Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Lead Balloon 1. OnLive

Where've I been? Writing stuff! A bunch of stuff! Many, many stuffs like all of this. Those are things I've written recently that my editors liked. And then there are the words that went down like a lead balloon. But editors aren't always right. So here is one such 'lead balloon' piece. Something I wrote about OnLive and it's beautiful, beautiful interface.


OnLive is the cloud gaming service that streams high calibre gaming to underpowered netbooks and smartphones everywhere. While being a shot in the arm for those PC gamers who had previously avoided spec-hungry hard-hitters like L.A. Noire or Batman: Arkham City for fear of their weedy set-ups choking on such videogame elixir, I initially considered OnLive to be a poke in the eye of systemic gamers, like me, who’s carefully considered and hand built battleship of a gaming PC was in danger of being equalled or outgunned by much lesser systems.

Cloud gaming, or gaming on demand, isn’t a brand new concept. The first service was live in 2005 with a limited selection of simple games and applications put in place to prove the concept above all else. The concept being that it is possible to play a game remotely from your device of choice, while a much more powerful computer elsewhere receives your button presses and transmits the result back to you in the form of a streaming video. The process is so quick it appears instantaneous.

Since 2005 cloud gaming slowly gathered momentum and interest from various publishers who saw the service as a means to get their games played by even more people. And so, here we are in 2012. OnLive (and rival on demand service GaiKai) have a limited selection of games on offer, but they do have the big guns; Batman, Harry Potter, Crysis 2, Driver San Francisco, and more.  The list is meagre when compared to Valve’s more established Steam platform, but the power and momentum of OnLive proved too difficult for me to ignore any longer.

I dug out my Samsung Notebook, the very system I am using as I type right now (in fact, I only use this underpowered laptop for writing, internet and occasional browser based gaming, never to play power-hungry games like Batman Arkham City or similar) and swept my misgivings to one side as I signed up to become a member of OnLive.

I have mentioned before the unconscious snobbery that comes as part and parcel of being GamePeople’s Systemic Gamer. It’s not something I’m proud of, obviously, but a tiny part of me actually wanted to be disappointed with the experience of cloud gaming. I have, after all, cultivated over time a desktop gaming rig that I am very happy with. It didn’t come cheap. So how dare this plasticky Samsung deliver a similar experience thanks to OnLive? Clearly, I was approaching this from the wrong angle.

Everyone deserves to play a top quality game at the best resolution and frame-rate they can afford, right? It’s good for the gamer, it’s good for the developer, and it’s good for the future of videogames. A billion dollar industry it may be, but videogaming is a pastime that is still lacking exposure and, crucially, understanding. I believe one thing leads to another and what OnLive is attempting is to increase the exposure of videogames by delivering Triple A adventures to grade D machines. The Great Unwashed can now finally see why everyone hates Duke Nukem Forever. Power to the people.

So, like cigarettes traded for risqué sketches of starlets in a prisoner of war camp, OnLive took my money and gave me Deus Ex: Human Revolution. A carefully considered choice; it was not a game I had played before but was looking forward to, and it had been previously praised in the press for its rich environments.
The OnLive user interface is intuitive and satisfying to use. The sharp text and images on black immediately feels classy, professional and trustworthy. But coupled with the streetlight sodium-orange that also makes up much of the colour palette I was given a slightly seedy (but in a good way) feeling being part of something secret, underground and exciting; like Fight Club for gamers.

As I browsed the games in the marketplace I was impressed with the kinetic nature of the user interface; everything is moving, all the time. Why have a screenshot when a ten second clip on a loop is so much more informative. The ‘Brag Clips’ section of OnLive is where users can upload short portions of gameplay to impress other users, again, all playing at once on an orange hued wall of screens that can be scrolled through at lightning pace until you, if you wish, settle on a headshot from 100ft performed in Just Cause 2, or a spectacular collision across the finish line in Dirt 3. The community of OnLive is promoted well and comes through loud and clear here, albeit in a slightly Orwellian/Minority Report kind of way.

I was playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution within a minute of making my purchase. Sixty seconds had not passed when my screen flooded with publisher logo’s and invited me to ‘hit enter to begin’. The visuals were ever so slightly glitchy in places but reports of cloud gaming ‘performing like a YouTube video’ are overstated. On the whole Deus Ex: HR ran crisply and smoothly from beginning to end. It’s testament to the quality of the storytelling and the pace of Deus Ex: HR that when things occasionally did go pear shaped in the graphics department, I was so immersed in the narrative – Adam Jensen’s journey of self-propogated evolution - that I barely noticed, and it was only my wavering broadband connection that was to blame. OnLive, like all cloud based game streaming services, requires a constant and strong internet connection or the game will deteriorate noticeably.

There was a little disappointment in my being unable to tinker with the graphics output to tailor a more personalised experience. I’m used to having that freedom and felt slightly impotent when it was taken from me.  

I’ve spent a lot of words here talking about OnLive the gaming platform because it deserves it. I’ll be reviewing Deus Ex: Human Revolution in more detail next time. But, needless to say, as the end credits rolled I felt mighty proud of my weedy NoteBook and was compelled to give it a gentle pat on the lid as I closed it. Job well done, little guy. Now go and have a rest.

Does Deus Ex: Human Revolution run better on a high end PC? Of course it does. And the differences aren’t negligible. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder and a better looking game does not necessarily make a better game. To deny Deus Ex: HR’s streaming equivalent a place on our videogame landscape is to grind your boot heel in the face of progress and perpetuate the myth that to appreciate a top quality game such as Deus Ex: HR you need a gaming rig that fades a city’s streetlights.

You don’t. Myth broken. Thanks, OnLive.  

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