OnLive’s Homefront Invasion

I have been watching all the hype around streaming gaming services like OnLive and Gaikai, and eagerly waiting to try it out for myself.  So many questions!  Will the introduction of these services mark the end of the console generation as we know it?  Will direct-to-consumer streaming deliver a death-blow to the retail channel? Will these services live up to all the hype they’ve generated?  Will they even work? 

With the release of Homefront recently, I had my chance to find out.  First, kudos to the OnLive marketing team for a launch offer that was too-good-to-be-true.  I was planning on getting Homefront anyway, and if I got it from OnLive, I would also get all the necessary OnLive equipment for the low-low-introductory price of free.   

Next, kudos to the OnLive logistics and packaging team for delivering a beautiful box to my door, with idiot-proof plug-and-play simplicity.  Within 5 minutes, everything was connected.  I now even have a nice spare HDMI cable since I had to share my TV’s single input.

Next, kudos to OnLive’s systems team.  After another 5 minutes, I was signed in, synched, and patched.  And there was Homefront, in my library, ready to be clicked.  So I was feeling optimistic and pleased at this point, but the moment of truth on the reality of high-def game streaming was another click away.  So I held my breath, and clicked “Play.”

To my delight, the intro cinematics started smoothly and I was into the game.  And shortly after that, both thumbs on the controller were working and scanning the first room in the tutorial.  So far, so good.  Then, the first encounter, and I started firing.  It was a bit awkward, but like most games, it takes a little bit to warm up to the controls and targeting system.  And like any good soldier, I pushed through.

Then, about half way through the first level, I entered the first real firefight behind a gas station.  And to my shock, something happened that’s never happened to me before in a game tutorial…I died.  Now, I know those future North Koreans are a tough bunch and Homefront is a hard-core shooter, but I’ve got some respectable shooter skills myself.  So dying in the tutorial is a little embarassing.  I shrugged it off to the awkward feel of a new controller in my hands, and a hunch that maybe Homefront was aiming a tad high on their difficulty settings.

So I reloaded and tried again.  And died.  And reloaded.  And died.  Sheesh!  Ok, reload, concentrate this time…and die.  Ok, work up some anger, focus, reload…and die.  I guess these North Koreans aren’t kidding around.  But we’re playing on my home turf, and you don’t lose on your home court.  So I kept at them until FINALLY I won the day by blowing up the gas station.  Victory, even midway through the tutorial, was sweet. 

A little further in I encountered a second, even larger firefight.  Same result–I died.  Except this time the shiny new OnLive controller went flying across the room.  {Kudos to the OnLive manufacturing team for building a sturdy product}.  And with that death, the end of my OnLive Homefront exploration.

Having eaten that much humble pie, I naturally hoped that there was some excuse other than my deteriorating shooter skills.  So I hopped down to Gamestop and picked up the 360 version of Homefront.  Maybe it was the controller, maybe the difficulty settings, or even the auto-targeting system.  But in the pursuit of my fallen gamer ego, I noticed other things that were different between versions.

The opening cinematic, exactly the same.  But in that first room, I noticed flies buzzing around the 360 version.  And as I walked through the halls, the textures were much richer.  Homefront looked good in the OnLive version, but it looked a lot better on the 360 version.  But like comparing TV sets, it’s hard to tell the difference until you see them side-by-side.

And then I got to that first firefight at the gas station.  Glory be!  I AM A GAMER AGAIN.  Not a single death on the 360.  Not only did I sail through the first wave of enemies, but when I blew the gas station, it erupted in flames–flames that weren’t present in the OnLive version.  But just like the texture detail, I wouldn’t have missed the flames if I didn’t know they were supposed to be there.  And I think that’s my biggest takeaway from the OnLive trial.  OnLive works, but the fidelity isn’t as good as the leading alternatives today.   But it’s cheaper.  And a lot more efficient at accessing an ever-growing catalog of content. 

The lag that was probably the bane of my tutorial futility will sort itself out.  Bandwidth will continue to improve, and game designers will do a better job of accounting for lag with clever gameplay choices and auto-targeting schemes.  But the lag from streaming content will always introduce a fidelity penalty on that content, which will fork the audience between those who love fidelity vs. those who love the value of good enough + NOW.  And if OnLive succeeds in becoming ”good enough,” then the answer to many of those questions I had might just be “yes.”