Please Note: This impressions piece was written after use of the OnLive service in the Midlands on a 20mb cable internet connection during launch. To quote many an advertisement, your experiences may vary.
Attending this year’s Eurogamer Expo allowed the chance to get hold of the OnLive MicroConsole, and test out the cloud-based gaming service for myself. I wasn’t the only one who wanted to get their grubby mitts on the device, with queues consistently wrapping themselves around the OnLive booth throughout both of the days I attended the event. However, after a 20 minute wait I had a MicroConsole of my own, so I retreated back to the merry old Midlands to give it a whirl, and see if it really was the future of the industry OnLive confidently state it will be.
For those not in the know, OnLive is a service that streams games to your entertainment device of choice, be it a TV (with the aforementioned MicroConsole), computer (be it PC or Mac), or portable device such as a tablet (or even an iPod.) The aim is to provide high quality gaming instantly, with no install time, no packaging, and no oversized box taking over the space near your television. To put it simply, think of it as a YouTube service you can interact with directly. OnLive launched 18 months ago in the US, and after what has been deemed a successful opening period the device has finally launched in Europe.
So what do you get with the initial package? In the box is a MicroConsole, a controller with USB cable for recharging and connectivity purposes, two battery packs (one with AA batteries and a rechargeable pack), a HDMI cable, a LAN cable, and a power adaptor. The MicroConsole itself is incredibly small, being the width and height of the controller it comes bundled with. Containing two USB ports, HDMI and AV ports, optical and analogue audio outputs and a LAN port, the device is surprisingly thin for what is included. The controller is almost like a merging of the Xbox 360 and PS3 controllers into one device; the larger silhouette of the Xbox device to give it a substantial feel, paired up with the twin stick positioning and D-pad of its PS3 counterpart. Its major weakness lies in the shoulder buttons, which do not feel as comfortable to use as they could be. This is especially the case with the triggers, as the soft tactile resistance when being pressed felt a little out of place when I was trying to play first person shooters.
Booting up the console took longer than I would have expected, with almost 30 seconds of waiting before I was greeted with the login screen, and that goes on top of the login process (but with plenty to talk about on that topic, we’ll get to that later on.) Initially I had some of my own issues when starting up the MicroConsole for the first time. Whenever I wish to connect my Xbox 360 to the internet I do so through a wi-fi connection bridge via my laptop, and as such I intended to do the same with the MicroConsole. Sadly, I was unable to find a connection to their servers that way, and had to update the firmware through a wired connection to my router before being able to use a wi-fi bridge (so for those wanting to do it that way, save yourself some hassle and update it through a wire first.) Otherwise, set-up of the MicroConsole is simple and easy; just plug everything in and type in your login details.
And so began my first foray into the world of OnLive.
Upon logging in I was greeted with an intro video for the service, zooming in on a sphere of screens displaying different games. Immediately I begin to notice occasional stutters in the stream, causing tiny drops in video quality of the playback; nothing hugely problematic in the grand scheme of things, but in comparison to a traditional home console I found noticeable. However, once greeted with my options I found everything was well presented, with access to the marketplace and my games right in front of me. Access to the friends list and personal profile are also on the front screen, although a dashboard containing all of the previously mentioned options and more, can be accessed by pressing the OnLive logo, be it on the controller or on the main menu.
However, the MicroConsole contains a few features on the main menu that separate OnLive’s service from its competitors; the Arena and Brag Clips.
The Arena allows you to watch other players go through their games. This isn’t pre-recorded gameplay; what you see is actually happening at that very moment. Spectators also have the ability to show their approval or disgust for the performance they are viewing by giving a thumbs-up or thumbs down. In one session when I was testing out Arkham Asylum, one person jumped in to watch, waited until I had disposed of a few inmates, and then gave me a thumbs-up. I found the option overall to be both fantastic and a little creepy at the same time, but none the less it shows off the capabilities of the service (such as being able to organise a live speed run of a game and invite others to watch.) For those not wanting to have an audience, you can turn off this option in your privacy settings (or only allow your friends to judge your gaming style.)
Brag clips on the other hand provide exactly what they sound like they should; short videos that highlight moments a player are proud or amused by. On the bottom of the front panel of the controller lies media buttons normally associated with a DVR, with play, rewind, fast forward, and more importantly, record. By pressing this record button OnLive creates a video of the previous 10 seconds of gameplay, which is then automatically uploaded to the player profile. These clips can then be shared via Facebook to further entertain your online friends. It’s a great feature to show off the moments of gameplay that are usually resigned to forum posts or anecdotes with fellow gamers in person, but don’t go thinking you can record the entirety of an epic boss battle; right now you are limited to 10 seconds of visual braggery.
So now you know what unique features OnLive brings to the table, how does it handle performance-wise? I feel the best word to use here would be “temperamental”, but I want to stress that this is not down to anything that OnLive has done or provides; this is sadly down to the fact the service relies on a stable internet connection that internet infrastructure in the UK can consistently provide. From my use of the service at various times of the day, I have seen OnLive at both its best and its worst performance. For instance, logging in can be as quick as 5-10 seconds when your internet speeds are high, and the service is not experiencing high levels of user traffic. This translates to gameplay which is almost seamless in terms of latency and incredibly close in terms of visual quality of home console versions.
Multiplayer aspects worked very well, although depended on existing systems instead of using OnLive’s friends lists (hopefully with will change with future releases.) For example, when testing out Borderlands with our very own Josh Clark I had to add him as a friend in-game to form a co-op game even though he was already on my friends list, although once started it worked very well (except for the part where Josh was ambushed by the skags during the first boss fight. I saved the day though.) Similarly, when I gave DiRT 3 a spin with Dealspwn overlord Matt Gardner, we had to rely on the matchmaking services to place us in the same game. Thankfully it was 1pm and we appeared to be the only people playing it, and once in game we had no issues.
Well, except for Matt trouncing me with his sweet driving skills… damn him.
On the other hand, when the connection takes a dive it can fall right into the depths of performance hell. During times of high traffic I could be waiting for as long as a couple of minutes to get to the main menu after signing in, and there were even times when it rather cautiously warned me that there were connection issues and to continue at my own risk, where I would be greeted by incredibly sporadic bursts of sound that was clearly from the intro video over the top of a completely blank screen. I even experienced moments of performance in-between the two extremes mentioned. The best example I could give was when I decided to give S.T.A.L.K.E.R a test. During my session with the FPSRPG I found the quality of the video degrading fairly often, to the point where I could not read any text or clearly understand the in-game maps (which, if you’ve played S.T.A.L.K.E.R, is somewhat key to the experience.)
As previously mentioned, input lag from using the controller was generally not an issue. That’s not to say it was lag-free though; I did a test when I was trying out Borderlands, where I quickly tapped the trigger, with the gunfire happening in-game slightly after I had let go. While I am confident I could have played through the entirety of the game, those who value every millisecond of control will no doubt find it annoying. This brings me to the alternative input system for OnLive; any USB mouse and keyboard. I was able to plug in my Razor Lycosa and Logitech G9 with no issues, giving me the option to control any compatible game with them if I wished. Unfortunately, I found using them increased the level of input latency. Playing Unreal Tournament III with this setup caused me to feel like I was intoxicated whilst trying to shoot my opponents, while my time with AaaaaAAaaaAAAaa-AAAAaAAAAA!!! ‑ A Reckless Disregard for Gravity was even worse, with it almost impossible to control myself effectively during free-falls.
While it would be understandable to feel the cons outweigh the pros and dismiss OnLive outright, I just can’t do it. The service provided is fantastic when stable internet is available to you, and the options in which you can choose to game are numerous. The PlayBack package at £6.99 a month allows unlimited access to a pre-determined set of games for 30 days, while different tiers of pricing for individual games, from 24-hour passes, to 5 day passes, to an outright purchase, gives gamers the freedom to choose how they want to proceed, all of which happens instantly and without an installation. OnLive even gives you the opportunity to trial any game for 30 minutes to help you decide if you want it, allowing you to continue any progress made after a purchase. This, along with the social aspects of the Arena and Brag Clips, provide a viable and different alternative to the traditional home console, but only when the connection to the service is there. Without that, it’s dead in the water, and with the MicroConsole package costing £70 that's a bit of a gamble.
The Short Version: It’s not the immediate future of gaming, but you can definitely see it from here. What OnLive provides with the MicroConsole is an incredibly slick and well presented service, but its dependence on a fast and stable internet connection makes it a system that cannot be currently recommended to everyone. That said, when the net connection is up to par it’s a great service that has incredible room for growth, both in its catalogue of games and as a product.