OnLive 2.0: is the game streaming service worth your money?

By John Robertson, Monday, 24 March 2014 15:00 GMT

We test OnLive 2.0’s game streaming to a basic netbook and android tablet to find out if it really works and whether the service is worth the fee.

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“Streaming a copy of Saints Row IV downloaded via Steam and connected to an internet connection averaging a little over 6Mpbs using a year-old netbook of less-than-stellar performance, was surprisingly hassle free.”

OnLive is the cloud gaming service that allows users to stream games anywhere they have internet access and some form of screen – be it TV, laptop or tablet. It launched in 2011 and despite falling off everybody’s radar after CEO Steve Perlman crashed the company, it never actually went away. Servers kept running, people kept playing games on it and money continued to change hands.

Many of OnLive’s initial problems revolved around its confusing pricing, a comparative lack of quality content and game release dates that saw many of the service’s higher-profile titles only become available after the PC/console editions were available. Furthermore, in 2011 many parts of the world (UK included), the internet connection speeds required to stream games at a reasonable resolution/frame-rate simply didn’t exist in high enough volume to attract a wide audience.

Now, however, OnLive is going through a relaunch, with new systems and pricing models aimed at supplementing, rather than competing with, more established means of accessing and playing games. Front and centre of the new approach is CloudLift, a new OnLive service that allows you to stream games you’ve already purchased and downloaded elsewhere.

CloudLift’s major selling-point is the fact that you can play the high-quality PC games you’ve installed on your gaming rig in the likes of Starbucks or at a friend’s house via a tablet or netbook – ridding you of the hassle of carrying around your heavy and expensive gaming laptop. At present, CloudLift is only compatible with games you’ve purchased or activated through Steam. So, no, you can’t stream the PC edition of Titanfall on your tablet just yet.

The major question: does it work?

Yes, it does work. Streaming a copy of Saints Row IV downloaded via Steam, for example, and connected to an internet connection averaging a little over 6Mpbs using a year-old netbook of less-than-stellar performance, was surprisingly hassle free. No, the resolution was not as good as it is when playing straight from the HDD of the PC it was originally downloaded on to, but it performed well enough to make shorter play sessions worthwhile.

In fact, when connected to high-speed broadband the whole system works impressively well from a technical standpoint. As well as the netbook, playing via an Android Lenovo tablet (you must have Android 3.2 or newer installed) is simple and quick once you’ve download the app and synced the official OnLive gamepad via Bluetooth. Playing Saints Row IV and Strike Suit Zero on a tablet is a novelty that, for someone like me who doesn’t spend much time exploring games on such mobile devices, still hasn’t worn off.

There is also a nice suite of spectator options that lets you watch other players playing live, as well as record and upload your own clips for others to admire later. It’s all tied into a clean and crisp navigation system that seems to be designed for a control pad rather than a mouse/keyboard and results in minimal required effort to integrate yourself into the community aspect of sharing and potentially making new friends via spectator mode.

All of the features of the Steam game you’re streaming through CloudLift are available, including the important elements of multiplayer connectivity and achievements. Most essentially, however, your saved game data is transferred between OnLive and Steam, meaning any progress you make on Saints Row IV while at Starbucks is synced and ready for you the next time you it load up directly through Steam.

“OnLive lists the minimum internet speed requirement at 2Mpbs which results, frankly, in an experience that approaches the unplayable.”

OnLive lists the minimum internet speed requirement at 2Mpbs which results, frankly, in an experience that approaches the unplayable. At lower speeds the resolution is so bad that on-screen text becomes unreadable and visuals in general become plagued with the same blocky appearance that plagues the likes of Netflix over a slower connection or when struggling to assign bandwidth when multiple devices are being used. Furthermore, input latency is a real problem at lower speeds when playing a game that requires quick and complex interaction – numerous deaths in Saints Row IV coming due to the delayed reactions of my character, for example.

A report by Ofcom stated that, as of May 2013, the average ‘residential’ broadband speed clocked in at 14.7Mbps, meaning most people should have no problem exceeding OnLive’s recommendation that you connect using a speed of 5Mpbs or greater to achieve a resolution of 720p. In a halfway busy coffee shop, though, with other users accessing the same broadband connection at you, getting 5Mbps to yourself is no mean feat.

Personally, that represents one of the primary issues with OnLive’s CloudLift service – when am I going to want to use it, other than when I’ve got time to kill outside of the house? At home I’m going to play my Steam games on the PC/laptop they were originally downloaded to. When I’m out and about I can only see myself wanting to use it in a coffee shop (or similar) where the recommended speed is likely going to be unavailable.

If your boss will allow it then there’s the option of using CloudLift to play your Steam games during your lunch break at work, and then continuing any progress you’ve made when back home – depending on your job and the liberalism of your office, that might actually be a decent option for many but I’m struggling to come up other with circumstances in which the service might be genuinely useful.

CloudLift will set you back £9.99 every month for the privilege of streaming games you’ve already paid for elsewhere, making the proposition somewhat difficult to swallow. Netflix, which OnLive head-honchos themselves are constantly comparing their company with, charges a little over half that price and doesn’t require you to have previously purchased any of the content available on its servers.

The idea of, in essence, partnering with the likes of Steam to provide a new means of consuming games is theoretically a good one, but the price is undeniably restrictive when you consider many of us are already paying monthly for internet, phone, TV, travel and movie packages. All kinds of promotions are currently being touted which get you a free weeklong trial of CloudLift, but at some point you’re going to have to bite the bullet and pay the monthly fee. It’s also worth bearing in mind that not all of your Steam games are going to work through CloudLift, with publishers having to agree to give the OnLive system access to its catalogue.

As of right now there are only 20 Steam games available on CloudLift – the highest profile examples being Warner Bros’ Batman: Arkham City and LEGO: The Lord of the Rings, as well as Deep Silver’s Dead Island and the aforementioned Saints Row IV. There’s nothing available from the biggest publishers, such as EA, Activision or Bethesda, for example. More publishers are promised for the near future, and it’s important to remember the system is still in beta but, as it stands, £9.99 for such a thin selection of games is borderline ridiculous.

A £6.99 per month PlayPack service is also available, giving you unlimited access to 250 games. Those 250 games are largely limited to titles that are two or more years old, though – with the likes of Bioshock, Batman: Arkham Asylum and Darksiders II taking top billing. As with the CloudLift, more games are promised.

“It’s entirely probable that a bigger, more experienced and more established player is going to come in and do a better job of executing on the legitimately interesting ideas on offer here.”

One of the problems OnLive had during its initial launch was that it was, in many ways, ahead of its time. Internet speeds were not high enough on average and consumers at that point hadn’t fully come around to the idea of digital distribution, let alone game streaming. This relaunch – at least the headline CloudLift element – also feels ahead of its time.

The difference on this occasion, though, is that OnLive 2.0 feels like it’s only slightly ahead of its time and, with PlayStation Now, Amazon and Steam all promising game streaming services of different forms in the near future, it’s entirely probable that a bigger, more experienced and more established player is going to come in and do a better job of executing on the legitimately interesting ideas on offer here.

If you’ve got a good enough internet connection, there’s no denying that the technology behind OnLive and CloudLift does work well enough to make playing games while away from your primary gaming machine viable. However, a severely limited selection of games and questionable monthly fee undermines the service and makes the reality less engaging than the core idea.

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