Powerhouse Ep 1 and 2

Northern Powerhouse Episode 1:

Downloadable from this link:
https://jakeharrisweb.files.wordpress.com/2018/07/northern_powerhouse_e01.wav”

Northern Powerhouse Episode 2:

Downloadable from this link:

https://jakeharrisweb.files.wordpress.com/2018/07/northern_powerhouse_e02.wav”

Top 5 Games of the Year

As we all know, this has been an incredible year for playing videogames. Despite not being an industry professional, I have tried to play as many of them as I can. The games on my list are the cream of a very strong crop.

To that end I feel the need to mention a couple of close runners up. The Dishonored 2 DLC, Death of the Outsider gets a very important shout out; the game distils what made the series great into arguably the best product of the bunch. Secondly, Heat Signature was an indie game that got a relatively quiet release but is an incredibly fun roguelike in a roughly similar vein to FTL. Honestly, Heat Signature was the closest to making the top five and if I’d had a little more time to play it it could have been up there.

Finally there was the much maligned Middle Earth: Shadow of War. I seriously thought this game was amazing. I am a big fan of the (admittedly crowded) open-world genre, and SoW does this very well with the glorious cherry on top being the nemesis system, constantly bringing new and interesting enemies into your world. No game this year gave me the “where did those six hours just go” feeling like SoW as I was clearing out strongholds, assassinating orcs and just having a jolly old time. It would have no doubt made the top 5 if it were not for the atrocious final act, which effectively has you play the same tiresome mission 20 times. You read that correctly: 20 times. In each repetition the enemies become more difficult in a shamelessly ham-fisted attempt to encourage players to buy loot boxes. If the game had just stopped before this final act it would have been great but I found it to be so offensive that my opinion of the game as a whole was irreparably damaged.

With all that out of way, lets get down to the business of the stuff that did make the list:

5. Assassin’s Creed Origins

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I debated long and hard with myself about whether AC:O would be up here, but after completing my 20th hour in the game I decided it was on.

The reasons not to include AC:O are numerous: it’s just another AC game; traversing the world can be tedious; the main storyline is lacking. Nevertheless, Ubisoft have changed enough about the game to really make a lot of it work. The complete overhaul of the combat system is more engaging than the former Arkham-style and the upgrade tree, while a little sterile, is satisfying and empowering. The game really shines when clearing out one of the “bandit camps” or “military bases”, in which you employ all the tools at your disposal to clear out an enemy outpost.

AC:O has done enough to scratch my Ubisoft-open-world itch in fresh ways this year to make it onto the top 5 list.

4. Stardew Valley

While not technically released this year (came out last year on PC), I had been waiting a long time for SV to be released on Switch, and I was not disappointed.

The game is ported to Switch well, and is perfectly suited to mobile play. Bringing back nostalgia of playing Harvest Moon on GBA, SV provides a deeper experience than any Harvest Moon game that I’ve ever played. It has farming, dungeon crawling, crafting, fishing and a relationship sim all wrapped up in a charming visual and audio package. The scale of the achievement is underlined by the fact the game was made by just one person!

I haven’t spent as much time as I would have liked with SV, but I am in no doubt it has earned a place on this list.

3. Super Mario Odyssey

As the follow-up to Mario Galaxy 2, Odyssey had a lot to live up to. Not only did it succeed, but added to the series in new and amazing ways.

Every moment playing Odyssey is a joy, the movement control is flawless and the level-design is top-notch. The frequent acquisition of moons gives you a constant feeling of progress. Super Mario Odyssey is a fantastic game and I would argue the best platformer of all time.

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SM:O would probably have made its way further up this list if it had held me a bit longer than it did (I fell off at about 400 moons, feeling I had gotten everything I could from the game) but nevertheless is a ride that I am delighted to have taken.

 

 

2. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Having played every mainline Zelda game but never really getting gripped, I have always felt like something of an outsider when it came to the series. This all changed with BotW, which drew me inescapably in within moments of entering its vibrant open world; BotW uses everything in its power to create one of the finest pieces of game design I have ever seen.

The game teaches its sometimes complex mechanics without ever resorting to a tutorial. A careful drip-feed of knowledge from NPCs combined with playful encouragement of experimentation teaches players how to live and survive in the world. Sight-lines have been carefully considered so when you finally reach that distant glowing shrine, two more, plus a mysterious lake, are visible. Unique combinations of unrelated in-game mechanics frequently yield useful results.

Aside from the wonderful design, the game looks beautiful and really sold me on the Switch when I first bought it. The characters are charming and the world dense with wonder and excitement.

BotW is certainly not without flaws – the non-existent end game and lack-lustre DLC offerings to mention a couple – but no game has transported me back to the feeling of gaming as a child like BotW.

1. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds

A quick and horrifying calculation revealed to me today that I have spent 12% of my waking hours playing PUBG since I purchased it in April. This just about sums up the impact it has had on my life.

The issues and problems with PUBG are well-documented, from lag to bugs to performance, but despite this the light of its wonderful core concepts shine through. While far from the first to tackle the battle royale genre, PUBG – by either luck or design – brought together all the necessary factors into the prefect storm of a game.

Long periods of quiet looting punctuated by moments of abject horror and glorious victory form the addictive loop of this game, with the drip feed of dopamine just enough to keep you coming back.

I wrote at length about PUBG back in May, and my feelings for it have only intensified since then. I have never seen anything quite like it.

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