Just before I started writing this, I was playing "Mafia II" and "Metro 2033" on my netbook.
That should sound a bit odd, because a run-of-the-mill netbook doesn't have nearly enough power to run those games — and mine is certainly run-of-the-mill.
So how's it possible?
Well, it's thanks to an online gaming service called OnLive.
Basically, all the games on the service are hosted and run on its computer servers. Players' computers — or special set-top TV boxes — are nothing more than dummy terminals, used to interact with those far-away servers.
So it doesn't matter that my netbook doesn't have a powerful processor, a high-end graphics card or a lot of memory. OnLive's equipment has all that and more, and while my machine does need some basic capabilities, mostly it just needs a good high-speed Internet connection.
And, no, the connection you'll get at your local coffee shop probably isn't good enough. It's not at mine.
But my home DSL does the trick just fine, even if OnLive does warn that I have some latency issues. (I also tested the service at a friend's home on his cable connection, and that had no issues whatsoever.)
However, after playing quite a few games over the service at home, I'm not really sure what it means when it complains I have high latency, as the service hasn't hiccupped at all when I've used it.
After all, the biggest problem I imagined that OnLive could have was that there'd be a delay between my inputs on the controls and what would happen in the game. So far, I've had no such problem. My key and button presses meet with near instantaneous responses, not noticeably different than playing on an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3.
And there's very little in the way of waiting while playing games. Load times are minimal; the action transitions seamlessly between cutscenes and game-play, even when you decide to skip a scene.
Most importantly, the games don't suffer all that much in the audiovisual department. Maybe they aren't always as pretty as a disc-based console would produce, but they're really close to that quality, even exceeding it on occasion.
As far as technical aspects go, the OnLive service seems to work exceptionally well.
Now, as I said previously, there are two basic ways to use OnLive: on a computer, including some versions of Macs, or using the OnLive Game System, a tiny box that attaches to your TV and emulates a mainstream game console.
In most respects, it doesn't matter which way you choose to play, or if you choose to play both ways. Because all of the games are hosted by the service, with all your saved data out there in cyberspace, you are never tied to a specific piece of hardware.
I could basically borrow someone else's computer, sign in on the OnLive.com website, download a software "widget" and pick up where I'd left off on any game I'd been playing at home on the console. Frankly, I think that's kind of cool.
What do you get if you sign up for OnLive? And how do you do so?
The latter question is really easily answered. Just go to www.onlive.com and sign up for a free account. Amazingly, they don't really want much information from you to start: just an e-mail address, a password, the player tag you want to use in place of a name, and your date of birth.
Then, if you are using a PC — and I highly recommend trying the service on your computer first — you download and install a widget, and launch it to use the service.
And you've got access to plenty of free stuff at that point.
As far as games go, you can immediately launch 30-minute free trials of almost any of the games they've got, such as "Braid," "Batman: Arkham Asylum," "Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. 2," "Borderlands" and "Darksiders." And these aren't your typical demos. It's really the first 30 minutes of the game you selected, because the service of course wants to see if you'd like to pay to keep playing once that half-hour is up.
If you don't want to hand over any money, you'll never get past the 30-minute mark. Sorry, but you'll still have access to free trailers for all the games, and can also watch the "Arena." Basically, unless a player has marked his profile as private, you can virtually watch over his shoulder as he plays a game — and send him cheers, jeers or Twitter-length messages.
It's an oddly voyeuristic experience to watch and be watched by strangers in this fashion. And you can actually "friend" other players, which becomes important if you want to play some of the multiplayer games on OnLive, as there is a smaller player base to compete with or against, because of the nature of the service.
Unfortunately, the service doesn't currently support voice chat, so you will have to send typed messages to communicate, which can be a laborious process if you are using the console and a gamepad instead of a keyboard, as you have to slowly peck out a message on a non-QWERTY menu.
If you are willing to hand over money, then you attach billing information to your account, and confirm every purchase you want to make by re-entering your password for each and every transaction.
Some games allow you to buy for a "rental" period. A three-day pass for a game generally costs from $2.99 to $5.99, a five-day pass from $6.99 to $8.99. Or you can buy permanent access to a game outright for typical PC game prices. For instance, "H.A.W.X. 2" is pretty new, so it's $49.99, but "LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4" has been out for a while, so it's $29.99. And OnLive seems to regularly have games on sale, so bargains can be had if you wait for them.
They've also created a new option allowing unlimited play on a wide variety of titles for $9.99 per month. Strangely, though, most of the Monthly PlayPack games aren't the same ones you'll find in OnLive's regular game marketplace. Thus, there's no free playtime on any of them. But you can try the PlayPack for free for one month — after you input your billing info, which will set you up for a recurring charge if you don't cancel it.
PC VERSUS CONSOLE
Computers are definitely the default way to use OnLive, as it relies exclusively on the PC versions of games.
In fact, some games, such as "Bioshock," actually require players to use a mouse and keyboard combo for the controls. Yes, you can plug USB versions of those devices into the console, but that's a bother you won't face if you are using a computer in the first place.
Yet, there's a certain charm to playing games on a big TV screen.
And here's where the $99.99 OnLive console comes into play. For the money, you get the tiny console box, a gamepad, a few cords — power, an HDMI cable, an ethernet cable and a USB cord — and one free game of your choice. But if you want to attach the console to a TV that doesn't have HDMI, you'll have to shell out about $29.99 for a component video/audio adapter.
If you want to hook up the system for 5.1 surround sound, you can use the HDMI, of course, but there's also a digital-optical out port on the box.
Setting up the console is easy, though. Attach a few cords, power it up, and sign in and you'll be online in no time, looking at the same user interface as on the PC.
The gamepad is largely modeled on the Xbox 360 controller, except it has symmetrical, PlayStation 3-style dual-analog control sticks. But other than that, its button layout, triggers and detachable battery pack are equivalent to the Xbox 360 pad. Well, except the OnLive gamepad has a small selection of media buttons (pause, play, fast forward, stop, etc.) on an out-of-the-way ridge.
This controller is a perfect fit for some of the content on OnLive but completely unsuitable for a few games, strangely enough. Titles like "Braid" and "Batman" are tailor-made for its use, as all the controls sync up without creating any issues, and you avoid keyboard-command confusion. But most of the fast-paced first- and third-person shooters — anything where you need to aim precisely — don't work well with the controller, even when you have a fantastic online connection. I think it's that the PC-based games don't have "aim assists" built in, while console games generally do.
However, those same games work great on a PC with mouse and keyboard.
One minor negative, however, is that some games that normally allow for multiple players — "LEGO Batman," for instance — appear to only allow one player on OnLive.
Now, I've already named a few of the titles available on the service through the course of this column, but you really should visit www.onlive.com to see the full list. However, what you can't see without signing in to the service is that they've already listed a few games as "coming soon." Among those titles are "Homefront" and "Red Faction: Armageddon" (made by the folks at Champaign-based Volition Inc.)
Personally, I think they've got a pretty good variety already, and while some of the games are things I'm disinclined to play — sorry "Alpha Protocol" and "Shaun White Skateboarding" — plenty of worthwhile games are available.
Ultimately, I think OnLive is a service worth checking out. Can it replace your gaming console? Yes and no. The variety of games is good, but there's plenty of stuff you'd miss out on with it alone. And it offers a weird combination of bondage and freedom; you are shackled to a good Internet connection, as without one you can't play at all. But you aren't tied down to a specific piece of hardware.
Images courtesy of OnLive
First image: The basic OnLive menu is the same, whether it's on PC or using the OnLive Game System attached to a TV.
Second image: Each game on OnLive has its on little card detailing its features, compatible controls, ESRB rating and Metacritic review score, with separate tabs for watching trailers and "Arena" games.
Third image: A spectator watches as another player plays "Darksiders."
Fourth image: The OnLive Game System.