OnLive Makes The Impossible a Reality: A Smorgasbord of Top-Shelf Games on Your Mac [Review]

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I’ve had one particular conversation with Windows blockheads far too often; you know, the one where the blockhead says something like “Macs are overpriced marketing gimmicks created to sell nothing but empty fashion to upscale fops!” (only it’s usually expressed as an eloquent “Macs are stupid!”) Which, of course, is nonsense — and so you confidently and patiently ladle responses over the blockhead’s statement like thick gravy, watching his ego deflate further and further…until the blockhead’s eyes light up as his addled brain finally digs up the winning phrase: “But gaming sucks on the Mac!” And all you can do is begin to protest by muttering something about Civilization or Borderlands, and then slowly hang your head in shame.

Unless you know about OnLive — in which case he’s toast. Oh, and you might want to mention the iPad app as well.

OnLive is a gaming system with a radically different approach: You don’t purchase games and then install them on your computer (either as a DVD or through an online service like Valve’s Steam); instead you purchase a “PlayPass” for the game you want, which remains on the OnLive servers and streams to your computer. You can then play the game as you would a game purchased in the more usual ways, as long as you’re around a broadband connection.

That’s the basic idea. But there’s actually a dizzying array of purchase and play options: you can try 30 minutes worth of most games for free; if that doesn’t give you enough to go on (or you’re just short on funds that week) you can buy 3- or 5-day rental passes; or, $10 gets you a monthly pass to the PlayPack Bundle, with unlimited access to about 60 games — games like Homefront, NBA2K10 and Just Cause 2 that are getting just a little long in the tooth, but still have lots of life left. And if you want to play on the big screen, there’s the $99 pocket-sized micro-console which comes with a Xbox 360-like wireless controller and all the cables you need to hook up to a flatscreen TV.

The Good:

OnLive is a Mac gamer’s paradise — a world of gaming that could only be dreamed about is suddenly a reality. Games like the Warhammer 40K series, Duke Nukem Forever and F.E.A.R. 3 are all playable on the Mac.

Worrying about hard drive space or compatibility requirements is a thing of the past, because everything is streamed; advanced, gig-hogging games that would normally bog down on slower machines run smoothly, and take up zero storage space. All that’s required is a smallish OS X app that acts as a gateway to the service.

OnLive can be a remarkably inexpensive way to get your game on. There are often several titles offered at deep discount; the PlayPack Bundle is the real killer deal though — a big bowl of mouth-watering games, all for just $10/month. And OnLive is constantly tweaking the deal — so if you don’t see anything you like, try back in a few months.

Full-blown gaming is now extremely portable. At an airport? As logn as you brought your laptop (or soon, iPad — see below) all your games are with you, since they’re all online. At a friend’s house? Connect to the service on her computer, download the app, fire up your games and you’re off. Even the MicroConsole is portable enough to pack for a trip.

Not sure if you wanna bite? That’s ok — pretty much all the games in OnLive’s stable are free to play for the first half hour, no strings attached, to help you decide whether to take the plunge or not.

Another of the system’s unique advantages is that since the games are all played on OnLive’s servers, any game session is potentially viewable by any other user/s (if players who allow it; users can also opt out to keep their sessions private). The biggest advantage here is that users can see what games actually play like, which also works surprisingly well as a try-before-you-buy technique. Or if a player is stuck at a particular point in a game, another user can show them how to blast through it. Then there’re the gloat clips (of, say, that three-pointer from halfway across the court) that can be posted and shared online.

Want to be among the first to play a just-released game? OnLive is your best bet; you’ll be up and running not five minutes after the game is released, while your friends are still waiting for Best Buy to open, or waiting hours to download the game. Of course, this assumes OnLive is carrying said game (a big question mark — see below).

And then there’s the iPad app. That’s right — imagine playing top-shelf console games on your iPad; the idea practically makes me shiver with anticipation. Before you run off screaming into the street though, wait up — right now all you can do is imagine it. But OnLive says they’re on track, and the app should be out before the end of the year, along with an Android app. In the meantime, the free OnLive Viewer iPad app will let you watch — but not play.

The Bad:

Even with my meaty, 12 Mbps pipe, the system still went south every once in awhile. Most of the time, games were still playable, with some slight fuzziness to the image; more uncommonly (perhaps once a week) a big “Network Trouble” sign would pop up on the screen and movement would become extremely choppy and/or severely downsampled, making the game unplayable. The bigger your screen, the more this will become as issue as the faster a connection you’ll need in order to maintain picture quality. Understandably, this was much more prone to occur over wifi rather than when the game was hooked up through an ethernet cable (in fact, the system was remarkably stable when used with an ethernet cable, even on a 32-inch screen using the MicroConsole).

Although their library is growing, there still aren’t that many titles available yet — excluding the PlayPack Bundle, around 50 at last count — and there’re some big players missing: Nothing from Rockstar Games, Electronic Arts or Activision — so no Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty or Madden NFL right now.

It’s not apparent on all the titles, but many games exhibit a bit of cursor lag, to varying degrees of annoyance. It seems non-existant on Borderlands, for instance; an eventually-ignored, minor irritation on the Warhammer 40K games; and more problematic on multiplayer FPS games like HomeFront. And a slow connection makes the issue aggravatingly noticeable while playing any game.

The MicroConsole is hit or miss. It’s super-portable and works great for putting games on a TV; but it’s an extra $99 and the controller feels a little awkward and imprecise, with no alternative. It’s actually a great, high-value package let down somewhat by the controller. If you really want one, OnLive occasionally has promotional offers that’ll net you one free with purchase of a game; the last offer was earlier this year with a Duke Nukem Forever purchase.

Verdict:

Make no mistake, what we’re seeing is nothing short of the beginning of the next evolution in gaming; and while it may not be completely ready to overthrow the current gaming status quo, it’s getting awfully close — and it keeps getting closer.

[xrr rating=90%]

A session of Just Cause 2 about to launch on my MBP.
The MicroConsole package: power adapter, console, controller, AA battery pack (also included is a rechargable battery pack) and upmpteen cables, including an HDMI cable.