OnLive UK first impressions

September 25, 2011

Have you ever come in from the pub and tried to play a videogame, or, for that matter, do anything that requires hand-eye coordination and clear vision, like the ironing or intercourse? If you have, playing via game streaming service OnLive following its UK launch will feel very familiar. It seems like the gaming equivalent of pirate movie viewing. The visuals are blurred and compressed, artefacts regularly pop up on the screen and you’ll wish that you’d bought the boxed product rather than what looks like a bit of a knock-off.

For the uninitiated, OnLive works by using remote server farms to do all of the hard number crunching and graphics processing for you, removing the need for the gamer to have a high end PC or console to enjoy the latest titles. The visuals are then streamed to your computer via broadband and your keyboard, controller and mouse inputs are fed back, letting you interact with the game of your choice. In theory this sounds absolutely stunning. Gone are the days when you need to update your PC every couple of years if you want to run the squintillionth Call of Duty, Battlefield or Barbie’s Horse Orgy game. In fact you needn’t bother getting involved in the console wars either, because OnLive offers a little set top box for those not savvy enough to hook up their laptop to their HDTV. It sounds too good to be true. And of course it is.

The minimum system requirements are low and you need between a 2Mbps and 5Mbps connection to get games running at a decent lick. Or at least this is what OnLive claims on its site. I have a 13Mbps connection and yet in the first five or six days after its launch I could not play OnLive in a manner that was in any way satisfactory. I bought Deus Ex: Human Revolution for £1 as part of the introductory offer and while the pre-rendered cutscenes look OK, as soon as you get to try some gameplay it looks like someone has poked you in both eyes and blurred your vision. Many have complained about controller lag, but while it can feel like you are sliding around on a buttered mouse mat at times it is this visual degradation that really gets on my tits.

There have of course been plenty of excuses bandied about and obviously I accept that in the first few weeks of its availability the traffic to OnLive will be much higher than after the initial interest has died down. However, unlike many I had no problems connecting to the service and was able to try it out at several different times of the day. But regardless of when I logged on I always had an unsatisfying experience from the point of view of visuals. Even playing ancient titles like Oddworld: Munch’s Odyssey, where there is much less stress being put on the server hardware, did not result in improved graphics. It is clear that we are still a few years away from getting true HD graphics streaming smoothly over the internet. Oh, and multiplayer games like Homefront were hilariously difficult to play.

I wholly support what OnLive is trying to do and I’m not even a particular snob when it comes to visual fidelity. However, for the time being this experiment is not going to stop me buying games on Steam or getting 360 titles from the shops. I may be looking harshly at a product which is still in the very early stages of its existence, but I really cannot see it getting better for some time.*

*Bear in mind that BT have been working in partnership with OnLive on the roll-out in the UK. I’m a BT Broadband customer and have had no problems with my connection. I got in touch with them about the OnLive issues and, after running some checks, they found nothing technical at fault. Judging by feedback on forums I don’t think I’m the only one who’s suffering. There are some who are willing to forgive OnLive for the issues I’ve raised, but while I will keep attempting to use it over the coming months I doubt it will meet my standards for playability in the short term.

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