OnLive: friend or foe?

How will the new cloud-based gaming platform affect the entrenched console vs. PC platform debate of the gaming world?  Matmi’s lead developer, James Tibbles, buys himself a box and gives OnLive a road test.  Here’s his report.


I’ve been a gamer since the days of the Sinclair +2 Spectrum (yes, I am that old) and have experienced the formation of the gaming world’s console vs. PC platform divide first-hand.


Let me get this out of the way now and declare myself a console-ist which happened for the simple reason that I had a laptop at the time without a mouse.  You just couldn’t interact easily enough with games to do anything but end up shouting at the screen in frustration.  Give me that joystick and make it snappy!


But whether you’re a PC or console freak, we both have a problem.  We’ve always been reliant on newer, faster, whizzier hardware to run the increasingly CPU-sapping games coming onto the market.  That’s the rub – sooner or later, you’re going to have to shell out for new technology.  But maybe not any more.


Released in the UK in September, OnLive is a cloud-based gaming platform that runs on any platform with a reasonably fast Internet connection.  It’s been around since 2007, but Internet speeds weren’t quite up to the mark so OnLive’s taken a few years to get any traction – but it’s now well and truly arrived.


So what do you get?


Free OnLive membership (no subscription unless you fancy additional package deals).

Free to play most games 30 minutes a day.

The ability to watch others play games, and view new game trailers.

A vast amount of well-known games, and the comfort of knowing the hardware and game library will be continually updated, automatically.

Single and multiplayer online.

No need for top of the range graphics and sound card because you’re effectively watching a video, not rendering 3D environments on the fly.

No need for a hard drive.

Customisable controls if you’re using a keyboard.

I joined the OnLive service and played via PC first.  After a quick program download I signed in.  The OnLive system starts up just like you’re accessing a dashboard on a modern day console.  Even the introduction is video streaming – a rotating sweeping logo comes in to screen then fades out.


Then you’re in to the menu system – a grid-like layout allowing you to browse through games in the marketplace, change your settings and even watch other people’s games currently in progress (this is live streaming after all).


A brief look through the marketplace and it’s great to see so many well-known game titles available to play.  F.E.A.R 3 and Split Second immediately took my interest.  Another great little feature is that most games are available to play for free for 30 minutes a day. The system simply disables any save abilities and brings you back to the dashboard after your 30 minutes are over.


Being the gamer that I am and being impressed so far, I decided to give the OnLive gamepad a try.  I know this sounds counterproductive – that you’re back to buying hardware – but it does give you a great gaming experience.  Dual thumb-sticks, standard main controls, 4 trigger buttons and (this bit’s really nifty) additional keys to control video recordings, allowing you to very easily record, review and upload your video clips.  This is great for a chuckle, especially recordings that point out game flaws such as walking through walls and defying gravity. Top that off with the usual rumble pad and menu buttons and the OnLine gamepad is possibly the nicest controller I’ve ever used.


I plug it in to my TV, boot it up and continue my OnLive journey.  As before, the dashboard comes up, and intuitive navigation kicks in. This time I load up F.E.A.R 3 (a game I previously purchased and played on the PC version of the OnLive system) which takes seconds.  Then it takes me to my last saved point and away I go.


I only have two criticisms.


The gamepad doesn’t come with a wireless connection as standard – you have to connect via a wireless bridge – so it loses a point in my eyes.  And while I was playing Split Second, one of my favourite racing games, the screen jolted and stuck for a moment or two, then a “network problem” message popped up.


These blips continued intermittently – 3 times in 3 hours of play – so it didn’t really bother me, but I did decide to upgrade my 6mpbs Internet connection.  Running games via a streaming system, no matter how fast your Internet connection may be, your controls simply won’t be as quick to respond as you may be used to.  Short of restructuring the entire infrastructure of Internet communication (which, impressively, Steve Perlman – OnLive’s founder, is currently working on) this will always be cause for concern.


So is OnLive really the console and PC gamer killer?


I don’t think so, but it’s definitely a game changer, sitting itself quite happily, comfortably and perhaps permanently in-between the hard-core PC gamer, the console lover and those who don’t have hundreds of pounds to spend on either.


Streaming gaming has real potential to please all people and end the divide, and it’ll make tablet owners happy too.  Personally I’ll keep on playing via the console rather than the PC, but I can also see myself plugging in my mouse and keyboard, just to get that extra control in some more PC-based games.


Despite my new dependency on constant fast internet access, what pleases me the most is that I no longer have to worry about keeping my hardware completely up to date. But instead I now worry whether or not OnLive can keep their hardware up to date!


With OnLive being so cheap, sexy, unique and fun to use I’m proud to add it to my console collection, and I look forward to watching the service expand and improve over the coming months and years.


The future of gaming is here. All hail streaming media! All hail the big fluffy cloud!

October 2011