OnLive Brings Streaming Video Gaming to Whatever System You're Using — Even Your Mac

If you haven’t seen or heard of OnLive yet, prepare to have your mind blown. OnLive may be the most interesting innovation in video games of the past year. Here’s a brief taste of what it does.

Gaming in the Clouds

OnLive is cloud streaming video games. That means that it delivers quality video game entertainment while mostly doing away with going to the local game store, with the need for an expensive game console, or with being locked into gaming on a single PC. OnLive plays where you are, on your PC, Mac or TV. Instantly.

The way it works is simple. OnLive’s game library is installed in the cloud. You access that cloud in a variety of ways through your internet connection. First you create an account for free at OnLive’s web site. Then you download and install a small app to your computer, or you hook up the “microconsole” to your TV. Once installed, sign in to your account and you have instant access to hundreds of video games. You can install the app on as many devices as you want, and when you buy and play a game, your saves and progress get tied to your login account. So your game progress goes to whatever device you happen to be on at the moment.

OnLive also does away with the need to download the games or their demos, at all. In this respect, it gains an advantage over its most obvious competitor, the Steam game network, which requires local downloads for all the content you choose to access. So where, in the Steam universe, you might wait hours just to sample a demo of a game you’re considering purchasing, with OnLive, once you click on the Game Trial button, you’re automatically and instantly allowed to demo the game.

OnLive’s optional microconsole also gives it an edge over the more expensive XBox360 and PS3 consoles, in cost, portability and ease of use. Because the games are installed in the cloud, there is no need for discs, and therefore no moving parts inside OnLive’s tiny box. No red rings of death, no DVD readers that suddenly die. And at just a bit larger than an iPhone, the OnLive console will fit anywhere, while at $129 off Amazon for the box and a wireless controller, it fits just about any budget too. Apple fans will appreciate the packaging in which the console arrives; it’s a sleek black box reminiscent of the packaging in which Apple places the iPhone.

The Pros

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.

The Cons

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.

OnLive’s library will present another issue. While it is large and boasts a wealth of the latest games, it is not as extensive as the libraries for any of the major consoles or the Steam library. Both of Rocksteady’s great Batman titles are there, as are Saints Row, L. A. Noire, Homefront, the Borderlands franchise, the Deus Ex franchise, Lara Croft, and many other major multi-platform titles and franchises. But there is no Little Big Planet, no Halo, and no Call of Duty. No Skyrim or Portal 2. No Madden and no FIFA, but the NBA franchise is there. So hardcore gamers will not be able to live on OnLive alone. There have been a few complaints about customer support, but I never experienced any problems that warranted finding out for myself.

OnLive also isn’t available on the iPhone or iPad, at least not yet. But it is available on Android devices.

The Bottom Line

OnLive is a great next step in video gaming. Its ease of use and its Arena mode set it apart as both user-friendly and cutting edge at the same time. No large downloads means you’re demoing and playing instantly. Its portability makes OnLive the most open gaming platform available. Arena mode will rock your world and its Marketplace brings an app-style selection of the latest video games right to you, instantaneously. More titles and improved streaming would turn it into a major force in the gaming universe. 

I give OnLive four out of five stars.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some thugs to thrash.