OnLive: Does Gaming in the Cloud Live Up to the Hype?

I haven’t done much serious gaming since my heyday as an indomitable force subjugating the lands of Morrowind and vanquishing spud Covenant and Flood aliens—it’s partly because being adult can be time-consuming, but mostly because I’ve never wanted to fork over the cash for a top-shelf gaming PC. So when the time came to test-drive OnLive, a “cloud gaming” platform that enables on-demand play of video games by connecting to outside servers, I was eager to unleash the inner gamer that has been wrestling inside of me.

The possibility that OnLive’s data centers might not be able to handle mine and thousands of other gamers’ alter egos lingered in my mind, though. After all, if Batman’s pointy bat-ears get blocky and blurred, what’s the point of it all? The idea of seamlessly playing the newest games without a powerful rig or console is very exciting, but the practicality of the notion is often met with skepticism by hardcore gamers.

The Gear

OnLive can be accessed through two different mediums: a downloadable application on your PC or Mac or through the $99 OnLive Game System console that connects to a TV. I tried out both. The test PC was a Toshiba Satellite M645 notebook with a Core i3 processor, Intel integrated HD graphics, and 4GB of RAM. I connected through my home network’s Wi-Fi, with connection speeds that varied from 3 to 5 megabits per second. The console was connected through an Ethernet cable to the same router and via HDMI to a 37-inch Panasonic TV.

Setup

Getting started with OnLive requires the creation of a free account with an e-mail address, then a simple download of a 7MB application, which launches the program’s network on your PC. First you’ll need to check out the marketplace, where you browse the titles available for purchase.

There are a few choices for getting games: the PlayPack, a bundle of more than 100 regularly updated games for unlimited play at $9.99 per month, a pay-as-you-play PlayPass, which requires payment for each game purchase, or both. Games can be rented for three or five days, or purchased for full unlimited access.

I found OnLive’s main menu self-explanatory and easy to navigate, with options to go straight to your last save point, browse titles, edit your profile, or explore OnLive’s extra features.

Many of the games have demos that don’t require purchase, instead allowing the user to dive into the game from the start for up to 30 minutes. Downloading games is quite easy. The Marketplace shows all the available titles, and browsing a title will bring up information about the game, including its metacritic rating and the game’s trailer. To play the game, you simply click a button to download, and it’s available immediately after charging your account. Using the OnLive console works the exact same way.

When you’re connected to the console, you’ll exchange the keyboard controls of the computer for a wired controller that feels and looks just like an Xbox controller.

Performance

Once the game boots up, it’s as if OnLive isn’t there at all. The network will start the game within a few seconds, and you have all the same menus, options, and gameplay features that would be available if you purchased the conventional disc.

The featured games at the time of testing included Deus Ex: Human Revolution, DiRT 3, and F.E.A.R. 3, with Batman: Arkham City and Saints Row: The Third listed as titles available for preorder. OnLive’s collection as a whole consists of about 150 games of varying quality. Games included in the monthly PlayPack are numerous but usually inferior, with a collection of classic and indie games that resembles the stacked piles of generally subpar titles that fill up the clearance bucket at Wal-Mart.

I won’t be playing Gene Labs (one of the many strange, off-beat games offered) anytime soon, but such classics as Just Cause 2 and Hitman: Blood Money can keep most thumbs sweaty for a month.

Three hours into Deus Ex: Human Revolution ($49.99 full pass), I had forgone my journalistic undertaking for some high-octane skullcrushing and virtual vagabonding. The graphics and cinematic interludes of Deus Ex were surprisingly sharp on my Toshiba laptop—movement was uninterrupted, characters were smooth, and I could clearly see the grooves in my augmented shotgun. When explosive revolver shells hit my target, a puff of smoke whiffed onto my screen and engulfed my character without missing a beat. While not up to par with HD visuals seen on modern consoles, the graphics were impressive. This was taken to another level when I played on the high-definition 37-inch LCD TV.

There were a few moments when the game lagged for a brief second, but it became evident that quality play was strictly a function of connection speed. When my connection dropped to about 3 Mbps, things became fuzzier. On a few occasions, I received a message saying my game couldn’t load, but after retrying once or twice, the game launched. The only other time I got booted was after a brief period of inactivity.

Special Features

Perhaps the most unique features of the system are OnLive’s innovative community functions. Users can record 10-second clips of their gameplay and share them with the community, and anyone with open privacy settings can view another player’s live gaming session in the “arena.” If you like what you see or know another user, they can be added as a friend.

Poking in on other players can be insightful and fun, and blasting my way through the last minutes of Human Revolution in front of a crowd of cheerers was exhilarating. Some titles also come with challenges that reward the person with OnLive’s “achievement points,” so you can keep it real on Game Street.

Verdict

OnLive awakened a sleeping giant inside of me. If you’re not a hardcore gamer who drools at the idea of a backlit Alienware keyboard or a socialite looking to jazz up your living room with a shiny PS3, it will do the same for you. The platform is not a replacement for the intense gamer, and it’s not meant to be. For a college student with some free time on the weekends, someone looking to play hot games on a thin wallet, or a serious player looking to rent a PC game, OnLive is a great option. The social tools can be engrossing, and if the selection of games improves, OnLive could turn cloud gaming into real gaming.

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