Adhering to the maxim that technology is an ever and rapidly evolving beast, OnLive’s latest micro-console pushes cloud based gaming into a brave and viable new world.
At first glance, OnLive isn’t a whole lot to look at—and we like that. At roughly 5x4x1.25 inches, it’s compact and easy to carry around, which is kind of the point, isn’t it? Flip the sleek black and orange device around, and you’ll see a single port for all your needs, including an HDMI, Ethernet and speaker port.
It’s tremendously simple to operate. Plug in all of your needed cables, and swap to the proper input on your monitor or HD screen. OnLive functions as a virtual interface that operates within the cloud, allowing you to stream games that you purchase, demo, or rent from the marketplace, which is also easy to navigate.
The interface also allows users to watch other gameplay sessions going on in the OnLive world, which is an awesome feature that can allow users to get a peek into the game they may be thinking about buying. According to reps at OnLive, many users simply log into the service to watch other people game.
The controller has a great feel to it.
If all this sounds familiar, don't be alarmed. You're not crazy. We realize that this sounds remarkably similar to Steam, but there's one pivotal difference: You don't need high-powered hardware or a full sized modern console system to play games like Assassins Creed 2 or Shaun White Skateboarding. Everything--and we mean everything--is handled in the cloud by OnLive's massive array of servers. The company has multiple classes of servers dedicated to low-end and high-end games. Over time, OnLive plans to scale their servers down, so the high-end servers will become low-end as the minimum system requirements for these games increase. For now, most of the games are PC SKUs, although OnLive has indicated that this will change as more game publishers come on board.
After putting aside the marvel of the devices' simplicity and compatibility, the real question of course is whether or not OnLive is a viable game system and service? OnLive, which was released earlier this year as a PC and Mac client capable of of the same game-streaming functionality, was previously panned by critics for shoddy image quality and stutter-y performance, so how does this dedicated console version stack up?
We’re happy to say that, for the most part, it works well. We were impressed by the 720p output image quality when testing in the lab—the games were often recreated as sharply as they would be if they were running on a middle-of-the-road PC, or a current console like an Xbox 360. We ran Arkham Asylum (which still, a full year and a half later, looks great in our opinion) through our paces, and were pretty impressed with the amount of detail we saw on display, though we did notice minor texture hiccups (a result, we figure, of compression artifacts caught in the cloud) that weren’t distracting per say, but were definitely noticeable.
Actual gameplay delivered similar results. For the most part, OnLive functioned great—we realized that Arkham wasn’t really the best game to test split second reflexes, so we loaded up Dirt 2, and it was very responsive, even when we took it into our homes to test it under lower bandwidth settings. The controller (which rumbles!) itself is sleek and simple, and tailored much more in the vein of an Xbox 360 controller than a PS3 one; a design choice that we support (you need full triggers to play first person shooters, damnit!).
The controller also features built in 'Brag Clip' controls that allow you to capture great gameplay moments for others to see. You're able to record up to 10 seconds at a time, and store and compare your videos with others on the OnLive cloud.
In congruence with the minor visual gripes we found, we noticed extremely minor gameplay hiccups during our, ahem, testing. On rare occasions, the controller would kind of begin to function on its own, affected by what we figure to be tiny lag jumps, though this happened very rarely and usually only for a second or so. Still, if you’re playing a game that requires split second reflexes, these minor hiccups can become minor annoyances.
But many of these glitches can be forgiven when you consider the price. At a $100.00, OnLive is really a bargain. There is no monthly subscription fee, you’ve only got to pay for the games themselves. And the OnLive interface makes this easy to do, offering you the multiple ‘rental’ options if you don’t want to outright buy the game, and also allows you to demo any of the games in the marketplace for 30 minutes, free of charge.
There are a few causes of concern we considering this, however: Does ‘buying’ a game on a cloud imply ownership? Also, how many games will eventually populate the marketplace? On launch, OnLive will only come with 35 titles, many of which are slightly dated.
In other words, OnLive has the technical capability to handle cloud-based gaming, but lacks presence in their market. Only time will tell whether developers will embrace this platform, and choose to run with it (more on this later). There are classic games in the marketplace, yes, but there certainly aren’t many new ones. In the end, we’re cautiously optimistic about where this will go. The platform and the interface are nicely built—who knows, we could be glancing at the early blue prints of the future of gaming.
It’s a gamble that will be interesting to keep an eye on, as its success is no longer dependant on hardware limitations, but the interest garnered from game developers. But with strong new titles confirmed on the horizon—Assassins Creed: Brotherhood, F.E.A.R 3, and Duke Nukem Forever, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, to name a few —and a compact, inexpensive, and sleek form factor, we’re impressed, and positively curious about the future of cloud based gaming.