OnLive

OnLive, the cloud-based gaming service, has finally arrived on British shores, bringing with it instant access to blockbuster titles across multiple devices. 

With OnLive, games are purchased and played in the cloud, sent from servers running titles at top whack, to either an OnLive Microconsole plugged in to your tv, or on a laptop, desktop or, soon, an iPad. 

The theory is that you can game without boundaries; play something like Deus Ex: Human Revolution at 720p on a lowly MacBook air and then continue your saved game on your television in your sitting room. It is a seriously groundbreaking concept and one that throws the traditional conventions of discs and consoles out of the window. 

In a market dominated by the all powerful triumvirate of Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony, OnLive is a seriously ballsy move. But has all that risk paid off? And is the service up to scratch? Or is it more of a laggy roadtrip to low bandwithsville USA? 

The service

So what exactly is OnLive and why is everyone so excited about it? It works by streaming a feed from servers to your OnLive account. What this means is that you don't need to dish out for a brand spanking new PC or expensive games console to play titles looking their best, or at least theoretically.

Sceptics have expressed concerns over what sort of internet connection you are going to need to achieve this but OnLive remains adamant that 5mbps will get you 720p through your telly. The problem is that all that data being streamed poses two major problems for your gaming, the first is a lag in terms of input from the controller and the second is poor picture quality. 

Once you get yourself signed up for OnLive over at its website you are basically ready to go. You need to download an extremely light desktop client to run things on PC or Mac, but that is about it. From there you can opt to either pay say £6.99 for a PlayPack, which grants a selection of games to play, or purchase titles individually, or even rent them. Your first game costs only a pound to pick up, which is quite frankly insanely good value. We opted for the new Deus Ex: Human Revolution, for just a pound. It is worth trying out the service alone just for this as the game would set you back £40 in the shops. 

The client

OnLive exists in various forms. It is available as a Microconsole, which forms the meat of things, but also as a desktop client. The idea of being able to play console quality games on our laptop's puny graphics processors is pretty amazing and great for those who have chosen a lightweight machine over a powerful one. You simply download the clients and sign in and you are then greeted with the same UI that exists across all of the OnLive versions. It doesn't crash, runs smooth and looks decent enough in full screen.

On a 50mb connection things definitely look better on the television than the desktop, but it still runs smooth and pretty much lag free. In fact we tested the desktop version of OnLive on various internet speeds and found little issue with lag. Sure the picture wasn't always great, but games were always playable and never did we encounter any problems with logging in or using the community aspects of OnLive. We also had a play with games we knew could run full whack on our SLI Nvidia 560 Ti test rig. Deus Ex: Human Revolution definitely benefited from the texture bump and the extra anti aliasing, but OnLive wasn't too far behind. 

You can browse the game library in the OnLive client a bit like how you would iTunes. Either search to find something directly or opt to go through by genre and pick something out. Once you have the game you want, you purchase it and then it gets added to your My Games, playable whenever you like. 

It is best to think of the client a bit like the Xbox 360 dashboard, giving quick access to all the bells and whistles of a modern gaming system. So from the home page you can skip straight to your friends, check out brag clips - your most triumphant gaming moments - shop or generally engage with the OnLive community. Selecting "last played" will instantly fire up whatever game you were enjoying last.

It's simple, incredibly lightweight and so will run on any system and does exactly what you need it to. We would perhaps have liked to have seen some other options and perhaps a few apps, but hey this is the first iteration of an entirely new gaming system and they have done a good job getting it right first time. 

The console

The really exciting bit about OnLive is the microconsole. At just £69 it is about the cheapest possible games console you can buy, yet it can run hugely demanding games through your telly at 720p. All the same desktop features of OnLive are there, but you get the added bonus of a proper controller and what we think is a slightly improved picture quality.

You are going to want to connect this thing via Ethernet. It has wireless but if you want the most out of the service, Ethernet is the only way. We did notice that on a 42-inch TV, OnLive could look quite muddy and gave us the impression it wasn't quite 720p. Then again at times it would look super sharp, probably due to congestion somewhere along the internet pipe.

The actual size of the console is the first thing that gets you, it's tiny. You get an HDMI output, Ethernet, optical, power and audio ports and then a pair of USB inputs on the front. All this is crammed into something just slightly bigger than a packet of cigarettes.

The unit is well buit too, and this quality is carries over onto the controller, which behaves a bit like the illegitimate love child of an Xbox 360 and a PS3. The buttons aren't quite perfectly placed and it feels slightly odd to use at first. Then again, that might just be because we are so used to playing with the Xbox 360 and PS3. Remember what it felt like when you first used the N64 controller? It feels a bit like that. 

The single OnLive button in the middle brings up the options menu found on the desktop browser and the quick record, pause and play buttons are in charge of video and music content. They are a nice little addition to the conventional controller layout and we hope to see more of them appearing on other console controllers. 

The games

Without games OnLive would be nothing and the service needs a good selection to warrant adopting the console as a gaming machine. Thankfully there is just about enough to keep things exciting, sure you won't get every big title launched, but most mainstream launches hit the service. Batman Arkham Asylum is there, as is Dirt 3. Of course you're going to miss out on stuff like Gears of War 3 or any PlayStation 3 exclusives but believe us, there is plenty to get your teeth stuck into. You can find a list of games on OnLive's website.

The only real issue we have with the actual gaming element of OnLive (and one of the very few we have with the entire service) is that games are still full price. We personally can't quite understand why you need to dole out top whack for a game which exists totally in the cloud, especially where absolutely nothing, short of streaming it, is delivered to you. 

Verdict

This is the hardest part of the review for us. OnLive initially dazzled with its ingenuity and concept but after a week or so with the service that initial magic has gone. 

We like to play games and we aren't hugely bothered how we play them, provided that they look good and handle well. For the majority of the time OnLive manages both these things, but then every so often you are reminded that you are playing in the cloud. There will be a touch of lag, a fade in picture quality or something else that reminds you that you're gaming via servers. This would almost be enough to put us off the service if there were only the microconsole to play with. But having OnLive on both PC, Mac and TV as well as our iPad (when it is released), puts the service in an entirely different light. 

Lets take the new Deus Ex game as an example. We initially started by playing it through on the PC but then due to work had to travel quite a lot. OnLive meant we could pick the game up on our MacBook Air when away from home, then continue where we left off using the Microconsole when we returned. This is something truly revolutionary and quite unlike any gaming service we have tried before. We are total converts. 

Sure OnLive has a few hiccups in the latency department but they are all easily overlooked when you understand the potential it has. On top of this, the company only plans on adding to the service, making the tablet the next possible gaming platform (we've already seen it on the HTC Flyer). We can only imagine what will follow, but we expect to be able to be playing things on our iPhone or Android handset in the near future. 

For the purist who wants the best in graphics or the biggest selection of titles, then stick with the PC or console. If you are willing to experiment, like casual gaming or don't mind which format you play on, provided the games themselves are good, then OnLive is for you. 



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