First Look: OnLive’s Cloud Gaming Service Comes to Tablets and Phones

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Courtesy OnLive

For one thing, I had to worry more about my network than I’ve had to in a while. OnLive may not need much in the way of computing power, but it needs to shuttle all those graphics and all that user input back and forth in real time. It’s smart about adjusting itself to run as well as possible given available bandwidth–for instance, it’ll degrade the graphics if necessary and will even work on a 3G connection. But if the network’s sluggish or erratic, OnLive’s dream of streaming high-end games over the Internet can come to an abrupt end.

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In theory, my cable modem and wireless network provided the iPad with more than enough bandwidth for reliable results (OnLive recommends 2-3 Mbps for tablet play). But when I first tried playing LA Noire on the iPad, the picture was blurry and the action was choppy. Replacing my aging Wi-Fi router with a newer model, which I did at the suggestion of an OnLive representative, helped enormously, as did experimenting with exactly where I sat in my home as I played. (Oddly enough, OnLive’s OS X version worked almost perfectly from the start, even though it supposedly requires more bandwidth than the iPad one.)

Once I’d beefed up my network, other nuisances remained. When the OnLive controller was connected to the iPad via Bluetooth, it sometimes interfered with the iPad’s on-screen keyboard, which meant I couldn’t type. If I left the OnLive app–say, to check my e-mail–I couldn’t simply hop back in and continue playing where I left off. Instead, I had to sign back in, sit through OnLive’s intro sequence, and select and load my game again. (OnLive explains that it does this so its application doesn’t hog bandwidth in the background, and says that it  may come up with a more elegant approach in the future.)

Gamer-to-gamer voice chat, a major feature of the PC and Mac versions of the service, isn’t available yet; the company says it’s on its way. And on the iPad and iPhone, you can only play games, not buy them. Purchasing needs to be done on a PC or Mac, a minor irritation resulting from OnLive’s decision to opt out of iOS’s in-app purchase system, which would have required it to pay a commission to Apple.

The games themselves vary in tablet-friendliness. World of Goo, a game that’s available both in the OnLive PlayPack and as a native iPad app, is engaging in both versions. But its iPad incarnation is clearly superior, in part because it’s not constrained by network issues, and in part because it’s formatted to fill the tablet’s entire screen. (In OnLive, it and other games run in letterboxed mode, with black bars at the top and bottom.) If you want to play this game, you shouldn’t bother with OnLive: Just pay $4.99 for the iPad edition and be done with it.

LA Noire and Arkham City, however, aren’t otherwise available on the iPad. And with my Wi-Fi issues resolved, I had a blast playing them with the OnLive wireless controller. (The version of LA Noire reengineered for touch input wasn’t available in time for me to try it.) The gameplay was fluid and my input registered immediately. I forgot about the elaborate behind-the-scenes machinations that made it possible to play them at all on a tablet, which is as it should be.

Judging from my time with the iPad app, this initial version of OnLive for tablets and phones doesn’t fully live up to its potential for making serious gaming truly effortless. Even so, if it sounds the least bit interesting, I recommend checking it out. You can do so without spending a nickel, since the apps are free, and playable game previews are plentiful and instantly available. Rough spots and all, it’s still far closer to the future of gaming than buying a souped-up PC and stocking it with shiny discs from GameStop.

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