Wednesday, 31 August 2011

PAX 2011: Hands-on with OnLive for iPad

As of right now, the only way to experience the OnLive gaming service -- which streams full games to any compatible device through an internet connection -- on the iPad is via a free viewer app, which lets you watch any other user's public gameplay stream. It's a nice demonstration of the tech, but ultimately most folks would rather play a slick, thrilling game than watch someone else do it from afar. Luckily, OnLive has an all-new iPad app in the works that will finally deliver on its promise to bring rich, Mac/PC-quality gaming experiences to devices that lack the internal horsepower to run such titles outright.

I had a chance to try out the upcoming iPad app at the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) this weekend, and the results are immediately striking. The slick OnLive user interface from the Mac and standalone "console" versions is replicated here, with random live game streams and active video clips popping up without a performance hit, but the bigger surprise is just how quickly you can load up a game and start playing on the iPad. OnLive's service lets you buy outright access to games, rent them for brief periods or play free demos, or even subscribe to an all-you-can-play service with dozens of titles in tow, and playing a game is as simple as choosing it from a list and firing it up via a Wi-Fi connection.

And these aren't scaled-down versions for the iPad -- we played a brief bit of Split/Second, last year's action-oriented racing game, and it ran just like the console or PC version with no noticeable input lag and little visual degradation from the stream. But that comes in stark contrast to the iPad version of Split/Second, which hit the App Store a few months back and lost a whole lot in translation. Granted, you'll pay a fair bit more for the version on OnLive, but it's a worthy investment if you're seeking a meaty play experience rather than a quick diversion.

Naturally, the biggest adjustment from a controller or keyboard to the iPad is the absence of physical buttons, but as we experienced playing Split/Second and watching a bit of Virtua Tennis 2009, the service is implementing touch-based virtual controls that emulate the layout and functionality of standard controllers. Translucent buttons for actions like acceleration and braking appeared on the screen for the former, along with a virtual joystick that could be moved and placed around the left side of the screen as desired. Additionally, you'll have quick access to virtual controls for recording Brag Clips -- which snag the last 10 seconds of gameplay and are automatically shared on the service -- and accessing other menu functions.

But as evidenced in many standard iOS games released via the App Store, touch controls aren't always a perfect option for some types of games, especially first-person shooters and other high-impact experiences. Luckily, OnLive is also preparing a wireless Bluetooth controller that will be released alongside the iPad app, making it possible for players to prop up their iPad like a display and have a complete gaming experience wherever they can find a reliable Wi-Fi connection.

Pricing hasn't been announced for the controller, but Brian Jaquet, director of corporate communications at OnLive, says it will be competitive with other controllers on the market. Considering that OnLive regularly gives away its home consoles (including a controller) with new releases and is handing out thousands of the units at PAX this weekend, it seems clear that cashing in on the hardware comes secondary to simply getting the needed hardware into players' hands and making up the difference over time in game sales.

Even based on a quick demo at a fan convention, I came away very impressed by the iPad version of OnLive. It really delivers a stellar way to experience more traditional, big-budget games without hardware concessions, and between the touch controls and incoming wireless controller, players can choose how best to interact with each particular title. Whether the allure of OnLive will change the way companies approach bringing new games to the iPad remains to be seen, but I'm certainly curious to see how iPad owners embrace the option of having richer (and generally more expensive) titles available beyond the confines of the App Store.

SOURCE: MacLife.

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