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OnLive Trailer

The future of gaming is here. Or is it? OnLive, the cloud gaming service, launched in the UK with brash fanfare last week at consumer games show Eurogamer Expo, held in Earl's Court, London. (Disclosure: by day I also work for Eurogamer).

And by "launched", I mean "gave away literally thousands of 70 quid micro-consoles to punters". As "look at me!" PR stunts go, it didn't come cheap. But it generated a terrific amount of attention, which was of course the entire point of the exercise.

Indeed, by the end of the final day of the show, there were scores of gamers pressed sardine-tin-tight against the stand, ritually chanting the company's name, virtually clawing each other's eyes out just to get a free t-shirt. That's students for you.

But if you've managed to stay outside this PR bomb's blast radius, you're probably wondering what all the fuss is about. In simple terms, OnLive is on-demand gaming. You know how you press play on iPlayer and start watching a TV show? Well it's like that, but with games.

So the clever bit is that, unlike regular console or PC games, you don't actually need the physical disc or even the download. Every game is stored 'in the cloud' – i.e. on a massive data server elsewhere - so all you need is the means to access that.

On a desktop computer or laptop, you just download the OnLive software and connect. If you haven't updated your PC since Arsenal last won a trophy, it doesn't matter – a machine hundreds of miles away is doing all the hard work.

If you want to play on your telly, you need one of those micro-consoles (£69.99), which is only a bit bigger than an iPhone, plugs into your TV and internet connection, and uses an Xbox-like controller.

Once online, Arena is the most spectacular showcase for the service: a grid of games being played live, any of which you can jump in-and-out of as a spectator at the push of a button.

When you're ready to play, there's free demos, rental options, outright purchases or a monthly sub of £6.99 with unlimited access to 100 or so games. And if you get your broadband through BT, you get three months free.

That, in short, is OnLive. And if it all sounds a little too good to be true, that's because it kind of is – and as amazing as the tech undoubtedly is, it comes with its share of annoying limitations.

Is your internet connection up to it? OnLive states a minimum speed of 2Mbps is required and recommends 5Mbps+.

I'm on a 30Mbps fibre connection, well in excess of those numbers. And OnLive works very well, once I connect – but since launch, while it's fine during the day, connecting during evening peak hours has proved less reliable than an X Factor record deal.

If I've paid for a game, I expect to be able to play it when I want to, not sit there for ages wondering if it's going to work. Hopefully they'll iron this out sooner rather than later.

I asked my Twitter followers about their experiences and got a massively mixed response. Here's a selection: "Sadly my rubbish rural broadband connection isn't good enough"; "I tried out Batman and it blew me away. It's definitely the future of gaming"; "The resolution isn't great, but it works quite well"; "It's impressive, but severely let down by service full and network issues"; "Loving it! Have a micro-console and a 50Mb connection, gaming future here I come."

In short, mileage will vary. Even on a super-fast connection, visuals are well short of sharp HD, and can look very blurry on fast-moving games like DiRT 3. With that in mind, OnLive is not a serious rival to Xbox 360 or PS3 if you're a serious gamer.

But for casual gamers, not nerdily obsessed with visual fidelity, there's an undeniable magic in being able to dive in-and-out of games in moments.

Me? I'll probably use OnLive mostly as a smart way to quickly try a game out. But if I like it, I'll still put the hours in on Xbox or PlayStation. 

The best advice I can give you is simply: try it. It's free to have a fiddle with on a PC or Mac, and you'll know right away whether your connection is up to the job.

So is cloud gaming the future? Yes, just not quite today. But don't be surprised if we end up playing all games this way in the not-too-distant future.


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