Last week, cloud gaming service OnLive launched in the UK. Americans have had it for a while now, and doubtless thus look down on us as some kind of addled-brained backwater cavemen who've only just discovered fire, but for this small and governmentally-besieged isle having local services for this ambitious technology could be a game-changer. Or maybe not. Everyone who's used it has something to say about it, and very often that's 'it kind of works but it looks rubbish on my PC.' I would say the same thing - full-screen play on my 1920x1200 monitor looks like someone threw grey jelly at my screen and like everyone in the game is melting into the scenery. In windowed mode, I can play for a bit without being too bothered, but if I want OnLive to use more than 25% of my monitor I give up within five minutes.
Then I tried out the Micro-console thing they've started giving out/selling over here and my tune changed almost immediately.
Here's the thing: playing games on a PC, I'm sat there with my face stuffed right up against my monitor, at the kind of proximity I would only otherwise have with a lover, and I'm both accustomed to and expecting a crisp, clear picture. On a console, I'm sat a few feet back on a sofa, and I'm accustomed to blurry edges and fuzzy detail, even at the current gen-standard 720p. On the OnLive thinger, I'm being streamed an image of a PC gaming playing at high res with all bells and whistles turned on, including nerdtastic but genuinely splendid features such as anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering. It doesn't suffer from the handicaps that (the vast majority) of console games suffer from. But it does suffer from the kind of loss of detail, especially during busy of fast-moving scenes, that you'd expect from a streaming video - and to be honest often more so, as it's also streaming God knows what other information necessary to make the whole shebang interactive back and forth.
Combined with being sat back at a distance and thus losing scads of fine-detail that way, the net result is that the compromises of OnLive sort of cancel out the compromises of console gaming - and the resultant average image isn't dramatically inferior to simply playing on an Xbox 360 or PS3. It is inferior, but not to the point where I'm bothered after the first few minutes.
Obviously, if you're actively looking for shortfalls they are very much there and you're going to see them, but if you can relax into actually playing the game rather than poring over its flaws - holy shit. This thing actually works. I could and would play a full game on it. I suspect the microconsole - which comprises a small, flat box with HDMI, ethernet, wi-fi & USB and a wireless gamepad, but you can plug in your own keyboard and mouse instead - has some manner of dark trickery to eke the best possible image out of your internet connection, and maybe even apply post-processing such as image sharpening. Whatever it is, it works.
On my low-end 40" 1080P TV at a distance, I happily played an hour of Deus Ex Human Revolution and kept forgetting it was happening via video streaming. On Space Marine, the rather busier scenes meant a noticeably blurrier but still tolerable picture, while the sedate Tropico 4 was genuinely startling in its visual clarity - though the image did of course degrade if I busily panned the camera around constantly. On my PC at 1920x1200 fullscreen, any and all of these games were just that bit too far gone, though of course this is just my experiential account - faster connections could make a big difference. Something is very, very different in the two versions, though. Maybe the OnLive PC software can be updated with post-processing tricks, or maybe the inherent, face-against-the-monitor nature of the PC means it's necessarily a different deal and just won't be sufferable until/unless you have an internet connection of impossible speeds. (Mine is nominally 10MB, by the way, which in practice means maximum download speeds of 1.4 megabytes per second).
As for lag, I could feel a slight delay but for the games I played it wasn't enough to impair the experience. No way I'd play a multiplayer shooter with it, but I had no problem at all headshotting [redacted's] goons in DXHR or shotgunning bandits in STALKER's first mission (for which I picked up six spectators, all witness to my embarrassing death as I faced a wall while trying to remember what the Use Bandage button was as a man repeatedly shot me in what I think was the kidney). I'd definitely rather play games on my PC with everything whacked up as far as my wheezing Radeon will allow, but I would play an entire game (and more) on the OnLive microconsole. I am genuinely amazed, and my cynicism about cloud gaming has evaporated - I don't think it can replace playing a game locally on your own hardware, but I think it can co-exist very happily, and pretty much right now rather than years down the line. To some extent, it's a bit like when MP3s and YouTube first cropped up - you put up with the hit to the quality because the ease of having everything directly to hand is super.
Of course, if you look at the PC version only you're going to think I'm a raving madman with custard for brains because it looks so blurry-edged and washed out in fullscreen (you're better off playing windowed, really), and you can't exactly try out the microconsole version without offering OnLive money-up front (or apparently they're on eBay, as thousands were given out at the EG Expo - that's how I got one). I guess the take-home message from this, then, is don't count OnLive out - on its own hardware and in a lounge-based situation it seems a whole lot more impressive. Those two USB ports are particularly tantaslising, too - because they in theory make this the world's cheapest gaming PC. You'd sacrifice choice and mods and playing offline and about a thousand other aspects the modern PC gaming experience involves, but as a lounge-based companion it's onto something.
If only there was a way to export savegames so you can alternate a play session between OnLive on your normal PC, mind (not to mention the need for OnLive access to a game to somehow be bundled with its standard purchase, which was trialled in DXHR, even if those rotters at Gamestop tried to stop it). Pricing issues will remain a sore point, given you are in many getting a lesser experience so shouldn't have to pay full whack, but you should definitely try out the £1 for your first purchase trial offer they've got on at the moment - it even includes DXHR.
The major problem I've hit is that the service is frequently 'full' when I try to connect, which means I need to wait to get in. They probably need to buy more gaming PCs, or whatever it is they're streaming the games from, because even a wait of a few minutes can seriously kill the impulse to play. I guess this will be a matter of how successful the enterprise ends up being, though.
I'm pretty sure PC gaming, in all its infinite variety doesn't really have to worry about this as any kind of threat, though it might well become a useful companion technology in time. If I made traditional consoles though, I'd be very, very worried right now.