OnLiving in the past with Arkham City

OnLiving in the past with Arkham City

I was part of that masochistic dial-up brigade who persisted in trying to play online even though pings around the 300 mark were common. Back when LPB and HPB were abbreviations that people still used. Back when in-game voice communication wasn’t widespread and you didn’t have to listen to strangers threaten to interfere with your relatives.

When it was suggested that we give the OnLive service a look, I stepped up. I pushed forward through the throng of better qualified writers with their better qualified rigs and volunteered. I’d had the dubious honour of trying to use the Steam beta over a 56k modem, I knew the pain and horror of unwanted patches locking my games away for hours at a time. OnLive held no fears for me.

Wait, sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself. For those of us who haven’t been keeping up, OnLive is a cloud gaming platform. It delivers games via the internet; but they’re streamed in the manner of a video feed, not trickled as a mundane install. In other words a game’s updates and system requirements are their problem, not yours. It’s been available to US subscribers for over a year and available since late September in the UK, with customers buying games outright or paying a monthly fee for unlimited access to everything in OnLive’s catalogue.

And it all sounded like a crazy pipedream to me when the project was first announced. Certainly for anyone without divine bandwidth, or anyone with a bolshy ISP.

I tested OnLive using my long-suffering desktop— an aging machine that barely met the service’s minimum requirements. And after creating my second account (somehow, in an impressive display of ineptitude, I managed to set up a US log-in first time around which leaves you unable to charge a UK debit or credit card) I was told that my connection speed wasn’t sufficient to provide good video quality.

Frankly I’d been expecting my connection to fail outright. Suits me!

And so it was that at midnight, within minutes of Batman: Arkham City‘s much delayed UK PC release, I was a billionaire beating up poor people with gleeful abandon. Like some sort of political cartoon made manifest.

There’s definitely a certain attraction to playing a game within a minute of deciding to. And by that I mean a fresh purchase. Sure, console games (at least the ones that don’t require installs) can get up and running a moment after you insert the disc, but after years of digital purchases it was a rare feeling.

With OnLive I grabbed the tiny executable from the website and I was running around the streets of Gotham in no time at all. Their free trial approach is very interesting, especially for those of us who bemoan the absence of demos for highly anticipated titles. Here you’re given up to thirty minutes to play the game; the whole game, theoretically, and any saves you make are retained in case you decide to cough up the money for it afterwards. Which in this case was all of one pound, but we’ll get into that later.

A couple of users decided to watch my trial playthrough by using OnLive’s spectator feature; they hung around for a while, randomly making cheer or jeer notifications pop up in the corner of my screen. They got bored and went away around about the same time that I strung up a random goon. Criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot.

An hour’s play ate into my download allowance by about half a gigabyte, what you’d expect from streaming medium-quality video. For people with generous tariffs and/or unlimited off-peak downloads I imagine this isn’t much of an issue. Although considering that Arkham City requires a very hefty download, more than twice the size of Skyrim‘s compact 6 gigs, a solid day of playing the game at that quality would equal what you’d go through just trying to acquire it from the likes of Steam. That’s an obvious advantage of OnLive; playing games that your computer might otherwise be unable to support, whether it’s your hard drive or processor or GPU letting you down.

At present there’s an offer for newcomers letting you grab any release for £1 (or as little as $1 in the States). It likely won’t last long but it’s hard not to recommend taking advantage of it. Even if you decide the service isn’t for you, and even if you fall out of love with the game you purchase… well, it’s a pound. If I found a new release at a pound shop I wouldn’t over think it. Actually, considering the circumstances I’d be downright suspicious and expect it was stolen or bootlegged, so ignore that analogy.

As you can probably guess I opted to get Arkham City, having already invested time in it during the free trial period. And I must say it plays extremely well. Either by merit of the combat system being generous and forgiving or by merit of OnLive’s latency not being very noticeable… I am Batman.

But as I mentioned, my connection can’t support higher quality video. I am a murky Batman. Rocksteady’s vision of the Batman universe is already dark and gritty and moody, but behind the grainy blur of the video feed it’s sometimes not as easy to make things out as it should be. Environments with sunlight (or glowing fiery magma) are a welcome break. The vibrant colours and more frequent daytime of the latest Saints Row spring to mind after trialling that too, although weirdly enough the graphics glitched out and gave people malformed noses in the initial cutscene.

Having just come from its predecessor, Arkham Asylum, the controls took some getting used to— they’re not fully customisable via OnLive. It’s not a deal breaker but it took me a little while to adapt.

Just as it would be a tad inappropriate to slate a game when I’m not playing it at its best, I’m certainly not going to lambast OnLive for offering a less-than-optimal service over my inferior connection. I was amazed that it worked at all. In two hours of play my connection only hiccupped the one time and all that resulted in was fifteen seconds of video artifacts and a warning message.

It’s currently letting you be Batman for less than a portion of chips. I feel like I’m honour bound to recommend giving it a look. It’s a truly fascinating bit of tech. Like Steam and my laggy brethren before it things will improve with the advancement of internet connections and the platform itself. Right now it won’t be practical for every player, it won’t be adequate for every prospective Dark Knight. But if you’ve got a very fast connection?

Well, you can be a prettier Batman than me, I guess. That’s got to be a good start.

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