OnLive is the first large-scale roll-out of a long fantasised-about gaming "pipe-dream" - being able to play just about any game you like, instantly, without needing specific hardware, or physical media. And guess what - it works. You can play the service's hundreds of games from your Mac or PC, through your TV with the help of a Microconsole, or even on your Android tablet or smartphone. But is it next-gen gaming or something that should have remained a fantasy for a year or two more?
One of the most attractive things about the OnLive service for newcomers is that there are no strange hidden fees involved - as long as you do your research to see how the basics work. Joining up is free, and like most online memberships these days, only takes a few minutes to complete. There is a short wait while your account is made "live", but done at the right time this should take minutes rather than hours. After this, you're free to play a half-hour of any of the games on the service, as a demo.
To get a real taste of what the "OnLive way" is all about, you'll need to either rent or buy games, or join the Playback scheme. Buying games isn't particularly cheap - around £30-35 for a brand-new title - and renting them for three or five days costs £3.99 and £5.99 respectively. The key benefit is convenience rather than reduced cost if you want to play brand new games. With OnLive, you can play Batman: Arkham City on a netbook, which would normally result in the integrated graphics chip turning to dust and blowing out of the fan grille.
Fitting-in well with a casual audience, the alternative subscription-based Playback option of Onlive will be an attractive starting point for many. This £6.99-a-month plan gives you access to around 150 games (most of the library), but not the lastest-and-greatest titles. It does, however, offer a number of current-gen console classics, including Bioshock, Borderlands and Lego Batman. A key selling of Playback is that you're not tied to a contract - you can cancel at any time.
The service is still in its nascent stage, but currently offers around 200 games in total. Some were released in the 90s, some this month. At the time of writing, the rate of new releases appears to be ramping-up, with four grand-slam AAA titles released in November - Assassin's Creed: Revelations, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Lord of the Rings: WitN and Saint's Row: The Third. If this acceleration continues, Onlive could become a viable way to check out the latest releases. However, the omissions are significant. There's no Skyrim, no Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 - enough to make sure Onlive isn't going to completely satisfy many.
This isn't exactly Onlive's fault, of course. We're sure the company would love to see these titles on their service, but many publishers are predictably reticent to risk cannibalising their retail sales. At present, keen gamers are best off thinking of Onlive as a complement to console gaming, rather than a replacement for it. There are also compromises in video quality involved that may put off many of you.