The games industry is shifting, moving gradually and inevitably towards online territory. Back in the day, you bought a boxed copy of a game, then played it on your machine at home, and that was that. Then in the nineties following the release of Quake online play became more popular, as competing against human opposition over the net made the transition to a more mainstream activity. And in the noughties, digital stores such as Steam began to deliver games online, doing away with the boxed copy.
OnLive is another step in this evolution. It’s a service that not only offers the digital purchase of games and online play, but is actually an entirely cloud-based platform. In other words, the game itself isn’t installed locally at all, but on a server elsewhere, and you’re playing remotely. Essentially, it’s streamed gaming.
This means that the OnLive MicroConsole – and indeed the PC and Mac client program, which we’ll cover later in this review – can be kept as streamlined as possible. The console is a very compact box (3 by 5 inches) with next to nothing in it, because it doesn’t need any powerful processor or GPU, all the work is done on a meaty computer elsewhere.
The MicroConsole has a power light, twin USB ports, an HDMI port to connect it up to your HDTV, and an ethernet port to hook it up to your broadband (all cables are provided, though at just five feet long the ethernet cable is a tad short). And that’s it – set up is a breeze. A decent Xbox-style wireless controller is also supplied, with a rechargeable battery that’s charged up when you plug the controller into one of the device’s USB ports.
At this point you’re probably thinking that this all sounds like a pretty neat idea theoretically, but wondering how it works in practice. OnLive offers an initial library of some 120 games, some of which are older classics, and others new to the market. It’s not a hugely extensive library, but a solid start, and many more titles are billed as coming soon.
For example, the upcoming Batman: Arkham City, Saints Row: The Third and Lord of the Rings: War of the North are currently up for pre-order. In terms of new games that are currently available, there’s Warhammer 40K: Space Marine, Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Tropico 4, along with fairly recent titles such as Lego Pirates of the Caribbean, Red Faction: Armageddon, FEAR 3 and Dirt 3.
There are some notable big hitters missing, namely EA and Activision, although word is that EA – who were initially supposed to be involved – is coming on board soon, starting with Bulletstorm and several Harry Potter games, with more in the pipeline. And there are a lot more big name games on the horizon, so the line up is set to expand considerably.
When it comes to OnLive’s pricing, newer games cost from £30 to £40, and older ones around the £10 to £20 mark. The service also offers three- and five-day rentals for around £3 and £5 for those who like to try before they buy, or if you’d rather not pay anything, OnLive lets you demo a game for 30 minutes for free.
Not only that, but you can also watch others playing any game to suss out whether you’d find it enjoyable or not. Spectating is free and facilitated by OnLive’s arena, a tiled wall of small displays each of which is a window onto a player’s gaming session. This is a very cool feature in itself, like a giant CCTV network set up for gamers, with the observer free to scroll around the wall and if they see anything interesting, zoom in to view the action full-screen.
Social features are also tied in here. If you’ve got a gaming headset, you can chat to the folks you’re observing, make friends with them, even give their gaming skills the thumbs up or down – so you can let “campers” know what you really think of them.
So the base membership is free – aside from the cost of the console – and you only pay if you want to buy or rent a game. However, there is a subscription option, the PlayPack bundle, that charges £6.99 per month for access to a hundred or so games, which is the majority of them. It also entitles you to a 30 per cent discount off any other purchases.
Granted, a lot of the PlayPack games are older and more obscure affairs, but there are some newer and bigger names included, such as Homefront, FEAR 3, Borderlands, Saints Row 2, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Bioshock, Just Cause 2 and Hitman 2.
There’s certainly some dross here – you’re unlikely to be tempted by Jerry Rice and Nitus’ Dog Football – but on the whole there’s plenty of decent games and hidden gems to keep you busy. Of course, if you purchase a full price game every couple of months, the subscription will pay for itself in terms of the 30 per cent discount anyway.
All this would be moot if all these games ran like a three-legged dog receiver from Jerry Rice’s canine American football school. The acid test is how well OnLive’s games stream, and fortunately our experience with the cloud gaming service was largely positive.
On our 8Mbit/s ADSL line we found that play was reasonably smooth on the whole, albeit with the odd moment of choppiness here and there, which is fairly inevitable when streaming. At times, frame rates did slow when the action got particularly frantic in 3D shooters, but not to unplayable levels. Serious network glitches which caused the game to freeze were rare, only happening a couple of times in the review period.
Sacrifices have been made to the visual quality of the games to keep matters running smoothly, however. The graphics have detail levels toned down somewhat, with the exact effect varying from game to game. The resolution of DiRT 3, for example, seemed lower than that of Homefront – but as a rule, the down-tuning is certainly palatable.
Multiplayer gaming is provided with a range of dedicated servers for many of the games, and they ran pretty smoothly for us, although we did experience some slightly laggy sessions during the review period. All this depends on your connection quality, of course, and while our broadband connection is just a bog standard “up to” 8Mbps ADSL line, we’re close to the exchange, so it delivers a pretty solid near 7Mbit/s in real-world performance.
OnLive reckons you need a minimum of 2Mbit/s to play, and recommends 5Mbit/s (particularly if you have a 40in-plus HDTV). The system further lowers the graphics detail for those with slower than 5Mbit/s connections, so theoretically they won’t lag – but games will look worse, particularly on a bigger screen. We’re not convinced a 2Mbit/s line would make for a great experience, mind, on any display.
The good thing about OnLive is you can always try the service out via the PC or Mac client for free via demos, and see how it runs yourself. It’s a tiny download that takes up next to no space and is no hassle to sign up for (no credit card is required until you actually want to make a purchase).
The PC application runs exactly the same as the HDTV console, and has one big benefit for those with an ancient PC which struggles to run Solitaire or Minesweeper. They can happily play the latest shooters, because the processing power of the computer isn’t involved. The only variable determining the quality of your OnLive gaming experience is the bandwidth of your broadband connection. OnLive, much like streaming movies, is quite bandwidth hungry. The amount of data used varies according to what you’re playing (or watching), but we found the service could chew through 1GB in about 30 to 40 minutes during a 3D shooter session. Those with stingy ISPs and download limits will have to bear this in mind, or play mainly off-peak.
Finally, it’s worth noting OnLive is coming soon as an app for Android tablets and the iPad. What’s neat about cloud gaming is that your saved games are synched across all devices, so you can take your tablet on a train journey and continue playing from where you left off on your PC or MicroConsole at home.
- Pretty smooth streaming quality; free access and demos on the PC.
- Graphics have lowered details, particularly on some games; saps a lot of bandwidth.
OnLive definitely has a lot going for it. The streaming gaming model runs pretty smoothly overall, although it does sacrifice some graphical quality to do so. For us, it strikes a decent balance between frame rates and visual detail, although some games seem a little grainier than others. Those with better connections than us may experience better visuals, of course.
Is this the future of gaming? It's certainly a very promising start, particularly if the library of games is expanded as current plans indicate (with EA coming on board). With a bolstered line up, and with super-fast broadband gradually becoming more prevalent across the UK, OnLive could prove a serious player on the gaming scene.