OnLive, as you guys may or may not know, is the infamous “cloud gaming” service. I, being one of the curious skeptics, decided to sign up for the “free” 1-year access that included everything but the games themselves. Demos let you try the first 30 minutes of all games, so I decided to give Just Cause 2 a whirl.
Now, before I delve into the actual details, let me just say I’m running on a 15 Mbps connection from California. This is well above the required 5 Mbps.
That said, the service more or less worked. More or less is the key here. I tried Just Cause 2, and I constantly got stutter in the game as if I was playing the game on a machine that wasn’t quite capable to handle it. People on the forums chalk it up to simple lag, but the fact of the matter is that these FPS drops behave like FPS drops, not lag in a streaming video. Explosions, multiple characters on screen, and tons of action slow down the game, while staring at the sky or floor and moving is perfectly smooth. Being located relatively near an OnLive service with three times the required connection shouldn’t give me these problems as far as I’m concerned. It’s not game-breaking, but it’s definitely noticeable.
There’s also the reality that, no, OnLive can’t bend the laws of physics. There is button lag, pure and simple. It’s very minor button lag and the game is perfectly playable with it (it’s nowhere near as bad as Brawl’s button lag for instance), but it’s there and it’s noticeable. With a game like Just Cause 2 I doubt it’s going to give people trouble, but rather just give them the sensation that the controls are “floaty”. However in competitive and racing games I can definitely see it being a problem. As for the games themselves, they play pretty much just as well as they do in consoles or the PC, it’s just that when they said OnLive would stream in HD, I hoped they really meant it. I’m not exactly sure what quality I was getting, but it sure as hell wasn’t 1080p because I could very clearly see artifacts in things like menus, text, etc. It’s by no means SD, but I’d guess it’s about 720i-ish quality. At about 720, but blurrier due to artifacting. Again, I have 3 times the recommended speed, but I wouldn’t be surprised if other people got better image quality for some reason or another. After all, with a service like this there’s a huge amount of factors that can affect it negatively.
As for the service itself, it’s pretty competent, if only a bit underwhelming. Everything from Brag Clips to Arena is there and works just as advertised. Within minutes of starting my Just Cause 2 demo I got a spectator watching me play, which was neat considering JC2 is strictly a 1-player game. I got multiple people jumping in to spectate during my 30 minutes of playing and even got a friend request, but the odd thing is that OnLive doesn’t tell you when they leave, and I don’t think (correct me if I’m wrong here) there’s a way of finding out who’s spectating you at any given time. Jumping in and out of demos and spectating people without any sort of downloading, however, is really quite neat, and spectators combined with watching streaming videos of people playing games no matter what screen you’re on in the OnLive HUD really makes it feel like a living, breathing network. It’s a really neat sensation.
The one thing I feel I REALLY need to stress here is the pricing system. It just doesn’t work in my opinion. You have to pay $5 a month just to get in, which isn’t really unreasonable considering you can play all the demos and take advantage of all their infrastructure (sans games) for that amount of money. What kills it is that you have to pay a pretty penny for the games, and thus it becomes a “game” of ransom. You pay for the games, but you have to keep paying the $5 a month just to be able to play them. Don’t pay the $5, all your legally-bought games disappear until you pay again. What’s worse is that the prices aren’t even good. Borderlands is $30, Just Cause 2 is $50, World of Goo is $20, etc. These are just standard prices you find on Steam or any other retailer, sans actually having the data in your hard drive, WITH the additional $5-a-month cover price. For a service that has zero distribution costs, the high prices are just inexcusable (though I’m pretty sure it’s the publishers like EA who are forcing these ridiculous prices).
But what’s even more alarming is the info they give when looking up their price. You can buy a 3-day pass, a 5-day pass, a full-time pass on the games (some not having all three options), but the full-time pass is apparently not forever yours to keep. All the games say that the full-time passes last until “at least 2013”, but that availability of the games isn’t guaranteed, and it’s not guaranteed that you won’t have to pay again. It’s extremely vague and frankly a little off-putting considering you’re paying just as a Steam consumer would, except you’re not 100% sure you’ll get to play it forever, or even 3 years down the road. I’m pretty sure they have that info because of their contractual agreements with the publishers/developers, since they probably don’t know themselves that they’ll be able to have the games forever, but it just doesn’t sit well with me paying $50 for a game like Just Cause 2, when 3 years down the road I have to pay $20 to play it still, or they just pull it down from their servers altogether. Not good at all.
Overall, it’s a good service that actually works, but not without its flaws. Watching brag clips, jumping in and out of people’s play sessions, and seamlessly transitioning between demos with no downloading involved is really quite the novelty, but the stuttering feed, low picture quality, and bad pricing make this far from a “console killer”. It certainly doesn’t help that EA’s titles (Mass Effect 2, Burnout Paradise, Crysis) are nowhere to be seen, and considering these games were the “killer apps” of OnLive, their absence is VERY conspicuous.