Review: OnLive Service and Microconsole

Any service that makes an effort to be ahead of its time should be lauded for its efforts. OnLive certainly attempts to be one step ahead of the curve with its cloud gaming platform. OnLive is a service in which PC games can be played over the cloud – or streaming on the Internet, for the layman. By keeping the player’s games and data on a server, OnLive boasts that its library can be accessed from anywhere, so long as the player installs the portal software on their computer or has a microconsole (explained later) in tow. Is it worth your time? Well, there’s a complicated answer to that question. Though, it’s certainly worth your attention.

Functionality

The benefits to this service being well-executed are immense. Imagine having DLC installed the minute it’s released; imagine games being patched instantly upon updates without any effort; imagine waiting for midnight to play a new release, and playing it at 12:01 on your PC/microconsole while others are on their way home from the store, installing, patching and twiddling their thumbs. With OnLive taking on the responsibility of keeping up on its users’ games, that takes a lot of the stress out of dealing with Windows permissions, DRM software, install times and technical hiccups.

Navigating OnLive is extremely intuitive and proves a visual pleasure

 

Even assuming you know your way around a computer – you tech savvy cat, you – most people can’t boast that their machine can run games on high settings. It can be inferred that cloud gaming for PC is a step toward high-end gaming on middle-of-the-road computers. For me, this is probably the most exciting aspect. Many people don’t yet know the wonders of PC gaming, but this could prove to be the opportunity to get a few folks away from their console for what some describe as the most robust gaming platform on the market – PC. Though, for a few reasons, I can’t see it being that revolution in OnLive’s current state.

As it stands, OnLive works fairly well. If there’s any real limitation that service will struggle with, it’s Internet speeds. It takes at least 5 mbp/s of free bandwidth to be able to stream the service. For a lot of people, they may feel they have that covered; however, many may not. Unfortunately, North America is notorious for having Internet service providers (ISPs) that don’t deliver on what their customers pay for (while Canada has data caps). A lot of people buying 10 megs of connection may find that they have only 5. Potential consumers should also consider they may have Internet applications running, downloads pending, and roommates with their own agenda and that can be a problem.

When OnLive doesn’t work, games will be extremely fuzzy, clip tons, and sometimes the games are downright unplayable. Though, when it does work, it nearly hits the spot. Imagine, if you will, an HD YouTube video that you can interact with. The concept is largely the same, and so is the execution. Much like streaming video found on Netflix and YouTube, the image is more than intelligible, but it is a bit fuzzy at its best. Still images, and even cutscenes, tend to look crisper, but heightening action makes the fuzziness more apparent, as well as a bit noticeable drops in frame rate.

Even taking those drawbacks into consideration, it’s pretty darn impressive. Throwing on a game that I just purchased after merely 30-seconds was astounding. Still, not everything is always “instantaneous” – even at the best connection, there is still some slight response lag. If the lag from the OnLive service is compounded by input lag on a user’s  monitor or TV, this could certainly make games that are timing sensitive – like first-person shooters – nearly impossible (or at least unenjoyable from being unreasonably and unfairly difficult) to play.

Still impressively functional, OnLive is perhaps a bit ahead of itself. That’s not a terrible thing, though. People should really take a second to realize the astounding advancements in technology that allows someone to play games like Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood with only about 1/10th of a second of lag and a picture quality that is near true HD quality.

The quality can get this crisp, but it's a bit of a stretch

 

Luckily, with a cloud service, the advancements of technology can come from OnLive’s end at anytime. Put simply, as the service isn’t rooted in the power of the user’s hardware, more reliable Internet connections from those pesky ISPs and more established servers on OnLive’s end could elevate the value of the service immensely.

With that in mind, what about the rest of the service? What about the library? What about the console itself?! Well, that’s a bit of a mixed bag of amazing promise and somewhat disappointing results, too.

Service Features

For me, the single most valuable part of the OnLive service is the demoing. A lot of PC games don’t have demos. In fact, demos seemed like they were going to be all over the place in this age of downloadable content, but it’s sadly losing its place in console gaming – even more so on PC. OnLive’s answer to this is absolutely fantastic.

OnLive lets users play any game on the library for 30 minutes as a demo, which can be played in any combination of time – i.e. 10 minutes here and there, or all 30 in one sitting. This is a very honest depiction of the game, and I truly appreciate it. When a user starts a demo, it just throws them into the game as if they just bought it. That means they can start the campaign of the game, fool around on multi-player, or even mini-games; the entire game is unlocked. This allows the player to see the game in its most honest and well-rounded light.

Perhaps a valid argument against this approach is that some people like to try demos over and over again. I know I played the Dragon Age II demo near a half-dozen times. It’s a bit unfortunate that I couldn’t do that with OnLive, but the benefits seem to outweigh this shortcoming. This is especially true considering it’s not necessary to have purchased a single game to start demoing. Not only does this mean that potential users can try games they’re unsure of, but they can demo the service itself to see if it works well enough for them.

Along with that, the OnLive service is fairly robust, with a few really cool features that make OnLive a community, as well as a straight forward gaming platform. The most obvious example of this is “brag clips”. OnLive is able to record short videos of impressive, silly, or strange moments in users’ games, in which they can post on their OnLive profile, link to Facebook, and may even see featured on the OnLive YouTube account as the “Brag Clip of the Week”.

The Brag Clips are easy to sort and ever changing, making it a feature worth coming back to time and time again

 

With brag clips comes a few more features, such as spectating, voice chat, achievements, user ratings, players stats, and a few more. The majority of features are pretty self-explanatory, but the spectating is a strangely awesome feature that I’ve yet to see anywhere else. Called the Arena, users can see who’s playing what and watch them as they play. While they watch, they can “cheer” or “jeer” simply by clicking the desired response. I can’t say I find myself using it, but I still find the idea interesting and useful as yet another way to demo games.

 

Also, as a quick aside, the service may prove to be a bit of a learning curve for some (though I expect straight-forward for most). For the sake of giving the OnLive customer service a go, I came to them with any and every inquiry I had. They were very cordial – as you can expect customer service to be – but more importantly, timely and flexible.  I even e-mailed them from a separate OnLive account they were unaware that I had, and they were still very timely. In less than an hour and a half, they had responded to my inquiries and pinged a few e-mails back and forth with me until the issue was resolved. So, hats off to them.

Library

When OnLive first launched a year ago, I looked into the service for myself. At the time, the library really only seemed to have a few AAA titles worth playing: Batman: Arkham Asylum, Borderlands, and Just Cause 2. Now, they’ve got a few more under their belt, including the F.E.A.R series, Split Second, and Assassin’s Creed. In fact, Ubisoft is backing the OnLive platform in quite a few ways, and this is very important and pivotal in the evolution of the service. This will hopefully contribute to the momentum of OnLive so that it can gain further publisher support and exponentially expand their catalog.

It should be noted that while there aren’t too many games in the library, they’re nearly all good games (except for Duke). To be fair, a lot of games are just a bit better than okay, but there’s nothing terrible in here; mostly a solid collection of 7s peppered with a few 8 and 9s, I would say.

Being able to sort by critical reception proves handy among a lot of titles worth being skeptical of

The price of games generally falls in line with the respective shelf price of the game. AAA titles start at 50 or 60 dollars, but there are often deals – like $5 Fridays. Being that the service isn’t quite up to gaming PC and console standards, paying shelf prices seems a bit unreasonable.  Though, a great option is game rental. At the rate of $5.99 for a 3-day rental and $8.99 for a 5-day rental, players can have full access to most of the games. This option is much better than paying 40 dollars for Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and knocking it out in a single weekend when it could have been done for $5.99.

Better than the rental deal is the Play Bundle. In fact, it may be the library’s strongest point. The PlayPack Bundle is 50 some games for the rate of $9.99 a month. It’s is filled with last-gen games, arcade titles, and XBL/PSN-like titles – such as BloodRayne 2, World of Goo, and Trine. Most of these games are absolutely awesome, and totally worth the price per month for the expanding range of games.  Not only that, but they seem to function much more smoothly than some of the more technically impressive titles.

That’s also something worth mention. Some games seem to work better than others. I played F.E.A.R 3 and found that the game was extremely fuzzy with way too much input lag and screen tearing/clipping. However, right afterwards, I played DiRT 2 and everything seemed to work smoothly. It’s hard to say why this is. Perhaps this is due to server proximity, high traffic, or any number of details that I don’t have the answer to.

Like the rest of the portal, the marketplace menus are an easy navigation with plenty of relevant information and cool community features

All in all, it seems the library is pretty decent. It’s limited as of yet, but I have faith that as more publishers are won over, the service will come to grow immensely. However, I have one final issue that is if anything, an idealistic notion.

I was excited that OnLive could be the revolution in getting people into PC gaming, but the library is mostly console ports. For those looking to get into rich PC gaming without ponying up for a gaming PC, that doesn’t seem to be OnLive’s goal right now, and that’s a shame. OnLive can’t compete with consoles at their own game, so it should be looking to differentiate itself as a new experience entirely.  In any case, the library does luckily sport a few PC exclusive RTS titles and more, but it’s a bit underwhelming at this point.

Microconsole

Now, don’t get me wrong. The microconsole is flippin’ amazing. The microconsole, for those who’ve not seen it, is a TV adapter that’s preloaded with the OnLive portal software. This makes OnLive much akin to the console experience.

Inside the box comes the console, a controller, rechargeable battery pack for the controller with cable, battery pack for disposable batteries, power adapter for console, HDMI cable, and an Ethernet cable. This is easily one of the most comprehensive packagings I’ve seen in quite a while – especially for $99.

The console looks like, and is the size of, a portable harddrive. Smaller than Nintendo DS, the console comes just short of the length of my hand. Its build quality can be described as spot on. By holding it, its weight and casing prove the microconsole as a well-built piece of hardware.

Ironically, the size and appearance of a portable harddrive

On the back is a slot for HDMI, digital video out, Ethernet, power, and optical and digital 1/8 inch audio. On the front are two USB ports.

The controller most resembles an Xbox 360 controller, with the difference being that the analog sticks are positioned next to each other like that of the PS3 controller along with a PS3esque plus shaped direction pad. That, and there are buttons used for on the fly brag clip recording. They feel comfortable and are easy to use on the fly. Much like the microconsole itself, the build quality of this piece of hardware is up to snuff. The bumpers and triggers feel oddly stiff at first, but that seems to work itself out.

Arguably no better or worse than a 360 or PS3 controller

Starting up the console and getting things going goes by fairly quickly. The console functions exactly the same to the portal software, so there’s no extended learning curve. Though, I did have an issue when I realized I couldn’t use Wi-Fi. To be fair, I wouldn’t really want to anyway, as the preferred mode by far is a more reliable direct connection, but it’d be nice to have the option. Instead, it’s required that anyone who wants to use Wi-Fi get a Wi-Fi bridge, or they can bridge their laptop’s connection and share that.

The great thing about the console is that the front USB supports mouse and keyboard, and even other controllers. This means for those who don’t do so already, PC games can be played as PC games with a mouse and keyboard on the user’s TV! As far as playing with a controller is concerned, the preferred controller is still the OnLive controller, as its unique codec allows for 1:1 input and virtually no interference.

All in all, the console itself is quite amazing. With the console being smaller than the controller, bringing it over to a friend’s place is a breeze. I had a lot of fun going over to other people’s houses and handing it to them saying, “I have dozens of games on that console” — they looked at me strangely, and I was quite satisfied.

Conclusion

So here’s the question: Does OnLive have the ability to replace our consoles and gaming PCs, ushering gamers into the future? Well, not yet. That may not be their mission, either. The service certainly is ahead of its time, but what will be its saving grace is if it takes gaming into a direction that we’ve yet to go. It can be argued that the idea of cloud gaming in and of itself does just that, but it won’t be enough. Paying nearly the same price for an OnLive game where I could pay maybe 10 dollars more for the console version or get the PC version and have guaranteed fidelity makes the service kind of a stretch.

Though, again, OnLive is truly leaps and bounds into the glamorous feature. The service finds its place with its extremely valuable PlayPack bundle, and there really are some great deals from time to time. When OnLive truly does become a PC gaming experience for non-PC gamers, it’ll be revolutionary. In the meantime, I can’t suggest that anyone get their wallet out and cards on the ready, but I do HIGHLY recommend that everyone at least give it a shot. You can go to OnLive.com, download the portal for free, and start trying games out within 10 minutes.

So it comes back to what I said: OnLive may or may not be a train that you should be getting on, but it’s at least one worth keeping an eye on. In its current state, the fidelity may not justify the means for most people, but this is the future, folks. Those saying they want to hold on to physical copies of their games are the same folks touting around MP3 players. Tomorrow is one step closer. Be ready to embrace it.

3.5 out of 5

 

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Author: Gregory Hutto View all posts by
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  • Tony O.

    I think the biggest issue with OnLive is something you really only mentioned in passing: the library. What sells gaming systems is either having broad-based appeal (like the Wii or Kinnect) or killer software. OnLive, unfortunately, launched with a lineup of games that had all been out for some time. The system isn’t going to get any exclusives, and that wasn’t a very good first impression. I was excited when I first heard about it, but my excitement cooled when I realized that the games I really wanted (at the time, Total War games because I didn’t have a PC that could run them) weren’t available.

    As an avid console gamer, I was hoping for access to the PC games I couldn’t play, and they weren’t there. A few have been added now (Supreme Commander, for example) but I’m stil waiting. Where’s the Witcher? Where’s Crysis? Civ 5, maybe? get me a better library, and I’m in!

  • http://www.ign.com/blogs/greghutto Gregory Hutto

    I understand your concerns, and I nearly mirror them myself. However, this issue really isn’t so much on OnLive’s end. The trouble is that they’re creating their own platform, and getting publisher/developer support is extremely difficult. With the exception of Ubisoft and a few others, the industry has been a bit overly cautious about cloud gaming. Until they come around and see that OnLive could be a better platform with their support — thus being mutually beneficial — it’ll be a slow roll.

  • Nate Hales

    I love the idea of this service. Really I do. I don’t think it’s right for me right now, but as technology catches up to what they are doing it could be excellent. I would be interested to hear what their plans on for device/television integration. If I could buy an awesome HD TV with OnLive preinstalled that could be a huge selling point.

  • http://www.ign.com/blogs/greghutto Gregory Hutto

    Yeah, the integration idea is really interesting. I almost think that may be the transition of consoles. I think Greg MIller said that he expects the PS5 to be in TVs by Sony.

  • MagnusR

    Tested it out with a trial recently. Worked pretty well as internet connections here in Norway are generally good. Can’t comment on wether games appear fuzzy though, as I was playing Kane & Lynch 2, where the fuzziness is a bullet-point on the box to begin with.

    So far, it’s impressive, but I want it to have advanced before I embrace it.

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