Review: OnLive Android app - the future of video games?
A while back, OnLive released an app that allows its on-demand video game service to function through any Android device. While the service has been around awhile for use with computers and TVs, what makes the app unique is its ability to deliver games usually reserved for consoles and gaming PCs to many tablets and smartphones. The app could effectively turn any smart device into a portable game console that streams games like Netflix streams movies. That's all great as a concept, but the big question is how well it actually works. After spending some time with OnLive's app, it's clear that it isn't going to replace your console or gaming PC anytime soon, but it does offer a glimpse at the possible future of video games.
Does it work?
OnLive's promise of instant access to current-gen games works so well, it's astounding. Thanks to the cloud system that stores and runs every game, it takes mere seconds to go from the game selection screen to the game itself. With a decent WiFi or 3G connection, the speed can make loading a title from a physical disc on a console seem slower. Essentially, OnLive's app can provide you with hundreds of console quality games faster than any other video game distribution system on the market.
For comparison, if you wanted to play a game like Batman: Arkham City or Lego Harry Potter without taking a trip to the store, you'd have to download the whole game - which is time consuming even on a good internet connection - and then install it, taking up a sizable chunk of hard drive space. Any gamer will tell you that maintaining even a modest library of games can sometimes require carefully weighing up which games you keep installed for quick access and which ones you delete to clear space for the next. Even the Xbox 360 and PS3 require larger hard drives these days to manage game updates and new content. With OnLive, it's all in the cloud and available whenever you want, along with all your game data and save files. This quick access applies when watching "Brag Clips" other players have posted, and when spectating someone else's game.
Sadly, the impressiveness of that quick access is diminished a bit once you actually start playing a game. The first question any gamer looking into the service would ask is "do the games match the quality of a console or PC?" The short answer is "it all depends." While the responsiveness of the service is the same across different devices, the graphics quality depends entirely on the hardware and connectivity you're using. Running the app through 4G on an HTC Rezound - which typically provides a very crisp picture for movies and photos - produces sharp, consistent visuals. Using a regular W-Fi connection on a Motorola Xoom, however, tends to produce flat or fuzzy textures that only worsen if the connection to the game has any trouble. Games will rarely freeze due to lag, but the graphics will become much more blurred or blocky at times.
One handy feature of the OnLive app is the addition of touch controls to certain titles, which appear as either an on-screen gamepad or typical touch-to-select controls, depending on the type of game. It's a very interesting addition that could have ensured no additional hardware would be needed for the app but is unfortunately its most jarring flaw, particularly with games that ordinarily require a gamepad. The most glaring problem with the gamepad-style controls is that most of the games were designed with a separate controller in mind. On a tablet your hands end up covering almost a quarter or more of the action, leaving you with a much smaller viewing area to play with. The effect is almost doubled on a smartphone, forcing you to play the game through an even smaller window. The other problem is the sensitivity of the directional circle. It works fine for many action games that don't require precise control, like Lego Batman or even Darksiders, but feels overly sensitive or unresponsive in most genres. Playing a driving game is almost impossible, as is micromanaging units in a real time strategy game while trying to pan over the battlefield.
Really the games that work best with the touchscreen controls are the casual ones that were optimized for touch controls to begin with - Bejeweled - like puzzle games, and time management games such as Diner Dash. Real-time strategy games, like Dawn of War II are functional with these controls but the unit selection is far too imprecise to pull off any tactic other than sending every unit to attack the same place at once.
Most surprising though are certain titles just begging for a touch screen overhaul that haven't received one, like the Fallout series. A touch screen version of the original Fallout alone would warrant a purchase through the service. Without one, there's little reason for anyone to use OnLive to get the game over the many other sites that offer it. At the time of this writing, there are a little over 20 games that actually have touch control options. Only half of these have a Metacritic score above 80 (i.e. games you'd most likely want to play), and less than half of those were released in the past year. Titles like Fallout may get their own touch interface soon, but for now they stand out for omitting one.
Most games are going to just play better with a separate gamepad, or a mouse and keyboard, which would be fine if it didn't cut down of the main appeal of the app: playing console-quality games with just the tablet or smartphone that you already own. OnLive does offer a wireless gamepad that works over Bluetooth for an additional $49.99, which is more portable than a console, but you're still not exactly going to use it to play games on the train. No word yet on how other controllers might work with the app.
In a nutshell, OnLive's app is impressive for how smoothly it streams modern games, but probably isn't going to convince many gamers to give up their consoles or gaming PCs just yet; particularly when the titles are sold at the same price as retail. Make no mistake though: despite its flaws, this could very well be the way we all play video games in the future. With video game publishers embracing digital distribution more and more in recent years, a cloud system like OnLive's might offer a welcome alternative to large game installations and physical discs; not to mention an easy deterrent for piracy and the used game market - two hot button issues in the video game industry at the moment.
There's also the fact that the video game industry has become split between the big-budget titles that require a console or decent PC (Call of Duty, Halo and Skyrim) and the more casual games that can be played on nearly any device (Farmville, Angry Birds and Words with Friends). These days, the largest developers aren't just competing with each other, they're competing with Facebook games and $1 apps on the Android Marketplace and Apple App Store (take Epic CEO Mike Capps' word for it, if not mine). A service like OnLive, that can stream to any smart device, could give developers a way to reach that market that isn't willing to shell out a few hundred dollars for a video game system. The term "the future of gaming" gets tossed around a lot, but this is one of the few services that really seems as if it could live up to the label.
You can give the OnLive app a try for yourself by downloading it for free from the Android Marketplace.