Everything is going “cloud” these days. Your files, music, books, video – all online, all the time, accessible from anywhere with an internet connection. But what about your games? Existing services like Steam allow you to download and install games on to your local machine, but what about “true” cloud gaming where the games themselves live elsewhere and you just consume the content (play the game) locally? OnLive is a new service that aims to do just that, and I’ve been asked to have a poke at it.
OnLive works like a streaming movie service, except the movies are games and you can control them as if you were playing on your own PC or console. To get connected, you sign up for a (free) account, buy an OnLive “microconsole” or install the (free) OnLive application to your PC or Mac, and start playing. On the PC the whole process took about ten minutes. The microconsole was simple to set up too, but unfortunately refused to connect to OnLive (“error a511″) so I wasn’t able to test it.
As a streaming service however, OnLive is of course sensitive to bandwidth and latency. They recommend a 5Mbit per second wired connection as the minimum for a decent experience, and I would concur. My ADSL runs at about 6.5Mb/sec, but even so the OnLive application complained about the speed and refused to connect at times. My Wi-Fi didn’t really cut it either, and in fact the microconsole hardware doesn’t support wireless connections at all. That’s something to consider if you’re thinking of a living room installation.
Around 150 games – big studio and indie – are available and most have no-install free trials you can start playing pretty much instantly, which is a very nice feature. Also nice is that it takes only a few seconds from choosing a game on the OnLive dashboard to starting playing it. The whole dashboard experience is slick and works well, and each game saves your progress and preferences in the OnLive cloud so you can pick up where you left off from wherever you access the service.
Individual titles can be purchased outright, or you can buy subscriptions to a range of games over a time period. For example, BT is offering its broadband subscribers an exclusive opportunity to get the OnLive PlayPack Bundle free for three months when they sign-up before January 31 2012.
So how does it play? I’ll admit, I was dubious when I first heard about OnLive last year. “Games? Over the internet? Can’t be done!”, I thought. The truth is that it works surprisingly well, but not perfectly so.
The games I tested were responsive and play more or less as if they were running locally. Sound and control are fine, but graphics are degraded, looking soft and compressed compared to locally rendered versions, especially when there was lots of movement on the screen. I had some trouble spotting enemies in the background when playing Space Marine for example, despite playing up close on a 23″ 1680×1050 display.
I am at the lower limit of required connection speed though, and I’d expect the graphical fidelity to improve with available bandwidth. OnLive games may well look acceptable with a better link and/or when viewed at console-TV distance.
The other issue I had was a certain laggy jerkiness of mouse control, but this was slight and only noticeable with particular games (looking at you, FEAR 3). Again, this is something that might improve with a better internet connection.
OnLive’s ace in the hole though is that it looks and plays the same no matter what hardware you’re running it on. I have a fairly powerful gaming PC (Intel Core i7-2600K + Nvidia GTX460 1Gb), but I was able to play OnLive games equally well on the gaming rig and Intel HD3000 and Intel Atom powered machines (both very much not gaming rigs).
Running the games locally would have been impossible on the less powerful machines. For example, Robot Entertainment’s Orcs Must Die (a fine game, but hardly a gfx card breaker) installed on the Atom N450 powered netbook was unplayable, running at (est.) 5fps with most of the graphics missing. Under OnLive it played perfectly.
I could also have played these games on my Mac and some are also playable on Android touch devices, even though native versions are not available for those platforms. With OnLive, hardware doesn’t matter.
Cloud gaming is here, but who’s going to buy it? I can’t see OnLive converting many hardcore gamers; they will already possess machines capable of delivering a better looking experience locally, OnLive response times and framerates are lower and some top titles are still missing from the catalogue (Modern Warfare, Battlefield). It’s also not going to attract mobile gamers because of the bandwidth requirements. However, for the more casual home gamer, who perhaps doesn’t want to invest in a powerful PC or console, or risk a lot of money on a single game, OnLive does have a lot to offer. So long as they’ve got a fast and reliable internet connection.
- Easy to set up
- Low hardware requirements
- Good selection of games
- Games available on platforms without native versions
- Free trials for most games
- Quick start, no installs
- Needs a fast internet connection
- Degraded graphics
- Some big titles missing
- Some games have control niggles
OnLive is an innovative service that does work and I’m sure will find a market.
OnLive is available in the UK now and you can create an account and start playing for free by visiting http://www.onlive.co.uk