Version tested: OnLive
Game streaming service OnLive launched in the UK at the Eurogamer Expo last week. We've been running two tests of it since. This review, conducted by Dan at home, approaches it from the perspective of the man in the street. On Saturday, we'll present a full technical performance analysis by Digital Foundry's Rich Leadbetter.
Live gameplay, streamed directly to your home. Instant access to the latest games, with no downloads or installation. You press a button, and a computer hundreds (even thousands) of miles away responds instantly. It sounds like science fiction, but OnLive is now up and running in the UK, so we can finally put the claims to the test in a real-life domestic setting. Are we witnessing the majestic birth of a new era in cloud-based gaming, or a clumsy newborn that needs time to find its feet?
The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a bit of both.
First, let's take a moment to pick apart exactly what OnLive actually offers. It's accessible via your PC or Mac at the OnLive website, downloading an app that then connects you to the OnLive servers. Sign-up is free, and you can then make purchases as and when you want, try 30-minute demos, rent games for three or five days, or sign up for a monthly PlayPass for £6.99 which grants you unlimited access to a selection of around 100 titles.
But OnLive is also a console, or at least a "micro console". This standalone kit costs £69.99, plugs directly into your broadband and HDTV and comes with its own wireless controller. You then access the same account and content, but from the comfort of your sofa.
The micro console
It's the micro console that most clearly reveals OnLive's ambitions. This is a service with at least one eye firmly on the living room. It's also here that the technology grinds most obviously against the limits of the real world and the expectations of mainstream consumers.
The micro console itself is a discreet little thing. Packaged in a sleek black box with tasteful orange highlights, it looks for all the world like you've picked up a really expensive pair of trainers. Inside is the console itself, a small, slim oblong about the same size as a 3DS. It's glossy, weighty and the prospect of using something so minimalist to pipe gameplay straight into your telly is tantalising.
You also get a wireless controller, unashamedly based on the 360 game pad design, right down to the "home" button in the middle with "back" and "start" to either side (although the positions of the left stick and superior d-pad are reversed). It's substantial, if slightly awkward in the hand: in design, feel and function it brings to mind any number of third-party Xbox peripherals, although the build quality is better than most. It does have rumble, a nice touch that could easily have been omitted.
Also in the box is the expected bundle of wires, including an HDMI cable for your TV. It's here that impulse purchasers will get their first shock. Since it demands so much bandwidth, the micro console has no wi-fi as standard. You can hook it up to an external wireless bridge but the recommendation is to use a direct ethernet connection to your router. There's a cable in the box, but at just five feet in length it's going to be of no use to anyone who doesn't already have their router within spitting distance of the TV. You'll either need to rearrange your home network or fork out for a longer cable.
It's the sort of essential info that isn't to be found on the swanky black box, and is the first of several awkward short-cuts that will make the OnLive experience a tough sell for the mass market.
Setting it up
Customer service is another. Upon plugging the micro console in and firing it up for the first time, I couldn't get it to connect to OnLive's server. The support section of the OnLive UK website simply forwards you on to the US site, which has some not entirely helpful FAQs and links out to networking guides on other sites. It's a bit like taking your iPhone to the Apple Store and being told that there's a bloke on the market who can sort it out for you.
I couldn't use the live text chat helpline, because it's American and they were all asleep. So I submit a question using the standard form and wait for a reply. There are also no forums on the official site, so I Google around until I find onlivefans.com, where it seems other people are having similar difficulties. No single answer presents itself and port forwarding doesn't help, so I'm reduced to the most rudimentary technical fixes I can think of.
The micro console's "no frills" approach really hurts it here, as there's no way to manually enter network settings. Eventually, after power cycling the thing for a few hours, it connects and I'm off and running. What was the problem? I guess I'll never know, but if I were a normal dad trying to get the thing working on Christmas morning, I'd probably be even more frustrated than I already was.
The next morning I finally get a response from the tech support team in the US. The paraphrased version: "Just keep trying and it'll connect eventually."
There are other curious quirks brought about by the limited functionality of the micro console, so let's get those out of the way now. A lot of functions are delegated to the website rather than the console dashboard, for example. Setting up a new user, making any changes to your gamer profile and authorising access to Facebook are all beyond the scope of the limited dashboard.
There's also no power switch or reset button... [Correction: OnLive has been in touch to inform us that there is indeed a power button on the console - quite well disguised as one of the lights on the front of the unit. Our mistake! We've removed our criticisms here.]
That's a lot of niggling irritations for a new hardware launch to shoulder, especially as the console itself is so stark and unhelpful when it comes to finding solutions. Thankfully, once it's up and running, there are more positive things to focus on.
The front end
Those positive things include the Arena, which lets you drop in and spectate on what others are playing as they play. Voice chat is supported (in a beta form, at least) and it's a great way to get a feel for a game. As well as navigating the feeds from a vast video wall, you can also find specific Arena links on the marketplace page for each game.
Similar in execution are the Brag Clips, which can be activated by hitting the "record" button on the base of the controller. This then automatically saves the last ten seconds of gameplay as a video clip, and will even post it direct to Facebook. These aren't terribly well explained from within the dashboard, but it's easy to see how having such a function applied across every game you play could lead to something worthwhile further down the line.
The marketplace itself is well laid out and refreshingly free of advertising. Just search for what you want or browse by genre and decide how to pay. Bang in your password to authorise the sale and you're away. You can go from making the purchase to playing the game in thirty seconds. It's incredibly impressive.
Choosing a game isn't quite as intuitive as you'd hope, since there's seemingly little consistency as to which games are available under which pricing schemes. Batman: Arkham Asylum, for instance, is available as a full purchase, a three-day or five-day rental, as part of the £6.99 monthly PlayPass and also has a free trial. However you want to play it, you're well catered for. THQ's Homefront, on the other hand, is just available for £29.99 with no other options - not even a free trial.
Some games won't even work on the micro console, as sold. Since OnLive is streaming PC games, some require keyboard and mouse and simply won't run with the micro console controller. It's an inherent limitation of the technology chosen, but it does make the offering a confused one.
[Editor's note: OnLive has pointed out that it's possible to plug a keyboard and mouse into the console via USB to play these games. This is true, but it's an additional purchase that may leave micro console owners wondering why they're not just playing on PC. Even stranger is that some of the games marked keyboard-only already have controller-compatible versions on the Xbox or PS3. We feel our point about the confusing proposition stands, but it is fair to clarify that the micro console is capable of running every OnLive game with the right peripherals.]
What can't be avoided is the question of performance, and it's here that OnLive manages to play both sides of the pitch. When it works, it's genuinely amazing. Live streaming gameplay, conjured instantly into your home by some wondrous magic. The visual quality is never going to please HD purists, but it's functional enough that you quickly stop pondering the technology and just get into the games - just as it should be.
But that's when it works, which isn't all the time. The minimum downstream required is apparently 3 Mbps, with 5 Mbps the recommended limit. I have BT Broadband, OnLive's official UK partner, and my download speed is 7.9 Mbps (the UK average is 6.8 Mbps, according to Which?). Even exceeding the requirements, my experience was variable to say the least. Catch OnLive at a good time and everything is smooth as butter, albeit with some grubby textures and a tinge of Autotune to some of the audio. Controller latency is slightly noticeable, but nothing you can't get used to. Not perfect, then - but perfectly adequate.
But then it can completely fall to pieces. Frame rates plummet, input lag skyrockets and the game comes crashing to a halt. Sometimes the cause is clear. At one point, I sent an email and was able to see the slowdown in FEAR 3 as the message chugged through the clogged data pipes. But then, moments later, I was able to play Lego Batman for an hour while my PC happily ran the BBC iPlayer, with no obvious detriment to either experience.
Indie platformer Trine ran beautifully, but Dirt 3 became a glitchy disaster within a few minutes. Deus Ex: Human Revolution was mostly fine, but Homefront was virtually uncontrollable. Try them again a few hours later, or the next day, and you'd get a completely different experience. And since everything you see on-screen is being streamed, even the dashboard can fall prey to network issues, with text prompts that might as well be hieroglyphics.
It's this inconsistency that can make OnLive so maddening. Is it a problem with the service itself? Noise on the line? A hiccup in BT's network? There's no way of knowing, but it kills the gameplay experience stone dead. If the connection is deemed too bad then OnLive simply quits, kicking you back to a menu screen while a five-minute countdown runs to see if you'll be able to carry on where you left off, or if you'll have to restart.
A quick straw poll of fellow users revealed some with lower download speeds and better experiences. Others had robust 100 Mbps connections and were plagued with problems. Given such a range of experiences, it's hard to unequivocally recommend OnLive, purely because it's either revelation or purgatory depending on factors that are beyond your control. Fortunately, you can at least test it out on any home computer for free.
If the network issues can be smoothed out, or if the UK magically receives a glittering fibre-optic data network overnight, then OnLive could genuinely revolutionise the way we buy and play games. Certainly, for PC owners who have opted out of the hardware arms race, it's a great way to try new games without spending a fortune on new kit.
But as a challenge to the status quo, and as a standalone console offering? It's got a long way to go before it becomes a mass market proposition.