I first heard of cloud based gaming, namely the OnLive service, around a year back on television’s The Gadget Show, and as a gamer I was intrigued. However I, like others, was dubious of how the technology actually worked. Streaming games direct from the Internet without any downloads and within minutes of choosing you title just seemed a little reliant on a super fast Internet connection which the average UK based gamer just did not have. Along with the other big question, would gamers accept this new way of playing games? One where the gamer did not own a disc based or digitally downloaded copy of the game which they had paid for and was available to pop into their console or download and install when they choose to play it. These are actually the same thoughts that I myself had when it came to this type of gaming. I was not actually planning on trying the service but when I came home to a package waiting for me direct from GGUK Towers containing the OnLive Game System, it was only right that I give it a go and see how things went.
So first of all what is cloud based gaming? How does it work and what do you need to give it a try yourself? Cloud gaming is a system which streams games, including some of the most up to date big name releases, direct to whichever platform you may be using, be it PC, Laptop, Mac or even through the OnLive Game System onto your television. The system works very much the same way that you use to stream music and/or videos through YouTube to your hardware. The games, once selected, are run on the OnLive servers before being sent via the Internet direct to your home. This is where the first possible problem arises, and we have all been there, waiting for a video to buffer before playing and occasionally music tracks, even when you have a super fast connection. You may find yourself asking is it possible to apply the same technology to games, especially when it comes to some of the more modern high end games being released of late. With the service offering some of these titles it is a pretty big ask of this technology. The fact however that the OnLive servers have been live in America for the past year are proof enough that it is possible for the tech to work, but with the average home Internet speed in the US being significantly greater than that in the UK the question still remains, can OnLive be successful in this country? Read on to find out.
Like I mentioned before OnLive can be played on PC’s and Mac’s alike and I will touch on this later, but what I am concentrating on more here is the OnLive Micro Console. On unboxing, you find that the console comes with everything you need to set it up. The console itself is nothing more than a black box, smaller than most routers, bearing the OnLive name and logo. The manual which comes with the system is pretty small and does not really go into the set up. There is however a reason for this, the console is so easy set up and get into. You have four cables, which again are all supplied, to plug in. First an HDMI leading to your television, then an Internet cable for connecting the console to your router. You have a power cable and a USB cable for the console’s controller. Adding either two AA batteries or a rechargeable battery, again both are supplied, to the back of the controller you then ensure that the controller is connected to the console before booting it up for the first time.
One more thing to do before starting the console for the first time is head to the OnLive UK website and create an account for yourself. It’s at this point you are also offered the PlayPack bundle. The PlayPack bundle is a back catalogue of games which are available to play anytime so long as you pay a monthly subscription of £6.99. The games in the bundle range from older big name titles, such as Batman Arkham Asylum, NBA 2K10, Bioshock and Saints row 2, to the sort of games you see on the likes of the PSN Store and XBLA, such as Flock, Trine and World Of Goo. At the time of writing this there are currently over one hundred titles included in the ever expanding pack which, in my opinion, is more than worth the monthly subscription, even if you only play a small percentage of the games in there. As if that was not enough, the monthly subscription also means that you receive a discount on any games you may purchase from the OnLive marketplace. Once you have an account set up you are ready to start the Micro Console for the first time. Upon doing so the console syncs with your connected controller before automatically updating both console and control pad. Once this is complete you sign in using the password you set up while creating your account.
It’s at this point that you will get your first impression as to whether or not your Internet connection will be able to handle the service as the main OnLive screen is displayed. You may or may not notice, much like I did running the system for the first time, that the images on my screen were blocky and blurry in places, at times getting so bad it was not possible to make out any text on the screen. But at other time they were perfectly sharp and clear. My Internet connection varies and is normally between 4mb – 6mb, however this connection is usually shared by at least two computers and sometimes more. My first time using the system this fact was not taken into account and my gaming session, playing Just Cause, showed this as the graphics in game were at best blocky and blurry and at worst the game was so distorted on screen that it was not playable. My second gaming session using the system was the complete opposite as I ensured that OnLive was the only thing using my Internet connection and from the home screen alone I could tell that this time around it would be a much more enjoyable experience, more on that in a moment though.
And so you find yourself at the OnLive home screen which is a very simple nine box grid with eight of those being selectable. First up you have coming soon or showcase, selecting this quite simply takes you to a screen showcasing some of the games and features which will be appearing on the system in the near future, at the moment the two big names there are Saints Row the Third and Batman Arkham City. Next up you have profile which as the name suggests is your own player profile, there is an endless amount of information in here, including your playtime total and a friends list, much like the PS3 and the 360. You can add fellow gamers and friends to your list and from this area you can send and receive messages, check out what games they are playing and even join up for some multiplayer action. Also under profile you will find a multitude of system options such as audio, video, controls, voice chat and something that is becoming more and more popular, FaceBook sharing letting your hundreds of FaceBook friends know what you are playing.
The next option is friends which is a more dedicated version of the friends screen found under profile again here you can exchange messages, see what you friends are and have been playing and check out their brag clips. What are Brag clips? Brag Clips are basically video clips of your best gaming moments which can be shared with not only your friends, but all Brag clips are added to another section which is selectable from the menu screen. Selecting the Brag Clips section fills your screen with clip after clip that players have recorded and added for others to view. From the skilled to the spectacular, to the downright ludicrous, you will find all kinds of clips in there for your viewing pleasure. When it comes to viewing gameplay however OnLive has a more impressive trick up its sleeve with the Arena area. On selecting this option you are taken to a screen which is full of small windows showing what appears to be video clips. What these actually are though are live feeds of every game being played on the service at that time and selecting any one of these small windows takes you into spectator mode whereupon you are able to watch the live gameplay of the person playing the game. The person playing the game is notified when they have spectators via a pop up message at the top of the screen. If you are anything like me and you pick up a spectator, you feel the need to up your game so as not to embarrass yourself in front of strangers, especially as they can thumbs up “cheer” or thumbs down “jeer” your gameplay depending on what they think of your playing. It’s the fact that the games are being played on the OnLive servers which makes this cool little feature possible, as not only can the game be streamed to the person playing it, but also to anyone else, be it someone watching for fun or wanting to check out actual gameplay of a title they are interested in purchasing. It’s a nice feature which you won’t see on other gaming systems due solely to the way OnLive works.
Something else which is unique to OnLive is that you can play the same game on different platforms, and by saying that I don’t just mean that you can start and play a game on the micro console and then start and play a separate game of the same title on your PC. What it means is that because the games stream from OnLive’s servers, you can play a game on the Micro console for several hours then save your game. You can then sign into you OnLive account on your PC, Mac, Laptop or any device which is compatible with the service, select the same game and continue where you left off on the Console. You could even sign on using another computer anywhere in the world, so long as you have a strong enough Internet connection, and continue your saved games. Something else that is a plus when it comes to playing OnLive on a PC or Mac is that because the games are actually being run on the servers and streamed to you, there are no minimum requirements for your machine to run even the most recent and cutting edge titles with no fuss whatsoever.
Okay so enough about the features and technicalities of the console and system, what about the games and actually playing them? Most of my time using the OnLive system has been taken up playing Borderlands, a game which I always thought about buying for my PS3 but never got around to it. This was part of the PlayPack subscription programme which I described earlier on. The other game that I have been playing is the recently released Warhammer 40K Space Marine. Being a newer game this is not part of the back catalogue available on PlayPack, instead more recent titles such as Deus Ex Human Revolution, DiRT 3 and Red Faction: Armageddon can be purchased from the OnLive Marketplace for between £20 – £40 depending on how recent a title it is. PlayPack subscribers also receive a discount on purchases made here, another reason why that £6.99 a month is a good idea if you are going to be using the system a lot. Once you have selected the game you wish to play from either the My Games or Last Played Sections if you were playing it earlier, the game, as the service promises, launches within seconds without any downloads or delays. In fact from the moment of clicking on the game you want to play to you actually taking control of the game is normally less than a minute and that is including any intro the game may have which I must admit is pretty impressive.
And so with all of that cleared up the main question still remains, when it comes to playing games, does it work? And it’s a question with two answers. What it really comes down to is your Internet connection and, in my opinion, the time that you are playing. I personally get the best results from the system when I am playing in the morning when I am assuming there is less of a strain on the system’s servers. This coupled with the fact that the Micro Console is the only thing using my Internet connection makes for an almost flawless gaming experience. When it is running well it’s hard to fault OnLive gaming. With a connection speed similar to mine, you do have to keep in mind that you will experience drops in quality from time to time and although at these times the games are still playable, the poor picture quality is less than enjoyable. Those with an Internet connection of below four or five megabytes should be made aware however that this system may not be ideal for them. On the other end of the scale however, gamers with high speed connections are going to have a problem free, enjoyment filled gaming experience while using the service.
When it comes to multiplayer games, you could be forgiven for thinking things may go a little downhill here. But truth be told it again all comes down to your connection speed and not in the way you may be thinking. The one game I tried multiplayer in was Homefront and things ran pretty smoothly in a five on five deathmatch with very little evidence of lag. I think that this is down to the fact that every player in the online game was sharing the same streamed game playing out on OnLives servers. This surprised me as I really thought players with a faster connection would have a hugely unfair advantage over those of us not in possession of a super fast 10mb Internet connection. And although this may be the case in some instances, I found the biggest advantage or disadvantage, depending on what side of the fence you are on, is that once again slow Internet results in things on your screen becoming a horribly blurry mess. This onscreen mess is definitely not what you need as you are trying to shoot an enemy who is so far away it would be a challenge to hit them even if things were clear and that’s if you notice him in the blurry mess in the first place. Although in an effort not to sound overly negative, like single player games, when things are running smoothly even multiplayer using OnLive is a lot of fun. If only Homefront was a more enjoyable game, but that’s personal opinion.
So does OnLive have what it takes to stand alongside the consoles and the high spec gaming PC of today as a serious contender? There is no doubting whatsoever that what OnLive does is pretty spectacular, and the fact that it does what it does extremely well. With numerous games companies such as EA, Ubisoft, Sega, Atari, Codemasters, Eidos and many more backing the service, things just look better and better for OnLive. The service is pretty groundbreaking stuff and when it’s working well the Micro Console and the service itself are more than impressive. Over time I would love to see the OnLive service be improved and grow to be even more impressive than it is now. The one thing holding it back at the moment is the reliance on a higher speed Internet connection to keep things running smoothly.
So although my eyes have been opened to a new way of gaming, and I shall continue to use the service for the foreseeable future, hardcore gamers like myself will not be replacing their Playstations or Xbox 360’s anytime soon. If you have room for a secondary gaming service to sit alongside your current console, OnLive is a definite contender for that place. Cloud gaming most definitely has a future within the gaming community and OnLive at the moment is the only choice. I for one am looking forward to seeing what else they may have in store for us in the future.