4th Oct 2011 | 09:00
Cloud gaming has arrived in the UK, but can our infrastructure make the most of it?
Just what is OnLive?
After over a year of forcing North Americans to do the guinea pig work for us, OnLive has finally granted Great Britain access to its ambitious cloud gaming service. The platform could, in theory at least, pave the way for how we consume and play videogames in the future.
The firm says its on-demand service is now more robust thanks to the work of the good old US of A, but can it really compete with the likes of PS3 and Xbox 360? More importantly, can the UK's broadband architecture cope with OnLive's lofty demands?
OnLive works rather differently to a traditional games console stuffed full of various high-end components and screeching heat fans, streaming all of the actual computing involved in your game of, say, Splinter Cell to one of the company's faraway servers, which it says it upgrades every month with the latest graphics cards and RAM sticks.
Basically, you're playing a game remotely via the internet. When you aim your silenced pistol at a nasty henchman's bonce and pull the trigger, the command is sent over to OnLive's server den, which does all the computer work and then sends back the result of your gunshot via images down your broadband pipe.
The advantage of farming out the hardware bit is that you can run OnLive's library of titles on a number of different devices that would normally never be able to the cope with that calibre of game without 300 quid's worth of heatsink strapped to their sides.
PCs, Android tablets and iPads all support the OnLive platform, with the latter even supporting custom touch interfaces for some games, such as Ubisoft's excellent god sim From Dust. There's also a dedicated Games System, which you can buy to play the service on your TV.
Check out our Hands on: OnLive video to see what we think about the service:
The Games System hardware
Inside the shoebox-sized starter pack, which costs around £69, is a tiny Game System, Xbox 360-style Wireless Controller, all the power adaptors you need to get it going, plus USB, Ethernet and HDMI leads.
Setup is straightforward and guided by a minimalist, Apple-style leaflet inside the box. Plug the box into your television via HDMI, connect it to the power mains, attach an Ethernet cable from your router – unfortunately there's no Wi-FI, but you can set up a bridge – and OnLive will be ready to put pretty pictures on your TV screen.
It only takes about five minutes to set up your free account and get started, and then you're left to navigate the platform's main Dashboard to purchase games, spectate other players' activities or watch Brag Clips (more on those later).
The Wireless Controller feels sturdy and includes every button and trigger you could possibly need for today's top games, although it's perhaps not quite as comfortable as the similar Xbox 360 joypad.
Face buttons carry the same naming convention as Microsoft's controller (A, B, X and Y), and the pad also boasts a pair of triggers, left and right bumpers and a D-pad on the bottom left of the controller.
Unlike Microsoft's controller, though, the OnLive peripheral houses a number of inputs along the bottom for controlling video, including buttons to play, stop and fast forward.
Does it work?
Now, so far you're probably thinking this all sounds like a nice idea, but will it actually work on your old BT Broadband connection? The answer is: probably. On a 50Mb Virgin connection, the OnLive technology really is impressive – we played various online sessions of first-person shooter Homefront and almost forgot we weren't holding a PlayStation 3 controller.
On the right connection, games start up quicker than you'd be able to walk to the television and fiddle with a DVD, and OnLive really starts to feel like the future of gaming.
However, on the less speedy 3Mb connections that most of the country has to make do with, the 2011 on-demand gaming scene can be a completely different experience (if your old pipe's good enough to connect in the first place, that is).
Those lower down the broadband chain might find that while less reaction-speed-reliant games such as Lego Batman work fine, titles in the vein of Assassin's Creed that require quick movements of the analogue sticks to keep the camera pointing in the right direction feel sluggish. It's a bit like playing when you haven't activated Game Mode on your brand new 400Hz OLED TV.
Outside of lightning-quick connections, there's also a noticeable – but not huge – drop in picture quality compared to the lush visuals outputted by the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
At times, graphics don't look as crisp as their console counterparts, and some distortion can also be apparent when your broadband throws a wobbly, especially on HD televisions. Lower-resolution PC monitors seem to hide this better.
The good news if you have to make do with a single-figure connection is that OnLive includes a five-minute drop-out feature that means you've still got a chance of rescuing your game if your connection drops.
With such a pioneering platform, it's probably acceptable that not everyone's going to get perfect service from the off, and it's certainly likely to improve along with Britain's internet infrastructure.
If you're worried your connection might not be up for the job of efficiently streaming a 16-man Unreal deathmatch from 100 miles away, the beauty is it won't cost you a thing to try. OnLive is free to sign up for and you can easily jump on and have a go on a few game trials on your PC or Mac.
The thing that really impresses us about OnLive most is not its ability to magically put Prince Of Persia on our iPads, but its exciting interface and platform, which includes some features that the big console manufacturers could really do with nicking – if they have the technology to even implement them.
The first is simple but incredibly impressive: when you start up your little box, a flashy boot-up screen will illuminate your telly, depicting a giant globe built entirely out of little video screens, eventually settling on the same gameplay windows that make up the backdrop of OnLive's menus.
Those squares of video aren't just placeholders – they're real-world users playing away in real time. The Arena is the showcase for this baffling and brilliant innovation, enabling you to browse a wall of live gaming, picking any box you like to stretch the video to full screen and watch another OnLive user playing a game live from their living room.
It's very, very impressive stuff and from here you can leave your spy victim a thumbs up message, add them as a friend, or simply enjoy their half-pipe skills in Skate.
The Arena has more practical benefits for the game-playing experience too. If you're considering handing over your hard-earned cash for a title you're perhaps not too sure about, you can highlight the Arena tab and bring up every user with open privacy options who's playing that game right now. (You can also trial the title for 30 full minutes, as is possible with almost all OnLive games.)
You don't have to own the title as you would on an Xbox or PlayStation in order to spectate, of course – the hardware doing all the work is in some warehouse God knows how far away.
Another head-spinning feature comes via those video input buttons on the bottom of the Wireless Controller. Press the tiny record button on your pad and OnLive will instantly record your last 10 seconds of gameplay, attach it to your profile and upload it to the service's YouTube equivalent, Brag Clips.
That means the next time you pull off a mental Virtua Tennis shot or expose a game-breaking glitch in Batman: Arkham Asylum, you can record it on video and share it with the world.
The Brag Clips interface looks identical to the Arena – basically, a giant wall of video all playing at once, like the end scene from The Matrix Reloaded. From here, you can arrange the clips by highest rated, most viewed or most recent.
It's no surprise that at the moment a lot of the popular Brag Clips are saucy scenes from Duke Nukem Forever, but there are some hilarious Homefront kills and Red Faction glitches to be discovered.
Around 120 games are available on the service at the time of writing, the newest including big hitters such as Deus Ex: Human Revolution and DiRT 3. The most popular games at the moment appear to be sandbox titles such as Just Cause 2 and Saints Row, and these work well with both varying internet connections and the comedy Brag Clips you'll be keen to stick in your user profile.
At the moment, OnLive is running a promotion that means UK users can purchase their first game for just £1, after which you'll have to shell out as much as £35 for some games. That's disappointing considering how much you can pick up their boxed equivalents for.
Renting options, however, are far more tempting, with three-day (£3.49) and five-day (£4.99) passes available – you could easily finish Warhammer 40k: Space Marine in that kind of time.
There's also a PlayPack Bundle, which gives you access to 100-plus games for less than a tenner a month at £6.99. While the newest titles aren't included, there's plenty to give you your money's worth.
As a whole, there are undoubtedly some quality titles on the service at the moment, but there are also glaring holes in the portfolio that need to be addressed over time (and we suspect they will be).
For the UK market, there's no football game on the platform right now, and a lot of the big titles gamers will be searching for this Christmas – Call Of Duty, Battlefield 3 and Skyrim – will only be available on the traditional home consoles.
That said, we imagine OnLive's business model is extremely attractive to games publishers, so it's probably only a matter of time before the gaps in its service are aptly filled up.
OnLive gaming also needs to progress. Shooters such as Homefront, as we mentioned previously, cope very well with the doubled network task of streaming both game and shooting-your-mate-in-the-face data. Other types of game, such racing and sports, suffer from reduced picture quality and lag at times.
The service as a whole isn't exactly bursting with online players either, but then again there aren't many titles available yet that offer multiplayer. Once again, we suspect this is something that will be fixed over time.
It's clear that the cloud is going to be a big feature in all of our lives, and that includes our virtual worlds as well, and as connections get faster and more robust things will get better and better.
OnLive is impressive enough to convince us that cloud gaming will play a part in how we consume videogames in future – but that doesn't necessarily mean it'll take over from the traditional method of sticking a disc in a box in front of the telly just yet.
It's a remarkable system to witness in action and the social features that make up its flashy interface are very exciting indeed.
The user interface is well designed, and it is clear that this has been built with a community in mind, and our cynicism over the latency issue has been greatly reduced as we spent time trying out the games.
For older games and those less reliant on super speedy reactions, the lag simply isn't a major factor, unless your connection is truly ponderous, prone to dropping out, or your ISP decides that OnLive is actually a P2P connection and throttles the speed.
Once the games library starts to fill up – especially with OnLive exclusive titles taking advantage of its superior hardware and iPad options – we can see the platform really taking off as an alternative to traditional out-of-the-box thumb waggling.
We didn't like
There's a part of us that's left feeling that it's not the gamers – the ones who'll care about the slight reduction in image quality and miniscule response lag – but the mainstream populous who OnLive should be aiming at.
The newer games are currently run on 'optimum' settings, which can mean that the super-high end graphics you are used to from your computer are simply not even attempted.
At the moment, there are parts of England that don't quite have the broadband connections to run every game at its top-notch capabilities. That said, we do urge those curious to give OnLive a go for free on their PCs before dismissing it entirely.
OnLive is an impressive glimpse into the future of gaming. It's not perfect, but it is far from the laggy-monster we feared. For casual gamers this is a very real option.