Monday, 30 January 2012

OnLive for Android on the Xperia PLAY Review

Xperia PLAY:

Operating system: Android 2.3.4 Gingerbread
CPU: 1 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon
GPU: Adreno 205
Memory: 512 MB
Storage: 400 MB internal (SD Cards up to 32GB)

Good: The envious looks of pretty much everyone as you sit playing Assassin's Creed: Revelations on public transport.

Bad: Lack of L3/R3.

I’ve mulled over quite how to approach this review countless times – do I review the Phone? The OnLive Android App? How the phone works? After writing and rewriting this more times than I care to remember, I am (for now at least) going to cover how the OnLive Android App and the Xperia PLAY interact and what my thoughts are having now used them together for just over a week.

If you’ve never heard of the Xperia PLAY you may be wondering quite why any Android phone is receiving a specific review here. Well, the Xperia PLAY was released in the Spring of 2011 with the goal of succeeding where other companies had failed and finally nailing the “Gaming Phone” market. It’s a fully functional and frankly pretty damned fantastic Android handset in its own right, however the ace up the sleeve of this phone is the fact it slides open to reveal an integrated gamepad complete with touchpad-based analogue sticks.

Seems pretty ideal for OnLive doesn’t it? Well OnLive thought so too and shortly after the Android client came out they released an update to add support for the inbuilt controller. There were already some third party tweaks doing the rounds to attempt the same but the addition of official OnLive support for an item I’d quite fancied for a while pushed me over the edge and I decided that I’d go and get myself one, which of course means you lovely people get a review out of me.  

The Xperia PLAY works just like any other Android device does on OnLive. Upon launching the OnLive App and signing into OnLive you’re presented with the familiar interface and can merrily use the touch screen to play any touch-enabled game. Just like every other Android device, controls on touch-enabled games are handled via an overlay, as illustrated in the above picture of Flock. In some games such as Darksiders this results in a swarm of touch buttons taking up almost the entire screen. It’s here that the Xperia PLAY comes into its own. Compare these two screenshots below both from pretty much the same part of the game. One is using the touch overlay and the other is the result of sliding out the Xperia PLAYs’ gamepad.

Unless you have tiny pin-like fingers there is absolutely no contest which of the two screens would result in a more enjoyable gaming experience. I think the touch controls for OnLive are fantastic for tablets but on phones you really need to have the same size hands as a baby flea in order to not randomly mash every button on the screen constantly.

The ability to play the touch enabled games using the controller is cool, but really not the feature that had me excited. If you try and launch any titles which aren’t touch enabled from an Android device you tend to receive this message:

Now its time for the fun part; simply slide the controller out again and click “Continue” (using either the touch screen or the controller) and you can play! That’s right, you can now play pretty much any title on OnLive using just your Xperia PLAY. No Universal OnLive Wireless Controllers, no third party dongles or software, every controller enabled title (Except Borderlands and Duke Nukem Forever which are “presently not available for this platform”) works!

Obviously you don’t need reminding that as OnLive is cloud gaming you receive the same experience on every platform, but there is something amazing about sitting there using just a phone and playing Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition or Driver: San Francisco with PC-perfect graphics and all the same features that you’d get playing it on your MicroConsole or PC, even including multiplayer.

That screenshot you see there was OnLiveFans forum member TransmetaNiven giving me a resounding thrashing in a spot of Driver: San Francisco multiplayer. Now the fact that someone has beaten me by such a massive lead could mean two things: firstly that I am terrible or secondly that playing OnLive via the Xperia PLAY is a little problematic. As it happens it's a combination of both these things.

There are two main issues I have when using the Xperia PLAY with OnLive. Interestingly both are kind of linked. Having actual analogue sticks on a slide out section of a phone wouldn’t really be feasible so they opted to use touchpads. These pads are in all honesty pretty fantastic and work amazingly well; however, they do require a heck of a lot of adjusting to. They work on the same principal as an analogue stick and basically the further out from the center you hold the touchpad the further you are “pushing” the stick. They’re perfectly responsive and work really well, they just require a lot of getting used to. They do however work fantastically for some games. It's no secret that I am TERRIBLE at Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition, however the first time I played it via the Xperia PLAY I managed to complete the single player game, not only for the first time ever, but without losing a single round. Executing quarter- and half-circle moves was so amazingly fluid using the touchpad I was amazed!

The second issue which is related to the existence of these touchpads is the fact that they are not “clickable” meaning that there is no way to press R3 and L3. This isn’t a massive deal in games such as Driver: San Francisco where R3 is simply the car horn or the Assassin's Creed games where it doesn’t really do anything but in titles such as Batman: Arkham City and Deus Ex: Human Revolution these two buttons are pretty bloody useful and the lack of them results in the game being more or less unplayable. I’m confident that OnLive or a third party will come up with some way to address this.

Every other button works fantastically, the guys at OnLive even cunningly overcame the lack of L2 and R2 buttons by re-purposing the Volume Up and Volume Down buttons on the handset (located just slightly further in than the L1/R1 shoulder buttons). The start and select buttons are present and working as intended. Fantastically the Android menu button has been mapped to the “OnLive” button (the one usually located in the centre of the controller) meaning you can easily pull up the OnLive overlay and also use short-cuts such as OnLive + Circle to record a Brag Clip.

Hardware wise its impressive, the device feels well built and OnLive itself runs without issue. One hour of solid OnLive play (via Wi-Fi) took my battery from 87% to 59% so a decent guestimate would be that you can get 3-4 hours of OnLive gaming out of a fully charged battery. Unsurprisingly game play is better over Wi-Fi than over 3G. In fact the only times I’ve managed to play via the cellular network is when I’ve had a HSPA/3G+ connection. There are US versions of the Xperia PLAY which support 4G but to be quite frank as the UK and the US seem to enjoy calling the same technologies by different names for all I know there could be little difference between HSPA and 3G. The point I’m trying to make is that Wi-Fi works fantastically and the phone network either doesn’t let you connect at all or it does and works fantastic. I’ve never managed to find a middle ground there. If you like your OnLive gaming loud then you’ll likely be incredibly impressed as the speakers built into the Xperia PLAY probably put your stereo system to shame; they sound amazing and are so incredibly loud that even having the volume set to one is enough to anger my Mrs.

There are a couple of things I’d like to see happen with this frankly fantastic union of OnLive App and Xperia PLAY hardware that would earn it a perfect 10. Firstly I’d love to see a solution implemented for the aforementioned L3/R3 issue and secondly I’d like to see the OnLive App integrated into the Xperia PLAY games launcher. This is a piece of software that pops up if you slide the keyboard out (when not in a game) and presents you with a list of all Xperia PLAY compatible software both on your phone and on the Android Market. It’s a simple enough job to list applications in there and aside from being handy for us OnLive fans it would also advertise the service to every single Xperia PLAY owner out there. Let's hope OnLive will fix this little niggle.

I like this device, I really do, it’s a fantastic phone and a fantastic device for OnLive. The lack of certain titles and the missing L3/R3 is a shame but by no means a deal-breaker. I’m keeping a close eye on what some talented people are coming up with to support this and have heard some positive comments around the use of GameKeyboard to remap various functions in order to run keyboard and mouse only games.

One of the biggest questions that people have is around just how good this is for playing most OnLive titles. Well the (totally unhelpful answer) is that it varies. Provided the game doesn’t require L3/R3 and provided it isn’t overly busy then it’s usually a fantastic experience. Some games clearly just weren’t meant for a small screen and result in a horrifically packed looking screen full of indecipherable text. Titles such as Driver: San Francisco, DiRT 3, Braid, EDGE, L.A. Noire, Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition and Pro Evolution Soccer 2012 have all been fantastic fun for me and perfectly playable. I’ve struggled slightly in the Assassin's Creed games due to still not being quite as precise with the analogue pads as I could be, and I’ve found the likes of Saints Row: The Third and Batman: Arkham City were best played with the sole intention of collecting items or mooching around as I found anything more taxing to be pretty tricky.

This is a hard review to sum up. Personally it's the best phone I’ve ever had and, thanks to OnLive, probably the best gaming hand held I’ve ever had. The reliance on Wi-Fi for OnLive and inability to play certain games due to an unexplained restriction or lack of certain buttons may be a deal breaker for some. However if you love OnLive and need a new phone you really should look into the Xperia PLAY.

SOURCE: OnLiveFans.

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