OnLive’s positives are numerous. Access is free, and you can go from zero to demo in maybe five minutes. Installation couldn’t be easier. It frees you from having to use any particular device, and expands Mac gaming considerably. I tested it on an underpowered six-year-old laptop, and because OnLive streams the games rather than depending on your local hardware, my ancient laptop played like a brand new machine even on high-end, graphics-heavy games. OnLive opens up gaming even on machines you’ve given up for dead, as long as they can handle a fast internet connection. OnLive’s Arena mode lets you spectate on games as other members play them in real time, allowing you to sample as many games as you want just by watching the action. Wonder if the newest game deserves its M rating? Scope out a few minutes of it in the Arena to find out for yourself.
Its social networking side allows you to meet friends, play cooperatively and live audio chat if the games you play allow that, and it offers parental controls to help parents keep edgier games out of the hands of the young. OnLive’s library runs the gamut from casual and family games to sports to horror and shooters.
OnLive also offers a rent-or-buy approach to pricing. You can, for instance, purchase Assassin’s Creed: Revelations for $49.99 or rent it for three or five days for a much lower cost. The system also offers a Play Pack of 130 games for $9.99 a month, unlimited play. You can search games by genre, check out New Releases, and OnLive frequently runs special deals on a variety of games. Its slick interface couldn’t be easier to navigate. You can also save “Brag Clips” of your greatest gaming exploits. On the gear side, OnLive’s microconsole is attractive and its wireless controller feels like a cross between the XBox and PS3 controllers, easy to set up and easy to use. The microconsole can handle up to four wireless controllers at a time, and allows multiple user accounts.
OnLive isn’t perfect. Because it uses streaming technology, OnLive demands a fat internet pipe. You cannot play without a connection. If you’re on fiber or cable you’ll be fine, but if you’re on DSL you’ll run into lag and reduced visual quality, and if you’re on dial-up, forget it. Taking your laptop to game on the local Starbucks connection might get you kicked out. OnLive also wants to be wired, which can present problems if your router is on one floor of your home and the living room TV is on another. The microconsole does not have wi-fi built in. A third-party wi-fi bridge can fix that, but at extra cost. I did run it wireless on a variety of machines, with mostly good results.
During my tests I ran into some lag and reduced graphics quality on my very fast wired cable connection, while using the microconsole attached to my TV via HDMI. I tested Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine because I had played it on the PS3, and at low net traffic times the game looked spectacular and played very fluidly. At peak times, though, it got a big laggy and at times the graphics bubbled and blew up because the video stream just couldn’t keep up. OnLive adjusts on the fly and does its best to catch up as quickly as possible, though. I played Batman: Arkham City and Tomb Raider: Underworld after peak times and both rendered and played beautifully, as if I was on a PS3 or tricked out PC.