Hands-on with the OnLive Game Console: the head cold edition

When OnLive started taking pre-orders for their OnLive Game System (formerly known as the Micro Console) on November 18th, they said they'd start shipping to founding members on December 2nd. It took them until December 7th to ship mine, which would seem to indicate that response to the hardware has been favorable. And for good reason. As luck would have it, I came home from work early yesterday due to the onset of a miserable cold. I had a fever, couldn't think straight, and my nose was running. My destination was the couch and a pile of blankets, but when I saw the OnLive box I figured I'd at least take a peek inside. I knew, fuzzy-headed as I was, that I wouldn't have the patience to go through all the rigmarole of setting it up to test it. I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. OnLive seems to have take a cue from Apple when they set out to design the packaging. Even the shipping carton was nicely made. I sliced though one band of packing tape and opened it up to find a shrinkwrapped black OnLive box inside with ample padding all around. Opened that to find the Game Console and the wireless controller displayed as if they were ancient artifacts. After removing them from their sculpted resting places, I pulled out the 'deck' they were resting in and beneath that were two more boxes with all the cables I'd need.

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In fact let's do a quick run-down of what OnLive gives you: the Game Console, the wireless controller, a rechargeable battery pack for the wireless controller, an alkaline battery pack for the wireless controller (I guess as a backup for when the rechargeable batteries are drained), 2 AA Duracell batteries for same, a small power brick (more like a swollen plug) and power cord, an ethernet cable, an HDMI cable, and a USB cable to connect controller to console for syncing (or recharging the battery pack). They'll also send you (via email) a code for a free game at the same time your Console ships. It's an incredibly complete package for modern home theaters (but if you can't use that HDMI cable you'll have to purchase a separate video adapter, and the console has a standard TOSLINK jack for optical audio). Before I really realized what I was doing, everything was set up. At first glance I was worried the Game Console itself wasn't going to stay put. I'm sure you've had the experience where something small and light is dragged off a shelf by the weight of the cables running to it. That's not a problem with the Game Console. First, it's got some weight to it, and the short, wide design means plenty of contact area with the surface below. Some rubber feet complete the package. The roughly 1" x 3" x 5" Console stayed put in spite of the three cables trailing out its back panel. The only tiny glitch I had with setting things up is that the wireless controller didn't sync properly with the Console the first time I tried it. Cutting and restoring power to both Console and controller fixed that, and it very well may have been operator error on my part. With the hardware setup I retreated to that couch and pile of blankets I'd been wanting to get to. One of the beauties of a fully streaming service is that I could jump from game to game and never get up. There's no disk to swap, after all. Yeah, some days I'm that lazy. Early Game Console adopters get into the PlayPack beta that gives you access to about 14 games for free (that number is supposed to swell to 40 by the time the service launches in mid-January). I tried a few. Wheelman played great; this is a poorly rated game that has you driving like mad through the streets of a city while half-listening to Vin Diesel trying to convey some storyline or other. Funny thing about getting games "free" is that even poorly rated titles can be fun. I played it just because I thought high-speed driving would be a good test of the system (a test it passed with flying colors) but Wheelman was OK for the 20-or-so minutes I put into it. Not everthing fared as well. King's Bounty: Armored Princess is a strategy game with lots of text that gets hard to read from 7 feet away. It's designed to be played with a mouse and keyboard, but on the OnLive Console you move a mouse cursor with an analog stick. It works but felt like it'd get tedious after a while. I decided to save that one for playing on the OnLive client on my PC where I can just use mouse and keyboard and comfortably read the text. F.E.A.R. 2 had some setup problems. All of these OnLive games are PC versions and they've been modified to work with the controller. The actual gameplay of F.E.A.R. 2 worked fine, but manipulating the Options menu was hard enough that I finally gave up. I wanted to invert the Y Access of the camera controls. By using the analog stick to move a mouse cursor I was able to get to that option, but the game expected me to press an arrow key left or right to change it (I think) and no amount of button clicking or stick manipulation would get that toggle to go from N to Y. At this point I reminded myself that PlayPack was in beta and it was probably just this kind of rough spot that they'd get fixed up before launch. Last I tried Prince of Persia. This was the first game where the streaming factor impacted gameplay. Prince of Persia ran great but it has a lot of jumping that requires careful timing and at first I kept running off the edges of cliffs rather than leaping over chasms. I finally realized it was due to the slight amount of lag introduced via the streaming technology. After a few minutes I learned to compensate and enjoyed the game but thought the 'adjustment' was worth mentioning. For the most part, the fact that my games were streaming was quickly forgotten as I got caught up in gameplay. So is it worth $100 for the Game Console? When you factor in the free game code, I think it absolutely is. The usual caveats apply: if you're a hard core game who obsesses over how many frames per second you're getting in some hot new game running at max detail settings, then OnLive probably isn't for you. Likewise if you do a lot of online gaming with your buddies over a service like Xbox Live, well, obviously OnLive isn't going to give you access to them. But if gaming is just a way for you to relax, then there's a lot here to recommend OnLive, assuming that the PlayPack pans out and they get a good number of game rotating into it (so there is still some risk and faith involved with a purchase today). OnLive is poised to be the Netflix of gaming, and I find it delightful to be able to try lots of new games without ever worry about installing and patching or whether it'll run with my present video drivers. I'm not throwing out my gaming PC anytime soon (both because of OnLive's limited library and because for some games I really want to add mods or tweak settings in ways that OnLive doesn't allow) but I'm looking forward to using OnLive as a supplement to my 'serious' gaming.

Peter Smith writes about personal technology for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @pasmith.

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