OnLive Demo

So a few days ago, I got my paws on a press copy of OnLive, and I thought I’d share my thoughts on the service with you. I’ve been testing it hard for quite some time now, as well as doing some research to really get a comprehensive view of the product. The first thing I’m sure you’re desperate to know is simple: does it work? The answer is “yes.” And not only does it work, it works pretty damned well.

In case you don’t know the drill, OnLive is a cloud-rendering service that processes the game server-side, then streams it to you over the internet as you play. If this sounds impossible, many thought it would be, but the proof is in the pudding. I’ve logged hard hours in three different games over the past few days, and it was easy to forget that I was playing over the net. The graphics are a little muddier than a good machine would deliver, and at least once every play session everything comes to a stuttering halt for a few seconds, but these are pretty minor quibbles. I’ve never encountered a PC that didn’t stutter at least a little from time to time, no matter how tricked out it is, and OnLive does it rarely enough that it doesn’t impede the game.

So with the broad points covered, let me dive into the particulars of my experience. I’ll break it down into three categories: basics, pros and cons.


Basics.
-There’s no wi-fi support, you have to hardline your computer with a cat5. They claim this is temporary, but we’ll see. I can’t imagine a service this huge running on anything other than a direct connection.

-It’s not a hardware device, it’s software; you download an application, and run it off the desktop. There is a console, but that’s only if you want to play on your TV.

-Passes are purchased which allow you to stream the games. You do not possess them permanently in any sense. New titles like “Just Cause 2″ run you sixty bucks, whereas older ones are cheaper. For some games, you can also buy limited passes which last for a shorter period of time, but cost way less. Most games have a free demo.

-Social features include a standard friends list, although whether this will match up with the experience on Xbox Live remains to be seen. One unique feature OnLive does have, however, is the option to be a spectator. Either searching by game or via your friends list, you can eavesdrop on a game someone else is playing and either approve or disapprove of what you see.

Pros
-Unquestionably, the technology works. I’ve put in about eight hours of playtime over three different titles—”Just Cause 2,” “F.E.A.R 2″ and “Unreal Tournament 3″—and all of them played magnificently. Latency is pretty much nonexistent, the games stream at 720p, and the graphics are pretty near the high end. If they’ve accomplished nothing else with this service, they’ve proven that server-side cloud rendering is doable.

-The menu system is sharp and well-designed, you’re never more than a few clicks from where you want to be.

-The spectator function is incredibly cool. It sounds dumb, but sitting in on someone else’s game ends up being wildly addictive, even if you don’t know them. Brag clips—demos of particularly impressive moments of game play—are also a nice feature.

-The ability to save money by purchasing a shorter lease on the game is a welcome inclusion.

-As a Mac owner, OnLive is a rare treat. Even the venerable Steam can’t seem to circumvent the turf war between Windows and OS, but OnLive makes the whole thing obsolete. Tremendous.

-OnLive is portable, all of your information is stored on their servers. Download to another computer and pick up where you left off.

Cons
-OnLive admits that you need to be within 1,000 miles of one of their facilities to get optimum service. They have operations up in Georgia, Virginia, California, Texas, and a few others, but I’m pretty sure there’s a bunch of other states too. Whether they can cover the entire country adequately remains to be seen.

-The server traffic is definitely lower right now than it will be, so the smoothness of my play experience may not be representative of the final product.

-At least once per play, OnLive will freeze for about three seconds mid-game before picking up again. This is in no way triggered by the events of the game, usually it would hit while I was doing something completely banal. It’s an annoyance, although I admit it’s infrequent and its consequences quite minimal.

-The graphics are very good, but not quite perfect. Textures pop in a lot more than typical PC games, and everything is a touch muddier than usual.

-When considering the cost, OnLive does become slightly problematic. You pay a subscription fee and the cost of each individual game, and yet you have no ownership of what you buy at all. Seeing as most of the games are priced at exactly their real-world cost, this is a little bit of a rip-off. You’re giving your money away for a service, but nothing concrete, and that rightfully creeps some people out.

In fairness to them, though, OnLive Portal will apparently offer the same games, sans any subscription fee. You just won’t have access to any of the social features.

-I have not gotten the multiplayer up and running yet, every time I try to it claims there are no games being played or something. Consider that untested.

Conclusion

Color me very impressed with OnLive. There are no two ways about the simple fact that they pulled it off. It works. You can play a game over an internet connection without significant latency. On top of that, the social functionality, tiered pricing, and slick menus present an enormously tantalizing package.

There are two pressing questions now: first, is this a service you really need? If you’re a hardcore PC gamer, if you have the income to sink into advanced machines that run the latest games without a problem, then no. But if you’re a Mac user who doesn’t feel like Bootcamping your hard drive, or if you can’t afford to keep ahead of the technology curve, then this is a really exciting product. It truly bridges the hardware gap, and I predict a lot of people are going to enjoy the hell out of it.

The second big question is: can they hold this momentum as their user base expands? Critics are already insisting that it will all come apart when the numbers climb, but I’m not so sure. These same people insisted it couldn’t be done in the first place, and one starts to wonder if they aren’t just skeptical for the heck of it. I think this incredibly impressive demo I’ve had in the last few days proves that OnLive is prepared for the challenges ahead of them. I think this service is going to work, and I think that if you fit its demographic, you should get really excited, immediately.