By Dustin Sklavos
OnLive is the proverbial too-good-to-be-true product: A gaming service that can play top-flight games on less than top-flight PCs, including netbooks. Does OnLive live up to any of its gaming-in-the-cloud promises? We break it down in this review.
The OnLive gaming service was announced a couple of years ago, making the kinds of promises we’ve come to expect from Infinity Labs or the late great Billy Mays. Here’s a fantastic product that can’t conceivably work in the real world: a cloud-based gaming service that isn’t running tiny little Facebook apps but full-blown hardware-intensive games. Play Crysis on a netbook! The seasoned users in our readership will either laugh hysterically at the idea of Intel’s lowly Atom and integrated graphics trying to actually render something that intensive or shudder in their seats at the thought of actually trying to play it at a robust thirty frames-per-minute. There’s a good chance those same users were also skeptical as heck when OnLive was announced to begin with.
Let me explain what OnLive is. OnLive’s client essentially runs two streams of data: an input stream from the user’s computer to their server and a video stream from their server to the user’s computer. The game itself runs on their hardware, all it needs is your control, so all it’s going to send back is compressed video of the game you’re controlling. Computing in the cloud has been working for Google Apps, it seems the next logical step would be to try and get the $400 video cards out of peoples’ computers and democratize gaming for everyone.
And here’s why OnLive shouldn’t work at all. PC gamers fight a near constant uphill battle against latency — the time it takes for their input to show up on screen — when running games on their own hardware. On older tube-based monitors it was less of an issue, but LCDs respond much more slowly, and if you’re not using a speedy TN-based panel you may actually be able to feel the amount of time between when you input commands into the game and those commands materialized on screen. On my own desktop I run an ATI Radeon HD 5870 — the second-fastest single-chip video card on the planet — with my gaming handled principally on a Dell 2709WFP monitor. If I don’t tune the settings in a game properly it can actually feel remarkably sluggish; input lag on the screen is bad enough that enabling “triple buffering” in Left 4 Dead 2 results in a feeling of delay between my actions and the game itself, and given how twitchy that particular game is, I’d rather my teammates be able to depend on my reflexes.
Okay, so now add having to run the input over the internet, where a remote computer renders everything, and then compressing that video and sending it back to the client computer. My desktop is a demon and I get input lag because I have a slow monitor, but that monitor is connected to the computer directly. Run all that through the internet, you do the math and figure out how well gaming on the cloud should work.
So, figuring that OnLive had a snowball’s chance in hades of actually coming to market from the moment it was announced, imagine my surprise when it actually…released. No joke, it’s here, it made it. Does it work?
OnLive’s system requirements are surprisingly mild. Given that you’re dealing with rapid, on-the-fly decompression of video, I was impressed to find that it will indeed run on a netbook. Oh it’ll give you a warning about your hardware being a limiting factor, but if the stunningly mediocre Atom N450 can handle OnLive, it’s reasonable to assume OnLive just isn’t very taxing on the hardware. The client itself is also unbelievably tiny, with the download being half a megabyte and the installed client just over 5MB.
But there is one extremely onerous requirement: you must run OnLive on a wired connection, and that connection speed must be at least 5Mbps. That wouldn’t be a huge issue except that ISPs often lie through their teeth about their promised connection speeds. I used to have AT&T DSL, which promised 6Mbps but actually just plain didn’t work in my apartment complex. Now I have what Comcast promises is at least a 15Mbps connection, but I was greeted with a warning about low bandwidth the first time I ran OnLive.
OnLive’s site promises that eventually the wired connection requirement will go away, that they’re new and are still working out the kinks in their service. I appreciate the honesty, but wouldn’t the right call have been to just not release a pre-crippled service and essentially beta test it on paying customers? The requirement of a wired connection severely hinders use by the customers who stand to benefit most from it: notebook and netbook users.
So with all that rigmarole out of the way, you may find my evaluation of the service proper stunningly brief: surprisingly, OnLive actually works. It doesn’t work well, but it’s functional, and if you can get used to the latency OnLive has the potential to be a compelling alternative.
For testing I tried Unreal Tournament III and DiRT 2, and I tested on two different machines: a Samsung N210 netbook and my custom-built desktop. The N210 had an Intel Atom N450, 1GB of DDR2, and a 10.2″ screen, while my desktop sported a beefy Intel Core 2 Quad Q9650, 8GB of DDR2, and I ran the game on my 27″ screen.
I’ll tell you right now, OnLive looks best on a smaller screen, and it justifies itself best by running on hardware that has no business running the games it offers. There is very real, very perceptible latency in the gameplay, though, and I don’t think twitch games like Unreal Tournament III are remotely ideal for it. UT3 is playable, but you’re essentially giving up any kind of precision. DiRT 2 didn’t fare a whole lot better. The important takeaway is the fact that these games are playable at all, and games that require less precision are going to work a lot better here.
So how about on the desktop? Well, the video compression becomes a heck of a lot more noticeable on a quality monitor. Frankly, compressed 720p video looks pretty lousy being scaled up to 1920×1200. Latency remains the exact same problem; the gameplay itself doesn’t change, but the bigger screen reveals the flaws. OnLive plans to introduce a box you can run their service off of that just connects to your television set, and I have to be honest…if it looks like crap on a 27″ monitor, I can’t imagine going up to a 40″ or better HDTV is going to do it any favors. Maybe the lousy calibration and black crush most HDTVs ship from the factory with will help mask some of the flaws.
The rest of the experience is pretty smooth: the menu system is flashy and attractive, and you can record videos of your gameplay to share on the service. They also offer the usual: friends lists, deathmatching, personal profiles, and so on.
What really rubs me the wrong way is having to buy the games you play on the service, and how offensively overpriced they are. Look, you’re paying a subscription fee just for the privilege of using OnLive, why the hell are they charging retail prices for these games? $59.99 for Splinter Cell: Conviction? Seriously? OnLive offers a limited-period PlayPass for some games at a cost of $4.99 — lasting just three days. I’m sorry, but I have no interest in renting a PC game, especially one with crappy graphics and high latency.
The first major question is: does OnLive work? Surprisingly, yes it does. The latency is definitely noticeable, but for some games it may be less of an issue and either way, if you’re not hardcore but just want to play somewhat casually, the latency may not be a big deal to you. It certainly runs better than it has any right to. While I do have the benefit of living in California where apparently their servers are located (and thus incurring less of a latency hit than another user might suffer with), it’s my understanding it works alright from people living a touch farther than I do.
The other major question is: is it worth the money? Absolutely not. Other reviewers have been kinder about this than I’ll be: either make the customer pay for the subscription, or make them pay for the games, but don’t make them pay for both. I don’t care that the subscription fee at present is just $4.95 a month for the second year and free for the first (that’s provided you get into their Founding Members program). Asking a subscription fee and then charging retail prices for these games is obscene. This kind of double-dipping mars the service immeasurably. When you can buy an Xbox 360 for $200 — a gaming console that offers the overwhelming majority of games available on OnLive — and then buy the games themselves, actually own them in perpetuity, and have a better-looking and more responsive local version running on your TV, why would you go with OnLive? Especially since your computer has to be on a wired connection right now anyhow, what are the odds you’re playing anything outside of your home?
OnLive is an important proof-of-concept that gaming in the cloud is at least possible, so that when the United States stops ranking fifteenth in terms of broadband quality in the world, something like it can become a genuinely viable option. The service itself is about as good as you can ask, even a bit ahead of its time considering the technology infrastructure presently trying to support it. But the pricing is damning. Charging retail for games you’ll never own on top of the subscription fee may be fine for people used to paying for MMORPGs, but the hardcore gamer demographic isn’t going to put up with it.
OnLive’s bottom line: Great proof, best execution we could hope for, and not remotely worth the money.