Online with OnLive

2011-09-26 by . 0 comments

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The OnLive service hit the UK recently. The principle is simple – you never install the game locally, your machine just sends all your input to their server, it does all the rendering and sends the images back to your computer to display. You don’t need a powerful PC to run the top end games, just a reasonably fat internet connection.

SJohnston has previously had a look at the service, taking a good look at the more technical aspects of the system and enumerating the advantages and disadvantages. Even with all this in hand it’s fair to say I was still very dubious of the service, but the opportunity to try PC games out for free, or even rent them, had drawn my attention – I was just waiting for it to land on my shores.

Forward planning

The min spec states you need at least a 2Mbps connection to use the service, with 5Mbps being recommended. My ADSL is currently connected at about 4Mbps, so is a little sub-optimal. Don’t forget to factor in that my connection is rarely clean – wife, daughter, smart phones, Wii and so on will be using bandwidth, as will other background tasks such as Steam and even Windows.

The other problem, presumably, is that using this service will gobble through your bandwidth cap very quickly. That said, downloading 10GB of game via a traditional digital download service is also a large hit here, so it could well balance out.

Let’s give it a spin

I had to wait a few hours for my account to be activated (I presume they’re rate-limiting the intake of new users to avoid overloading the new UK installation), downloaded and installed the thin client on my desktop and fired it up. Signed in and… “The OnLive Game Service is currently full.”

Luckily there was less than a 5 minute wait until it connected successfully, and I’ve not seen the message again since so presume, again, new install teething issues.

Playing a game

OK, I’m in. Lets see what this can deliver and … oh … bugger.

Dammit! It's OK though, turns out the wife was just downloading something...

Right. After waiting for my wife to finish on the web for a bit I actually got to try a few games out. You can get a 30min free trial of most of their games – this literally just loads the game up and lets you play for half an hour. It’s a simple way to demo games, really, and is a bit of a unique experience for a PC gamer.

To test the system out I’ve played the free trial on four games that I own via the usual methods, so that I’ve prior experience to compare against. The games I’ve tested are DiRT2, Borderlands, Assassins Creed Brotherhood and Dawn of War II.

(DiRT2) The visual artifacts in this image are not from the JPEG compression but the delivered video quality. Otherwise, playing DiRT2 felt quite close to the normal approach.

(Borderlands) Lag in mouse responsiveness is clearly present here, and hurts this game. It is something you could get used to with practice, but it still feels poor.

(Assassin's Creed Brotherhood) Mouse lag was just noticeable here too. Much less concerning than Borderlands and doesn't really get in the way of how the game plays

(Dawn of War II) Mouse lag again present and rather annoying; I found the camera to be a very jumpy and high-speed selection of units a bit clunky.

Well, the games occasionally looked like a low quality YouTube vid and only rarely looked really awesome, but do bear in mind my sub-optimal internet connection, so this might not be typical. On the plus side the video never stops (unless you get a network error, like above), drops frames, stutters or needs buffering, it just lowers in quality when necessary.

The restriction to a resolution of 1280×720 is a negative (the images here are all taken with the client Windowed, you can do full screen I just didn’t bother to make getting screenshots easier). For some reason in-game loading times felt longer than I was used to and the controls did feel a little bit sluggish – especially the mouse – but whether this matters or not is game dependant.

It doesn’t meet the level of standard I’d expect from playing directly on my PC, but on the whole I’m quite impressed at how well the service works

Extra features

OnLive also features extra features such as sharing “Brag Clips” (10 second video snippets of your game) and an “Arena” screen which lets you watch other people that are playing the game live. The latter is strangely intriguing; you can even chat to and “cheer” or “jeer” (thumbs up / thumbs down) the player, presumably to congratulate or mock them on the quality of their play… I haven’t really experimented with it much but it’s a strange sensation to just drop in and start watching someone else as they play.

The Arena wall, every one of those is a live feed of someone in the world playing a game on OnLive that you can watch...


OnLive has its flaws, but the core system really works under the right circumstances and I was quite impressed with how well the technology works.

However, OnLive isn’t going to become a primary source of games for me – I’ve already got a decent rig, OnLive doesn’t manage to do the job to the same standard and I suspect my internet connection isn’t quite good enough. Anyone else with a decent gaming PC or console is probably going to reach the same conclusion. However, it will be a valuable service for trying out, renting and even watching games I might otherwise have skipped over.

If you’ve got a machine that can’t run games so well (because it’s below min-spec or maybe it’s a Mac and the game doesn’t support Mac, etc) and have a good web connection then maybe OnLive could give you reasonable access to some modern games that might not otherwise be available to you.

Either way, I’d recommending at least giving the service a look, if it’s available to you. It’s free to sign up and you can then try a few games out for free to see how well it works.

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