The OnLive promise: games streamed live to your living room without the need for an expensive PC or console and no need to upgrade ever again. A massive and varied library of games to choose from, keen pricing for every budget, a vibrant online community. It’s the future of gaming.
Or is it?
OnLive is the pioneer of cloud gaming. While games on XBLA, PSN and Steam have to be downloaded and stored on a hard drive, OnLive games exist on an external server and all the processing is done, as it happens, in Luxembourg. All that’s handled at the player’s end is a video stream, meaning that high-spec games can be played on relatively low-end hardware: the free OnLive app will play on pretty much any PC or Mac, and the OnLive MicroConsole is a simple video-streaming device with USB ports and an HDMI port to connect to an HDTV. There’s also a free app on the way for iOS and Android.
But anyone who’s streamed HD video from iTunes or Zune will know that it’s far from perfect – compression of the video means there’s a compromise being made between speed and quality. In other words streaming HD video gets nowhere near the quality of Blu-ray, can OnLive offer the gaming quality of Blu-ray movies?
Simplicity is the key with OnLive, the MicroConsole is just that: micro.
Trouble is, streaming HD video is only part of the problem.
OnLive really has its work cut out too because not only is it streaming HD video, it’s also taking live commands from the player, processing them in game, encoding the resulting video on the fly, and then streaming it down a wire. And this all has to happen instantly – let’s face it, most games are a test of a player’s reflexes; lag or slowdown simply won’t do.
So how does OnLive fare?
Well, the results vary and it very much depends on the type of game you’re playing. Fast-moving games like DiRT 3 suffered from the most lag. This is a problem because fast-moving games generally require the fastest reflexes; it’s hard to react to something in time when there’s a delay between you entering a command and it happening on screen.
Still, control is much more satisfactory with slower-paced games. Batman: Arkham City, for example, is near-perfect in this regard; we could hardly tell the difference between the OnLive and PC versions.
Streaming video also requires compression and this affects image fidelity. Compress an image too much and the detail is lost, artefacts block up the screen and the advantage of playing these games on a gaming-spec PC over a console is lost.
Again, the quality of the OnLive’s video stream varies and again it appears that fast-moving games suffer the most. Batman: Arkham Asylum holds up brilliantly, while DiRT 3 does not. Strangely, even though it’s not a quick-moving game, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood loses a lot of detail too.
Video quality is affected by several factors: the speed of the internet connection and the number of people playing OnLive the two main ones. You’ll need at least a 5Mbps connection to get the best out of OnLive, and to connect to it with Ethernet rather than wireless – OnLive can’t guarantee the quality of the connection over Wi-Fi.
To this end, the MicroConsole has no Wi-Fi connectivity, although you can connect if to a PC and create a Wi-Fi bridge if you insist. But it’s best if your MicroConsole or PC or Mac is wired in to your router.
Okay, so here’s another big test for OnLive – how can it cope with online multiplayer games? Not only is it doing all its usual streaming and compression tricks but with multiplayer it’s doing the online gaming part too. And it shows. DiRT 3 online is pretty much unplayable – suffering from horrendous lag and a seriously poor video image.
Other games like Homefront work much more satisfactorily, with little of no lag and a decent quality image.
The main issue with playing multiplayer, however, is that few of the games on OnLive actually feature multiplayer modes and those that do don’t have many players. Hopefully, this is something that will get better with time.
OnLive does feature online chat, although this is still in beta. We could hear people talking but not really. Instead of the (relatively) clear chat on Xbox Live or PSN, little more than static comes through a headset at present, so OnLive has a way to go in this area.
The Wireless Controller only works with the MicroConsole but a Universal version will work with iOS and Android.
The OnLive Wireless Controller looks pretty much identical to the Xbox S controller, if you can remember that, albeit with a few modifications and additions. The face buttons are named the same as a 360 controller (A, B, X and Y) and it has LT, RT, LB and RB buttons like the 360 too. However, the left analogue control has been switched with the d-pad, in a similar set up to a PlayStation controller.
The major difference is with 5 ‘multimedia’ buttons that sit along the base of the controller: rewind, record, up, play/pause and fast forward. Naturally these are used to control movie content specifically, at the moment, Brag Clips. But more on those later.
The quality of the controller is fine. Maybe not quite up to the build quality of a 360 one but good, nonetheless. It’s powered by either a rechargeable pack (just like the 360), a battery pack or through USB.
OnLive has nearly 150 games available at launch: some recent, some retro and some indie. There’s a good mix and some good quality stuff on here. Highlights that we haven’t already mentioned include Just Cause 2, World Of Goo, Splinter Cell: Conviction, Assassin’s Creed II, DiRT 2, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Mafia II, Tropico 4, BioShock, Trine, and Borderlands. And two games that are ready for pre-order are Batman: Arkham City and Lord Of The Rings: War In The North.
The list certainly has a real console feel to it and we would have liked to see a few more PC-only games – strategy and simulation for example – on the list.
Pricing-wise, there are options to rent or buy the games outright and this could be a real string to the OnLine bow. There are plenty of games out there that take little more than a weekend to complete, so you might pay less than a tenner to complete, say, Batman, rather than it’s full price of £40. Unfortunately, the rental option is only available on some games. If you want to play Deus Ex: Human Revolution, for example, you’ll have pay full price for it.
There’s also a subscription option that, for £6.99 a month, gives you unlimited access to a 100-game-strong playlist, selected by OnLive. The quality and type of games varies here – it doesn’t include the newest games but there’s plenty of quality to keep you happy.
One of the best things about OnLive is its Brag Clip feature. This enables players to record a 10-second clip and share it with the world. There’s already a ton of videos to see and if you’re a watcher of game vids, you’ll have a good idea of what to expect: they range from videos of bugs and glitches, to genuine feats of amazing gaming skill, to creative skits. Many of them essential watching; Brag Clip is basically the YouTube of gaming.
The MicroConsole has connections for HDMI, Ethernet, optical, USB and sound out. There’s no wireless internet, however.
The other stand out feature is the ability to watch other people playing games live. And the function of being able to cheer or boo them. This is useful for seeing how good a game is before you buy, or having a friend show you how to complete a difficult part of a game or, best of all, just watching total strangers play games and boo or cheer as they play. There’s something brilliantly voyeuristic about the whole thing.
When it comes down to it, OnLive is pretty astonishing. The tech is spectacular but there has been compromise, not surprisingly, to get it to work. The question is: can you compromise with image quality for the convenience that that OnLive offers? It’s a bit like MP3 vs CD: OnLive offers some the convenience of MP3 but not quality of CD. Not yet, anyway.
And still, the iPod? Remember how that worked out?
There are also some pretty big omissions from list of supporting publishers – there’s no EA or Activision so no FIFA or Call Of Duty – and that will be enough to put some people off.
We’re also not quite sure who OnLive is aimed at. PC gamers will absolutely care about image quality and lag, while console gamers already have their consoles and their Modern Warfares, Skyrims and Uncharted 3s. None of which are coming to OnLive any time soon. The casual set is too busy playing Zumba Fitness on Wii to notice, or probably understand, OnLive.
But we suspect that OnLive isn’t even competing with any of these formats. It offers a different way to get and play games.
So is OnLive the future of gaming? Well, until the tech can compete one-on-one with PCs and consoles in terms of quality and game libraries, then no, it can’t be. OnLive is not the future but it’s certainly a future of gaming, however, and we suspect it’ll find a nice little niche for itself immediately and then in the future? Well, who knows. Cloud gaming could spell the end for disc-based or downloaded gaming. And OnLive was there first.
We thoroughly recommend that you try it – it’s free – and see for yourselves. You’ll be impressed, we guarantee it.
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