Sony Playstation Plus
Let’s start with the easiest-to-explain option. Sony doesn’t offer a huge array of services for its console, though PlayStation Now offers a streaming service that now has roughly 300 PS4 games (and hundreds of PS3 and PS2 games) to play with.
For everything else, it’s PlayStation Plus. For $10 per month (or less than half of that if you pay for a year), you get multiple online features including unlimited cloud saves stored away from your PS4, as well as the ability to play titles online. That said, there are a handful of games you can play online without a PS Plus account, like Fortnite, Call Of Duty: Warzone and Apex Legends.
PS Plus membership also adds some additional discounts for games, DLC and other add-ons. These are often major releases from months ago, or games that have a sequel coming soon.
The best part — what you’re actually paying for — is the free games offered each month. Since the start of 2020, that’s included Uncharted 4, Shadow of the Colossus, BioShock: The Collection and most recently, Call of Duty WWII.
Naturally, it depends on your own gaming tastes, but more often than not, they’re games you’d be willing to download and dabble with. If you continue to pay for PS Plus, all the games you add to your library (even if you don’t download them at that very moment) are available to play at any time.
Buy Playstation Plus (12-month) at Sony – $60
Microsoft Xbox Game Pass Ultimate
When it comes to Xbox’s current console, whether you own a One, One S or One X, there are several subscription options, but one option stands above the rest. Unfortunately — perhaps predictably — it’s the most expensive one.
The Game Pass Ultimate combines all Microsoft’s Xbox services into one offering. This means Xbox Live Gold (needed to play Xbox titles online with others) as well as access to a raft of both PC and console games.
Ultimate sweetens the deal further with free game add-ons and offers. At the moment, that includes a three-month Spotify Premium trial — which is a little unremarkable. More notable is the fact that you’ll save at least $5 compared to combining individual services we’ve detailed below. For $15 a month, you get everything Microsoft has to offer.
The Game Pass component grants access to over 100 games for the Xbox and means you can play games from Xbox Studios the same day as their global release. You can even preload it to your console so you’re ready on launch day.
The game selection changes over time — take this to mean some games will disappear. If you download a title and don’t play it, and it’s subsequently taken off the service, you’ll have to pay to play.
That said, a lot of major titles on Xbox are included in Game Pass, including Red Dead Redemption 2, Gears 5, The Outer Worlds, Forza Horizon 4 and more recently, games that are more typically seen on PlayStation, like Kingdom Hearts 3 and Yakuza 0. On top of all that, you can also play games on your Windows 10 PC through the Xbox app, and in the future you’ll be able to stream them to your phone with xCloud.
Buy Game Pass Ultimate at Microsoft – $15/month
Xbox Live Gold
This option is most like the PlayStation Plus, in that you’ll need it to play any multiplayer online games. Like Sony’s service, paying for Live Gold includes a couple of free games each month, called Games with Gold. Once you’ve downloaded them, and keep your sub running, you can play them any time. In the past, that’s included V Rally 4, Batman: The Telltale Series, Gears of War 4 and Metal Gear Solid 5.
It’s the most reasonably priced Xbox service, but it might not be the best. Let’s be honest the games aren’t as great as the PlayStation Plus titles, but that’s probably because there’s…
Buy Live Gold at Microsoft – $10/month
Xbox Game Pass
We’ve already touched on what you’ll get here: free games, immediate access to games from Microsoft’s own studios on launch day and even an array of Xbox 360 games from yesteryear, such as the original Red Dead Redemption.
Buy Game Pass at Microsoft – $10/month
Xbox Game Pass for PC
While you can play many regular Game Pass titles on PC, this PC-specific subscription takes the model and applies it to games that are made for PC. You’ll still have your Halo and Gears of War titles, but they’ll be joined by games like Pillars of Eternity and Age of Empires — you just need the app and a decent-enough gaming PC.
Buy Game Pass (PC) at Microsoft – $5/month
Nintendo Switch Online
Nintendo does things differently. The Switch console itself is a weird hybrid, less powerful than its console rivals, but playable with or without a TV. Nintendo’s service, which allows you to play against others online, launched months after the Switch first appeared, is also rather unusual.
Firstly, it’s only $20 a year. Secondly, its free games library (it still comes with one) is predominantly games older than most people headed to college at this point. At launch, Switch Online came with 20 classic NES games, and this has grown over time, joined by an arguably stronger selection of SNES greatest hits too. This includes games that still stand up to scrutiny like Super Mario Kart, Super Mario World and Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Seriously, play these games.
If you prefer your games a little higher-res, other titles have come free along with a Switch Online subscription, like Tetris 99 and Fallout Shelter.
Switch Online, however, is wobbly in places. Cloud saves don’t work with games that have a competitive element, like Pokemon, FIFA and Animal Crossing, with Nintendo claiming this system helps stop cheaters.
Don’t expect to pick up a Switch game library from this online service, but at $20, annually, that works out at less than two bucks a month.
Buy Switch Online (12-month) at Nintendo – $20