It’s one of those situations in life where the sense of routine cracks around the edges, and you have to admit you have a problem. Not a big problem, but the fact that your existence may revolve around something a little too intangible to be of any real foundation becomes starkly clear. It’s strangely uncomfortable, without you really understanding why.
Yes, the family are coming to stay, and the PC has to be packed away. Um, okay. What do I do now?
We have all been in this kind of situation. When something breaks, or the internet goes down – it really does wake one up to the fact that without access to our digital sub-culture, we really struggle for an alternative; doubly so when you’re family are all into gory medical documentaries and Eastenders. PC gaming is my nightly “thing”, and the alternatives for someone with no gaming PC are slim.
Enter the game-streaming service OnLive, and a £200 net-book. Like an arrow of gaming-freedom into the dark heart of boredom, suddenly a world of unrestricted game-goodness is pastured before me. I spent a fortnight getting to grips with it, and have returned to deliver my findings. You may want to sit down for this… Unreal Tournament 3? On a 200 quid net-book? What’s the catch?
OnLive is a service that runs games on some godly hardware far, far away, before streaming the video feed to whatever screen you happen to have in front of you at the time. Bypassing the hardware barrier, and hypothetically removing the need for a gaming rig altogether, OnLive is ambitious, high-tech, amazing at times, but is hamstrung by it’s single dependency – your internet connection.
Hamstrung is maybe a strong word. Given the fact that my own home wi-fi is something of a loose cannon, and the video quality can be very good provided the weather behaves itself. Then, the service is remarkably stable. OnLive even whines when you are trying to use wi-fi instead of a hard-connection, so if/when the video quality craps out, you can’t say you weren’t warned. As well as the occasional image degradation, another (and well documented) issue is input-lag. You move your mouse, the client tells the server the mouse has been moved, and the video-stream shows a moving mouse-pointer. All this is blindingly fast, but still not as quick as using a wired mouse in a gaming PC, and can be annoying as hell. Depending on your connection – it always comes back to that – it can vary from barely noticeable, to “where the hell is it going?” madness.
This is probably the issue that may make or break your OnLive experience. Let me give you an example – there are a rack of first-person-shooters on the client, and more than a few third-person ones too, and almost all of them are unplayable on anything less than a perfect connection due to mouse-lag. Trying to aim a cross-hair with the accuracy and reflexes of a stoned panda can be an exercise in patience and self-control. Even more so in the few multiplayer games available, a genre inclusion that seems to defy all sense given the inherent issues faced by OnLive’s design. If you find yourself in my situation (with a less-than-perfect connection), and are desperate for some competitive FPS action, try Quake Live – it works far better and you won’t shatter your mouse in frustration. Well, not as often, anyway.
I also realised something else during my tenure with OnLive, something a little more fundamental to the experience – gaming with a tiny keyboard and mouse is bloody uncomfortable. Seriously, my net-book was purchased with the lovely soft-touch keys in mind for writing. Gaming with them is a bit like writing. Writing a long text on a phone wearing gauntlets. After a few evenings hitting multiple keys, leaning on the scroll-pad, almost snapping the buttons on the mouse with frantic clicking – it’s a wonder my little Packard Bell Dot-S survived the fortnight.
Despite all this, the actual service was good, and when it worked, it really worked. Although game prices are utterly laughable at the moment, with new-ish games costing upwards of £30. And coupled with the fact that you can’t play anything on OnLive without actually being connected makes it an unlikely alternative to Steam or actual boxed copies. There is a nice subscription deal though, £6 per month giving you access to a pleasingly large number of games from the wonderful Floatilla, to Batman: Arkham Asylum. A few duds are included too, but you do get more than your money’s worth.
I actually found that different genres faired far better playing through OnLive than others. The aforementioned Floatilla was fantastic – a beautiful indie turn-based spaceship combat game that didn’t suffer at all from the slight input-lag. There are a few RTS games on there too, Supreme Commander being my personal highlight, that were almost as much fun as playing at your desktop. And, as if the OnLive chaps had realised my thinking, there were even a number of slow-burning puzzlers available too – Puzzle Quest, Peggle etc. The only issue I will raise regarding these is my net-book would probably run those on its own.
But, between positive mentions by critics, and the excellent value in the subscription bundle, OnLive seems to be growing steadily. More games are available now, up to the recent Wargame: European Escalation (still £30, sadly), and they have moved on to tablet/phone access to your OnLive account. How this works, I have no idea, but I like the progress. You can even buy the £69 OnLive console, turning your TV into a fully-functional PC-gaming system, provided you don’t mind using the Xbox 360-rehash control pad it’s bundled with.
But, at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter how good the service is, or how well it works. OnLive will never be a replacement for a beefy gaming-grade PC throbbing beside you. It started as a gimmick, and it clearly has potential and a market, but I honestly can’t imagine ever actually buying a game on it. Overpricing, and requiring a constant internet connection kills the inclination stone dead. After all, I do own a gaming PC. However, in certain circumstances (ie. stuck with a net-book for a fortnight), it’s a surprisingly effective way to stave of withdrawal symptoms. And that £6 subscription deal is almost worth it just for the ability to play these games on you’re phone/tablet/net-book.
But now the family have gone home, and I have my mighty PC back, the memories of that erratic mouse are already starting to fade. My little net-book sits gathering dust again, only to be turned on to watch the occasional episode of The Big Bang Theory. Will I ever return to OnLive? Will my net-book ever get to stretch it’s imaginary gaming-legs again?
We shall see. Being able to play Unreal Tournament 3 on a 200 quid net-book is still pretty amazing.