Monday, 27 February 2012

OnLive Game System (MicroConsole) Review

Pros
Innovative, functional technology. An inexpensive and fast way to play games compared with other game consoles and PCs.

Cons
Video quality takes a hit thanks to compression. Small selection of games compared to other services. Requires a network connection to the OnLive servers whenever playing.

Bottom Line
The OnLive Game System (MicroConsole) offers genuine cloud-based gaming for a reasonable price, and it really works. But some flaws currently hold it back from being a true replacement for your home game console or high-end gaming PC. OnLive is working hard on fixing these flaws and is improving the OnLive game service continuously.
OnLive Game System (MicroConsole) and Wireless Controller
At 0.9 inches by 3.2 inches by 4.9 inches (HWD) and weighing just a half pound, the OnLive Game System (MicroConsole) is less a gaming console and more, as OnLive describes it, a TV adapter.



These days, the term cloud computing is thrown around in a number of different ways. Most commmonly, it indicates that a service is simply available online. But that's not what cloud computing is. It's distributed computing, where multiple machines do work and a user far from those computers accesses that work as it's needed. The specific computer doesn't matter, because the work is spread out across multiple systems, and to the user it's all the same distributed service, that requires little actual local processing power. Genuine cloud computing comes to gaming thanks to OnLive, an online service that lets users play games that are streamed over the internet. OnLive's servers act as the game console, handling the processing a gaming PC or, say, an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 would do, working off-site and piping the gaming experience through to the user.

While OnLive is available as a PC gaming service (it's been active and available for free through a software interface since summer of 2010), it can also be accessed through the OnLive Game System (MicroConsole), a tiny set-top box that lets gamers play OnLive games on their HDTVs. At $99 in the US (£69.99 UK), it's a steal compared with the game consoles or PCs. The most amazing thing is that it actually works. Unfortunately, some flaws currently hold it back from being a true replacement for your home game console or high-end gaming PC, but OnLive is getting there swiftly.

Design and Interface
At 0.9 inches by 3.2 inches by 4.9 inches (HWD) and weighing just a half pound, the OnLive Game System (MicroConsole) is less a gaming console and more, as OnLive describes it, a TV adapter. It's just barely large enough to house two USB ports and a power button on its face and ethernet, HDMI, componentstereo audioS/PDIF optical audio, and power cable ports on the back. If you have room for a Blu-ray box stacked casually on top of your Blu-ray player, you have room for an OnLive Game System (MicroConsole). The OnLive Game System (MicroConsole) currently only supports wired ethernet connections. You can use wireless network bridges. OnLive is working on a Wi-Fi enabled OnLive Game System (MicroConsole).

OnLive Game System (MicroConsole) - Front
It's just barely large enough to house two USB ports and a power button on its face. The OnLive Wireless Controller connects to and charges through a USB-to-microUSB cable.
OnLive Game System (MicroConsole) - Back
It's just barely large enough to house ethernet, HDMI, component, stereo audio, S/PDIF optical audio, and power cable ports on the back.
When compared with the OnLive Game System (MicroConsole), the included OnLive Wireless Controller is a beast. It's nearly identical in shape and size to the Xbox 360 wireless controller, but at 10.4 ounces weighs over 2 ounces more. It comes with a rechargeable battery that can deliver up to 36 hours of playtime, and can play without batteries when wired to the OnLive Game System (MicroConsole) via a USB-to-microUSB cable. The buttons are configured in a standard PlayStation controller layout, with two analog sticks sitting under a direction pad and four face buttons, complemented by four shoulder buttons on the top of the controller and Start/Select/System buttons in the center. The OnLive Wireless controller adds five playback buttons under the analog sticks, for recording and playback of Brag Clips of games you play. The OnLive Wireless controller only works with the OnLive Game System (MicroConsole). You can buy the Universal OnLive Wireless Controller to play games on the OnLive game service on PCs, Macs, Tablets, Smartphones, Smart TVs or TVs through the OnLive Game System (MicroConsole). 
OnLive Wireless Controller
Compared to the OnLive Game System (MicroConsole), the included OnLive Wireless Controller is a beast. It's nearly identical in shape and size to the Xbox 360 wireless controller, but at 10.4 ounces weighs over 2 ounces more than either the Xbox 360 controller or the OnLive Game System (MicroConsole).


The OnLive menu system looks futuristic, like the future of gaming should look like. It's also smooth and functional. Currently, available games can be browsed through the OnLive marketplace, which offers a list of titles to try, rent, or buy. The marketplace shows up as a list that can be organized alphabetically, by Metacritic score, or by the age of the game. Gamers have the ability to view games by categories such as Featured, Specials, New Releases, PlayPack, or by Genre. They can also type in a search for a particular game in order to play it. You can also browse and purchase games through OnLive's website.

OnLive Main Menu
The OnLive main menu is a basic grid of text buttons showing different sections of the service.               

OnLive Marketplace
Currently, available games can be browsed through the OnLive marketplace, which offers a list of titles to try, rent, or buy. The marketplace shows up as a list that can be organized alphabetically, by Metacritic score, or by the age of the game. Gamers have the ability to view games by categories such as Featured, Specials, New Releases, PlayPack, or by Genre. They can also type in a search for a particular game in order to play it.

OnLive Marketplace - Genres
Gamers can choose a game genre and browse through the chosen genre to pick out a game of interest.

OnLive Marketplace - Game Details
The game information screen shows details about the game, aggregate review scores, and gives options to demo the game, rent it for a period of time, or buy it.
If you want to play games on the OnLive Game System (MicroConsole), you have a couple of choices out of the box: You can buy a title at the marketplace or first play a 30-minute demo (literally the first half hour of any available game). You also have the option of purchasing a pre-release game, and getting the OnLive Game System (MicroConsole) as a bonus. OnLive has offered free hardware to gamers who have have pre-ordered Homefront, Duke Nukem Forever, and Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine. If you go the marketplace route, you can choose between buying individual games or subscribing to the OnLive PlayPack, a growing collection of 149 games you can play for $9.99 (£6.99 UK) per month. The selection of PlayPack games is decent but not groundbreaking, and includes newer and older games like Borderlands, Deus Ex, Just Cause 2, LEGO Batman, and Homefront Large-Scale Warfare Multiplayer (only the multiplayer component of Homefront, not the single player campaign). You could subscribe to the PlayPack for three months, play every game that holds your interest or is remotely high-quality, and leave with the sense that you got a good deal. It's like Netflix's Watch Instantly feature, only with a much smaller library. OnLive steadily gets new games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine. The selection isn't growing at a particularly fast pace, however, and compared to the regular new releases on services like Steam, Xbox Live, and PlayStation Network, OnLive's marketplace seems anemic.

Performance
Now, on to the remarkable part. Against all expectations, the OnLive Game System (MicroConsole) works well. Cloud-based gaming has been proven to be feasible through OnLive's technology. While it's not perfect, it offers a selection of games that, while under any other circumstances would require either a lengthy installation process or physical media, can be loaded and played in less than a minute. The OnLive Game System (MicroConsole) itself doesn't do anything more than send out input and take in audio and video from OnLive's gaming cloud; the game runs on OnLive's servers, and it works well. Of course, since this is all done through OnLive's service, you need to have a working internet connection and to be logged in to OnLive to play anything. Conventional download services usually let users play when they're not online.



I tried a variety of games and genres, including first-person shooters (Homefront Large-Scale Warfare Multiplayer), third-person sandbox shooters (Just Cause 2), hack-and-slash games (Ninja Blade), independent puzzlers/adventures (The Maw), and even strategy games (King's Bounty: Armored Princess), all of which are included in the PlayPack. Each game loaded flawlessly and let me jump into the action as if I had just installed it to my PC. In the action games, the gamepad acted just like an Xbox 360 gamepad plugged into a PC, either showing just the standard A/B/X/Y buttons with the corresponding Xbox 360 colors, or showing both the buttons and the equivalent keyboard and mouse buttons. King's Bounty: Armored Princess registered my gamepad's analog sticks as a stiff mouse input, and while, technically, it worked, it felt too clunky to be functional. Fortunately, the OnLive Game System (MicroConsole) supports USB keyboards and mice. In fact, for some games (including Deus Ex), a keyboard and mouse are outright required, and the gamepad won't work. The menu system lets you know what control scheme works with what game.

Despite the slightly stiff control pad, game control was virtually latency-free in my tests. I pulled off head shots and accurately beat quicktime events with ease, without the sense that my controls were being transmitted not to the OnLive Game System (MicroConsole), but far away to OnLive's servers before they registered. Lag is the first thing that can ruin a fast-paced gaming experience, and the lack of it helps cement OnLive's service as a valid gaming system. I even managed to enjoy some multiplayer gameplay with Homefront, and it felt just as responsive and competitive as playing Call of Duty: Black Ops on my PS3.

Graphics were similarly lag-free, though they suffered from a problem. We tested the OnLive Game System (MicroConsole) on the Samsung LN52A750, a relatively older HDTV that still offers excellent picture quality. In order to get the picture and sound to your HDTV all the way from OnLive's servers, the video feed has to be compressed. The result is a picture that, while still capable, isn't close to the quality of a PS3 game, and falls short of high definition despite the technical 1080p output from the OnLive Game System (MicroConsole). It feels a lot like playing a ported PS3 game on a Nintendo Wii; the basic idea is still there, but the video takes a significant hit and looks much fuzzier than its competitors. It's certainly playable, but it's not nearly as crisp as if you were running the game on a local Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, or PC. The technology is still too limited.

OnLive manages to do something impressive here: Marry cloud computing and video games. Unfortunately, like all nascent technology implementations, the OnLive Game System (MicroConsole) still needs some work before it will be widely accepted. It works from a gameplay perspective and it's fast and easy to set it up and get to playing, but the downgraded graphics and small game library hold the $99 in the US (£69.99 UK) gaming console back from being a truly compelling purchase for gamers. The fact that you have to be connected to play, and that even games you purchase you can't actually download and possess in even the local storage sense, further makes it an uncertain endeavor for gamers. Of course OnLive is continuously improving the OnLive game service. The longer OnLive stays in business and grows, the more gamers will trust OnLive with their game purchases.



SOURCE: PC Magazine.

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