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OnLive: Hands On With The Service And The System

Last week, new details about the price and availability of the OnLive microconsole came to light. With the system shipping out on December 2 for a reasonable $99, you may be wondering if it’s worth the minimal entry fee. I’ve been playing around with the microconsole for the past couple of weeks, and I’ve come to the conclusion that OnLive definitely has an audience, but there’s a good a chance it isn’t for you.

Let’s get the technical stuff out of the way first. If you’re skeptical that OnLive functions as promised, I understand the concern, but it works. The biggest barrier to entry is simply that it requires a wired, high-speed internet connection (a 3Mbps connection is required and 5+ is recommended). Assuming that’s taken care of, though, getting signed up is extremely easy. You can create an account at the OnLive website, and you don’t even have to attach a credit card to the account before you can hop on the console and begin playing trial versions of any game.

I tested the game at home on my Comcast 12 Mbps cable Internet setup. Almost every game that I tried on the service ran very smoothly and with no noticeable lag between controller input and the action happening on-screen. The least friendly title was also the most fast-paced -- the racing game Dirt 2 -- but it was hard to tell if the occasional hitches and slowdown were due to OnLive’s performance or a rough PC port. On the other hand, action titles that required fast reflexes -- such as Unreal Tournament III and Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands -- seemed to work perfectly. Graphics weren’t quite as sharp as on an Xbox 360 or PS3, but even on a 40-inch display, the difference was negligible.

The microconsole comes with a single fairly high-quality controller that struck me as kind of a mash-up of the Xbox 360 and PS3 pads. The two analog sticks are located in the middle, like on a PS3, but the shoulder buttons are of the nicer Xbox 360 variety, and the face buttons are labeled "A," "B," "X," and "Y" in the same layout as on a 360 controller. The one totally unique part about the OnLive controller is the bottom: a series of buttons for recording and playing back game clips, which highlight one of the elements that sets OnLive apart from the competition.

Like most modern gaming consoles, OnLive has a heavy focus on community, allowing for friends lists and sending messages. What’s new is that OnLive also allows you to take "Brag Clips" while you play -- brief videos showing off something you did in-game. At any point while playing a game on OnLive, you can tap the "record" button on the bottom of the controller, and it will instantly save a video of the last 10 seconds of gameplay, allowing you to hit the button after something cool has happened instead of needing to plan ahead. Brag clips are then automatically uploaded so other OnLive players can check out your accomplishments.

If seeing 10 seconds of another player’s game isn’t good enough, OnLive also features the Arena, where you can view anyone with a public account as they play a game live. You don’t need to own the games in question or pay anything, and you can even interact with the player by cheering or jeering them. It’s the kind of feature that I find really awesome, although I’m not sure the appeal is very wide. Call me a voyeur if you must, but I had a lot of fun checking out what random people were doing in Just Cause 2 or Splinter Cell: Conviction and then letting them know what I thought. Getting jeered when I made a stupid jump in Prince of Persia made my mistake all the more embarrassing.

Gamers aren’t going to purchase OnLive just for the chance to watch other players, though, and that’s where the situation starts getting trickier. Since OnLive’s games are streamed from their servers, you won’t be receiving any physical discs nor downloading data to your microconsole. Instead, you can select any game from OnLive’s current library of around 35 games and start playing within 10 seconds or so. Almost every game on the service will allow you to play free for 30 minutes.

Pricing for playing full games is one of OnLive’s biggest weaknesses right now. To purchase a “full PlayPass,” you’ll pay between $4.99 for indie titles and $49.99 for new releases. Since you’re paying for the PC version of the game, you’re paying $10 less than the $59.99 console norm, but that’s still too much with the restrictions that OnLive comes with. For one, you can only play the game when your Internet and the OnLive servers are both up and running. To be fair, OnLive CEO Steve Perlman tells me that they’ve had 100% uptime since their June launch, but that doesn’t guarantee that something won’t mess up in the future, and it certainly doesn’t help if your home network goes down during your free gaming afternoon.

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