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Is Apple’s M2 MacBook Air Any Good for Games? That depends how serious you are about AAA titles, performance, and price.

 

At WWDC 2022, Apple claimed everything is coming together for Mac gaming. Apple’s Senior VP of software engineering Craig Federighi said the company’s in-house silicon “changed everything” by giving Macs the power to “run the most demanding games, with ease.” He then claimed the Mac’s popularity provides an opportunity for developers—before the event tried to seduce gamers with reveals of upcoming AAA titles.


But what is the reality of Mac gaming, and can Apple’s latest consumer laptop—the M2 MacBook Air—cut it as a device for people who want to play the very best titles? The answer is: It’s complicated.


In this article, we dig into casual gaming (where Apple fares well), before tackling the thornier territory of AAA titles. Our test unit was an Apple-supplied M2 MacBook Air (8-GB RAM/512-GB SSD/10-core GPU, so not quite the entry-level model). We made regular use of external controllers, including a Sony DualShock and a GameSir T4 Mini, which connected without hassle.


Apple Arcade and iPhone games

Some gamers dismiss Apple Arcade, but it has a solid selection of titles, including mobile classics optimized for all Apple kit. The games veer toward simpler fare, but remain compelling on desktop. You’d have to be grumpy to not enjoy interactive cartoon Sneaky Sasquatch and gorgeous platformer Oddmar.


There are deeper experiences, too, such as racer Gear.Club Stradale and adventure Beyond a Steel Sky. These push the hardware more than other Apple Arcade titles, but not to a degree that would concern any M2 Mac.


Apple silicon Macs also run iPhone and iPad games—if a developer provides express permission for Mac users to do so. Many don’t. If you’ve bought platform game GRIS on iPhone, you’ll need to buy the Mac version to play it on your Air.


The user experience is mixed with touchscreen games that haven’t been optimized for Mac as fully universal apps. Multitouch input doesn’t come across well. Gamepad support is haphazard. The experience can be solid, but you have to find the right games. Puzzlers Baba Is You and Dungeons of Dreadrock work well on the keyboard, for example, and Asphalt 9’s breakneck racing is great with a DualShock.


Streaming and emulation

Just as digital replaced discs and cartridges, streaming now threatens to eclipse digital game purchases. On a MacBook Air, streaming solves key problems. Because servers do the heavy lifting and the Mac only interprets input, computer specs and architecture are irrelevant. And that brings more games to the platform.


Screenshot of Xbox Cloud Gaming software on MacBook

Xbox Cloud Gaming APPLE VIA CRAIG GRANNELL

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Firing up AAA titles on Xbox Cloud Gaming in a browser is eye-poppingly impressive if you’ve been around the gaming block. There are downsides: a touch of lag, along with some visual fuzz and dropped frames. That would be a bigger issue on a large external display, but didn’t unduly bother us on a 13-inch screen.


Screenshot of Antstream Arcade on MacBook

Antstream Arcade APPLE VIA CRAIG GRANNELL

Entertainingly, a streaming service exists for exploring the other end of gaming history: Antstream Arcade has hundreds of classic titles, along with leaderboards and bespoke challenges, like taking on Space Invaders with a single life. Despite the games being old, the service still requires a fast connection to avoid glitches.


Emulation is another option for playing old games. A Raspberry Pi 4 can play Sega Dreamcast titles without blinking, so you’d expect an M2 Mac to go much further. The snag is that relatively few emulators exist for Mac. Fortunately, there’s Redream for Dreamcast, and the superb and user-friendly OpenEmu supports a slew of older systems, especially in its “experimental” incarnation.


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Should you head into more modern (and shakier legal) territory, things are more variable. Our Xbox emulation tests resulted in frame rates all over the shop. ARM-specific PS2 emulator AetherSX2 was better, despite the odd visual wobble. If you want anything newer, go and buy an actual console.


The Snags With Native Mac Games

Modern Macs not having Intel inside complicates things for native games. It’s no longer (relatively) little effort to port Windows titles to a far smaller market that traditionally hasn’t cared about games. So plenty of developers (regardless of size) don’t bother—and there weren’t that many in the first place.


At WWDC 2022, Apple crowed about No Man’s Sky and Resident Evil Village coming to Mac later this year. But it’s hard to get too excited when the former landed on Windows in 2016 and might arrive on Switch before Mac. Resident Evil Village is more recent, but still over a year old.


Space is an issue too. When you do find new AAA games fully optimized for Apple silicon—er, basically Baldur’s Gate 3—or that work in Rosetta, they can be huge. Take three tested for this feature: Combined, Baldur’s Gate 3, Metro Exodus, and Shadow of the Tomb Raider claim over 190 GB of disk space—or most of an entry-level M2 MacBook Air’s 256-GB SSD.


If you do plump for AAA games (or high-quality indie fare beyond Apple Arcade) ignore the Mac App Store. It offers few benefits, has a tiny selection of titles, and typically demands higher prices than elsewhere. Steam is a better bet, and usually nets you a Windows copy of any Mac game you purchase.


AAA Games, B- Performance

First, the good news: The M2 MacBook Air’s speakers are great, the keys are responsive (if you’re a masochist who eschews external controllers), and the screen is bright with great color reproduction. It’s also a relatively power-efficient machine. But it gets hot, due to the lack of a fan and games requiring sustained performance.


Minecraft, unsurprisingly, runs brilliantly, even when you add complex shaders. But it’s an old game. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a sterner test, despite being released in 2019 on Mac (and 2018 on Windows). It’s commonly used in benchmarking because it’s relatively demanding—and because it has a convenient built-in benchmarking system. At the default settings (1440 x 960 resolution; medium graphics preset) we got an average 42 fps, which is fine. This rose to 51 fps on 1152 x 768/low graphics, but dropped to a jarring 24 fps on 1440 x 960/highest.


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Elsewhere, Metro Exodus, after taking approximately a year to launch, doddered along at a reasonable 30 fps on 1920 x 1200 and medium graphics quality, but even early on had scenes that dipped to a jerky 15 fps. Reducing the quality setting to low didn’t affect the visuals too much, but eked out extra fps where it mattered. The shiny new Baldur’s Gate 3 with settings of 1470 x 956 and medium quality mostly stuck to 30 fps. Alas, increasing the resolution to 1080p resulted in an erratic frame rate that too often dropped into the 20s.


Screenshot of Baldur's Gate game

Baldur's Gate 3 BALDUR'S GATE 3 VIA CRAIG GRANNELL

Given that it’s in early access, Baldur’s Gate 3’s performance impressed and could improve in subsequent releases. Much less impressive was a noticeable performance drop the longer the Mac was on. After an hour of constant play, Tomb Raider benchmarks and in-game frame rates dipped by as much as 10 fps. You either have to put up with that or give the Mac a little rest. Fortunately, another issue—poor performance after switching AAA games—was rapidly fixed with a reboot. (We suspect, but cannot confirm, a 16-GB MacBook Air wouldn’t have this problem, due to having more RAM headroom.)


Windows Games on Mac

Apple ditching Intel also complicated running native Windows content on a Mac. Options remain, but none are good. Beyond adding complexity (where your games live; installing multiple versions of Steam), you hamper performance, because these games don’t run natively.


Parallels Desktop is the most user-friendly and powerful choice, and handily installs Windows 11 automatically. CrossOver doesn’t require Windows, but needs more fiddling with to get games running. (There’s also PlayOnMac, a free option riding on CrossOver’s coattails.)


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Getting Steam on Parallels Desktop and CrossOver is dead easy; finding games that work, less so. Broadly, 2D titles are most likely to work well. Old favorites Death Ray Manta and Pac-Man Championship Edition 2 played flawlessly during testing. But when we tried 3D effort Pinball FX3, it failed entirely in CrossOver and was akin to a slow-motion replay in Parallels Desktop.


You might have more luck, depending on the games you favor. GTA V, for example, plays at over 50 fps on the M2. But that’s a pretty old game. So if you want to fire up an existing Windows collection on your MacBook Air, go for simpler fare or higher-end titles that are several years old. For newer Windows games, get a PC.


So: Is Apple’s M2 MacBook Air Any Good for Games?

Whether you think the M2 MacBook Air is good for games depends on the games you care about. With AAA titles, there are clear problems. The hardware is largely capable, but the ecosystem and throttling let it down. Too few games are optimized for Apple silicon, sustained performance is questionable, and even Apple’s WWDC announcements whiff of the late 1990s, when Mac users took whatever scraps they could—which usually meant getting a handful of Windows games years late, and for more money.


Speaking of money, for the price of an M2 Air, you could buy a PC that’s more suitable for games. So buying an Air primarily for games would be an odd choice. And if you demand more raw power and would consider upgrading from an M2 Air to an M1 Pro or M1 Max machine, the price difference alone would net you a PS5, Xbox, or Steam Deck. Any of those would be more suitable for AAA gaming.


Screenshot of OpenEmu running on MacBook

OpenEmu APPLE VIA CRAIG GRANNELL

But despite what gaming obsessives might otherwise claim, AAA titles don’t encompass all games, and an M2 MacBook Air, as we’ve shown, supports many fun titles. So if you just want to play the odd game to relax, enjoy casual fare or streaming, or aren’t too picky regarding AAA games, the Air will serve. And if you’re into classic games, OpenEmu remains the most polished and user-friendly emulation system around on the desktop.

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