Tuesday, 4 October 2011

A Matmian’s view of OnLive

OnLive Console

So what can I do with OnLive?

With OnLive you get to play a variety of games on the most basic of computers or even simply on a TV, using a controller of your choice. And all it will really require is a good Internet connection. It sounds too good to be true doesn’t it? That’s what I thought. So I decided to test the system out for myself. 
I joined the OnLive service (membership is free) 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 nice feature I instantly noticed was the ability to record clips from your games and publish for all to see, great for a chuckle, especially recordings that point out game flaws such as walking through walls and defying gravity. 
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.
 I start playing Split Second, one of my favourite racing games. It was at this point I noticed the screen jolt and stick for a moment or two, then a “network problem” image pops up in the top right. A few seconds later and the blip is gone and everything is back to normal. Was this a sign of things to come? 
The game played ALMOST flawlessly. Every few minutes or so the network blip would raise it’s head again. I could put this down to teething problems, and keep my finger’s crossed that the good people at OnLive are working on improving the way in which the system streams back to the user. Another issue I considered was that, while console gamers will be generally impressed by the speed of response from their gamepad, PC users may not be as equally impressed when it comes to first person shooters. The ability to spin around very fast when necessary via the mouse is one of the reasons FPS games do so well on the PC. And running 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. 
However, I remain quietly optimistic. And, as I mentioned before, I’m more of a console gamer than a PC gamer, so it was time to try the system out with a gamepad. I got it as a package deal… pre-order Saints Row 3 for £35.99 and get a free console (£6 shipping costs added on top) - although had I known October’s deal would be the same with a preorder of Batman: Arkham City I would have held out….doh!. 
Two days later my console arrived. My first impression of it was how nice the packaging was. Solid black box, all accessories neatly packaged in a very “Apple” kind of way. It really appeals to a modern day gadget lover like myself. The console is no bigger than a mini usb hard drive, but technologically speaking it really packs a punch. There are:
  •  2 USB ports (allowing you to wire up the gamepad if you prefer - although it’s bluetooth so there’s no real reason - or to plug in a mouse and/or keyboard)
  •  HDMI out (yes, with full 1080p support)
  •  a digital audio out (with 5.1 surround supported)
  • an ethernet port
No hard drive is required so it’s nice and light. Basically it’s just a very pretty modem with a video and audio card. However, one downside was that the console doesn’t come with Wireless connection as standard. You can still connect wirelessly, but only via a wireless bridge (so it loses a point in my eyes). The gamepad surprised me the most. I wasn’t lying when I said it rivals the Playstation and Xbox. 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. Top that off with the usual rumblepad and menu buttons. Possibly the nicest controller I’ve ever used.  
So 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, allowing me to navigate around and find my games. 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). Loading the game takes seconds, then it takes me to my last saved point. And away I go. The game plays just as well as before, but 5-6 minutes in I get the same issue I had before…”network problem” for a few seconds, then the game continues. I play the game for 3 hours and this problem only appears perhaps 3 times. So overall it doesn’t bother me. It only serves to persuade me to update my 6mpbs connection. 

Why you should consider OnLive

  • Free membership (no subscription unless you fancy additional package deals)
  • Free to play most games 30 minutes a day
  • No need for top of the range graphics and sound card
  • No hard drive required
  • Multi-platform (including when playing multiplayer online)
  • Amazing gamepad that works both with the console and the PC
  • The ability to save video clips
  • The ability to watch others play games and view trailers for games
  • The ability to play multiplayer games
  • Console is relatively cheap, very lightweight, and simple to use
  • Wireless if required (via bridge)
  • HDMI (1080p) support
  • 5.1 surround sound support
  • A vast amount of well-known games
  • The comfort of knowing the hardware and game library will be continually updated automatically
  • The ability to customise controls (if using a keyboard)
  • Can modify settings to help improve your viewing experience.
  • Plus realisation that you are playing with brand new emerging technology.

Sounds too good to be true. What’s the catch?

As great as it is, a fast Internet connection will always be required. OnLive’s biggest problem (and sole reason why the system could fail if not correctly dealt with) is that even with a decent Internet speed you may encounter the occasional second or so network delay, or too many people using the server (leading to a delay when logging in), so finger’s crossed this issue will be corrected. 
While the console does provide an HDMI output, due to the streaming process the quality is not true HD because of the need to compress the video. And the slower your Internet speed, the worse the video quality. 
The cost of purchasing a game is not much cheaper than purchasing the game from anywhere else (either online or in the shops). This is disappointing, especially due to the above issue (not getting TRUE HD quality). I would have assumed the cost would be slightly less. However, perhaps the price may start to drop if more people adopt the service. What also concerned me was that, of the many of the games I demo’d, most of the ones I wanted to purchase could only be purchased through a £6 a month subscription package deal! And I’ve never appreciated being forced down a subscription route. If I want a particular game I should be able to buy it outright, not spend the rest of my life paying a monthly fee to access it. 
The OnLive console can only support a maximum of 2 players and they only provide one gamepad when you buy the console (you can buy another separately). And after researching the multiplayer options in some of the games I spotted you can only play against other OnLive members. But I guess this makes sense, so as not to give any none-streamer the upper hand. 
Finally, some of the games in the marketplace appear to be console ports. This is usually fine, however in some games the visual control instructions presents an Xbox or Playstation control system. Or the game may be a PC only game, therefore labelling keys incorrectly (i.e. ‘press the E key to open the door’…when there is no E on the gamepad). There is also the issue of some games (ie. Saints Row 2) being ported in a sloppy manner, causing various bugs to appear (the handling of vehicles in this game is, for the most part, impossible). But that’s more down to the game developers, not the hardware. 

Halt, who goes there? Console/PC friend or foe?

So is OnLive really the console and PC gamer killer? I don’t think so, and I don’t think it wants to be either. But it is 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.
Should OnLive solve their little network issues out, streaming gaming has real potential to please all people and end the divide. And in time it’ll even make the 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. 
When playing with more than 2 people in the room, and with its exclusive titles and REAL high definition I’ll always need my Xbox around, plus it’s nice to physically own a game (a bit like those who still prefer CD’s over MP3’s) . But 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!
by Meta Matmian

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