A glimpse into the future of on-demand gaming arrives to home entertainment centers with OnLive's MicroConsole TV adapter system ($99).
Using a cloud-computing model, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company hosts software and content on data centers across the country. The centers serve players through a device the size of a compact external hard drive tethered to a broadband connection.
That means there's no need for an expensive console, no high-end computer, no hardware upgrades or need to fear system compatibilities in order to play a wide range of games instantly.
After a player registers online using an external computer (www.onlive.com), he can quickly hook up the console to his television with the included ethernet and HDMI cables and log into the OnLive service via the rechargeable wireless controller.
I'll note the controller mimics its Xbox 360 brethren (a nice weight and size for larger hands with dual analog sticks and even a rumble feature). Users can register up to four controllers ($19.99 each) to the system.
Once logged in, a colorful collage of tiny screens pops up on an owner's television with menu options that include picking a game to play, sending a message to a friend or surfing the Arena to watch other players in action.
Actually taking part in a game involves buying a three-day ($5.99), five-day ($8.99) or unlimited play option ($2.99 to $49.99) for a title. Prices vary, as does the ability to buy multiday passes, but every game comes with 30-minute free trial.
Games are culled from many entertainment software giants, including Capcom, Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, THQ, 2K Games and Sega and include NBA 2K 11 (starring Michael Jordan), Alien vs. Predator (a first-person shooter based on the sci-fi horror franchise), Braid (one of the best Xbox 360 puzzle games of the year), Darksiders (third-person warrior action) and Borderland: Game of the Year Edition (violent third-person action).
Next to playing a game, the Arena feature is a real highlight of the service. As a game-surfing audience member, just watching while others succeed and fail is a great way to learn some tips and establish a community of OnLive brethren, helped along with some simple grading tools. Watch a fellow gamer control the Caped Crusader in a epic struggle against Poison Ivy in Batman: Arkham Asylum and vote in real time to "cheer" or "jeer" his performance.
A wired broadband connection worked best in my tests. I had a roughly 6 Mbps Comcast broadband connection (5 Mbps or greater is recommended for 40-inch and larger screens) and most of my OnLive experience was based on using a 27-inch, X270W-1080P Sceptre LCD monitor ($399).
The monitor specifically features 1920 x 1080 resolution, 60,000:1 contrast ratios and 2 ms response times.
I noticed no slowdown with tight, responsive controls during game play, especially in Unreal Tournament III: Titan Pack, but a level of fuzziness and some pixilation was visible when compared with playing local online sessions with the same games.
Surprisingly, a 52-inch plasma television (720p resolution) actually fared a bit better. The graphics looked sharper still not eye-popping but fairly impressive.
It's worth mentioning that the flexible OnLive gaming choice also works on a PC (dual core, Vista or later) or Mac (Intel-based, 10.5.8 or later) without needing the micro device. That means you can save a game from your television and pick it right back up on your laptop at any time.
Although the service is a great idea and worked consistently and seamlessly during every session, I see two drawbacks to the OnLive experience.
First, game selection is seriously limited. Fewer than 40 are available, and they're not the latest and greatest by any means. I'm betting OnLive will fix this quickly with plans already in place to include Assassin's Creed Brotherhood, Driver and Metro 2033.
Second, can a gamer afford to invest in OnLive the company? Anyone with the foggiest of crystal balls should realize on demand is the absolute future of all multimedia entertainment industries. Will OnLive innovate quickly and secure a strong enough business model before big daddy competitors such as Sony and Microsoft launch comparable services? Or, do players lose their hardware and software investment when OnLive does not survive?
OnLive's latest initiative should help with part of my concerns. The company hopes to entice cash-strapped gamers with a $9.99 per month flat-rate plan. It offers unlimited play on 18 titles, including Tomb Raider: Underworld, Lego Batman, World of Goo and Frontlines: Fuel of War.
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