OnLive Service and Micro-Console Review (December 2010)

OnLive is a completely free games on demand service that allows you to play high-end  titles on low-end PCs and Macs. On December 2nd, OnLive started shipping the OnLive  Micro-Console to give customers with HDTVs a chance to play in their living rooms. 


Service

 OnLive was created by Steve Perlman, who also created QuickTime, MSN TV, and MOVA. The service first launched to the public in June 2010, but was met with much skepticism in regards to ownership, the monthly fee, and other requirements at the time. If you tried out the service back in June, odds are you haven't checked in to see how its doing. In the last 6 months OnLive has recieved some major improvements and is definately worth checking out again. The monthly fee has since been dropped, more titles and a back catalog has been added, video clarity and performance has improved, and the micro-console has released. Download it, try it out, you'll be amazed if you stop for a moment and realize its not running on your computer at all. 

Features

The OnLive Micro-Console has support for 1080p video, 5.1 surround sound, stereoscopic 3D, four controllers, and four bluetooth headsets. At the time of this review the micro-console supports 1080p though the games are upscaled from 720p. 1080p gaming should be available by next year, along with voice chat. I was told that the 5.1 surround sound wasn't currently implemented, however when I connected my surround sound headset into the micro-console the surround sound worked perfectly.
                   
 OnLive Micro-Console

The Wireless Controller is probably the most impressive part of the hardware, sporting a very comfortable design, hefty balance, smart button layout, and convienent media bar along the bottom. The triggers have a very natural pressure to them, and the shoulder buttons are easy to get to without getting in the way. The D-Pad is very nicely designed, making it perfect for fighting games and exact movements. Overall the Wireless Controller is probably the best controller I've ever owned, and I can't wait until PC support is implemented for it. 
         
 OnLive "Owl" Wireless Controller
  As for the OnLive Service itself, gaming on the service is very much community focused. You have the norms such as friends lists and messaging, but OnLive also has features like the Arena, Brag Clips, and Zero Latency Multiplayer. The Arena is a spectators sport, where you can watch other OnLive members play games in real time. While watching you can Cheer or Jeer them depending on how well they are doing. Brag Clips are another great feature that records the last 10 seconds of the game you are currently playing. You can find some really amazing clips out there, but my only complaint is the 15 clip limit.  
 
 Multiplayer in OnLive is unique compared to other consoles. Unlike other games you play online where you can see players jittering around on the screen, people using hacks and exploits, and other latency related issues, OnLive is completely devoid of these things. OnLive is basically run like a giant LAN network, so when you're spectating someone or playing a multiplayer game with them, there is no latency/lag/pause/jitter. It is instantaneous. What they see is EXACTLY what you see.

Bandwidth

OnLive has a minimum requirement of 1.5Mb/s, though 3Mb/s is reccomended and 5Mb/s is preferred. The problem is when people hear these numbers, majority of the time they assume they don't meet the minimum requirements. You can give OnLive a try on your PC or Mac for free to see how it performs for you. What's great about the micro-console is it takes less bandwidth than your PC or Mac does. Depending on your TV size you'll require a different amount of bandwidth. 52" is 5Mb/s, 42" is 4Mb/s, 32" is 3Mb/s etc. So it's safe to assume that if you have a 22" TV that you'll need 2Mb/s, that's the idea anyway. 
 
Now what about bandwidth caps. Comcast for example has a 250GB bandwidth cap which would give you approximately 150 to 300 hours of gameplay a month, depending on what you're doing on the service. Some companies have limits as low as 60GB a month, and if this is similar to what you have then OnLive probably won't work out well for you with that ISP.

Lag

When talking about OnLive you have two forms of lag, internet performance and game performance. Internet performance can become an issue if your connection isn't stable and contains jitter, but unfortunately this is out of OnLives hands for the most part. OnLive has partnered with many ISPs to re-route your connection to give you the best experience possible, but if your connection is jittery or your ISP isn't giving you the connection you're paying for, then you might want to give them a call to check the lines.

 As far as game performance goes it is pretty much on par with other consoles. Very few games dip below 30 FPS, with majority of them performing at a solid 45 to 60 FPS. The only game I've had performance issues in is Just Cause 2, problem being the controls feel sluggish. I don't think this is a fault of OnLive, when I tried Just Cause 2 on my PC I had a similar issue.

Games

Jumping into a game and playing instantly couldn't be easier or more gratifying. For each game you have the option of playing a trial, renting for a few days, or purchasing the full title. The current game selection is around 35 titles right now, though they hope to have around 50 or 60 games by the end of the year. When the micro-console launched they launched the PlayPack Beta alongside it, giving early adopters of the micro-console access to 14 back-catalog games. Once the PlayPack service launches on January 14th, they expect to have around 40 titles. 

They also have another 100 titles, including Driver: San Francisco, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, FEAR 3, Duke Nukem Forever and Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, currently in development for release in 2011, many of which are day-in-date with console releases. Still for a new console launch it has more games than Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 launched with. There are no exclusive titles yet of course, but given time I'm sure we'll see some interesting software come to OnLive.

Video Quality

There are two video streams that OnLive uses while a game is being played. One is the media stream, which is used when spectating someone or when a brag clip is taken. This stream is usually lower in quality, more akin to a YouTube video. The second stream is the gaming stream, which is used when you're actually playing a game. The gaming stream is optimized for playing the game and looks crisp and clear. Of course you may see some compression if you look for it or take a screenshot, but OnLive is made to look great in motion and not in a still frame. 

When I sat an uncomfortbale distance from my screen (about a foot or so) I could see compression, however when I sat back and relaxed to just enjoy the games (about three feet away) I didn't notice any compression at all. When playing on a PC or Mac with a resolution of 1920x1080 OnLive might not look as good, since the image is being scaled up and causes blurring. You're also sitting much closer to a monitor than you would a TV, so compression will be much more noticeable.

Pricing

The OnLive Service is free to use on the PC and Mac, while the Micro-Console costs $99. What do you get with this $99? As shown when I unboxed it, you get the micro-console itself (never has to be upgraded), an extremely high-quality wireless controller, HDMI Cable, Ethernet Cable, and a Promo Code good for any game on the service (e-mailed 24-48 hours after your order ships). With Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 currently priced between $299 and $399, if you're just looking to play games and enjoy them with your friends, $99 is a much smaller pill to swallow.

As far as prices for the games, everything seems fairly priced for what you're getting. New releases are usually $10-$20 below other console release prices, while other games are usually half the price that you'd find in stores. Some games are similarly priced when compared to stores, but these titles on OnLive contain extra addon content that don't come with the retail versions. Then there's the optional PlayPack Back-Catalog which gives you access to 40 games for $10 dollars a month. At what is esstentially 25cents a game this is an awesome deal, and gives gamers tons of great titles for a very small fee.

Pros


Travels with you - If you start a game on your Micro-Console and someone needs the TV, you can continue it on your PC. If your friend wants you to come hang out at their house, bring your Laptop and finish the game there.

 Same Experience Across Devices - Whether you play OnLive on PC, Mac, or the Micro-Console, you're getting the same experience. If you have to spend some time at a relatives it doesn't matter if they have an E-Machine, you'll have your games, saves, and friends all there with you.

 No Physical Media or Hardware - I personally loathe carrying around boxes of games I don't play anymore, or storing disks in binders. Then if I buy I game I need to make sure my computer meets the requirements. If I have a 360 or PS3, then I need to hope my system doesn't Red Ring or Yellow Light. OnLive puts the focus back on the games instead of the hardware.

 Affordable - OnLive allows for all kinds of budgets, from trials and rentals to full playpasses and subscriptions. And for everything you get with the $99 Microconsole, its a steal.

Never Needs Upgrading - OnLive updates their hardware every 6 months, which means I never have to worry about upgrading again. When the next-gen consoles and games come out, OnLive will run them without any additional costs or requirements.

 No Downloads or Installs - With OnLive I don't have to wait for downloads or installs, I just choose the game and go. For things like addon packs for games like Borderlands, you simply buy them and jump right back in to enjoy the content.

 Instant Play - If you see something that interests you, just click play and you're there. Hopping between games is much like changing channels, and makes short play sessions a breeze. 

Cons

 No Physical Copy -  With OnLive everything is digital, so you won't have any physical copies of the game. Usually collectors worry about physical copies, since I'm not a collector it doesn't bother me much.

Dependant on Internet - If the internet goes down, so does your gaming. For many, relying on something so unreliable might not be worth investing in. 

Bandwidth Limitations - If you're on a connection with a bandwidth limitation, then you're going to hit the cap pretty quickly with OnLive.
     
I know there are more pros than cons in this list, but the cons are much more impacting on the service than the pros are. My apologies for not coming up with more, but I want to base the review on the service as it is currently and not what I think it should be.
43 Comments

OnLive - Get the Facts

So there seems to be a lot of out-dated information, misconceptions, and poorly made assumptions about OnLive. 
 
First-off everyone seems to think I'm a corporate plant, marketing shill, or some under-cover agency trying to market OnLive. First off, I love technology and I'm very excited about OnLive, I just can't stand it when people post out-dated information or assumptions as fact. I've written reviews for Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, Terminator Salvation, AION: Tower of Eternity, Runes of Magic, and Perfect World International, two of which became video reviews (AION and Perfect World). I'm a Linux user mostly, and I've done a couple videos and blog posts on that as well. I also run a Final Fantasy XIV podcast called Lodestone Radio, but after a situation with Creative Labs and a sound card my computer is currently fried. But no, I must be some marketing plant because nothing about OnLive can be good! 
   
After the November 17th announcement of the OnLive Micro-Console the user base for OnLive skyrocketed. In that week since the announcement, there have been more users than the entire history of OnLive...and it's still growing. They give promotions and discounts all the time, and the entire company and service is still in its infancy. Hell the main component for the entire service, the Micro-Console, isn't even out yet! The service is completely free (no monthly fees), you never have to upgrade your hardware, games and add-ons purchased load instantly and kept forever, theres no installing or waiting for downloads, many games on OnLive are half the price of stores, new releases are usually $10-$20 below stores, they have low-cost options to rent games for 3 to 5 days, and they constantly have promotions such as 75% off and game giveaways.

Oh but that doesn't matter right? Cause the service sucks, it needs a crazy amazing internet connection, if the company goes under you can't keep the games, theres lag, the video looks shitty, theres no games, its too expensive, etc etc. That's all I hear anytime someone has something to say about OnLive, and I'm going to clear-up every single one right now.  
 

1. The service sucks. 


Most likely you've tried the service back in June and haven't looked again, are outside of USA or Canada and are attempting to play, or you've never tried the service because you're scared of change and need to justify the money you've put into your PC and/or Consoles.
  
The OnLive service does exactly what it says it does. You can play any game on the service and try it for yourself free! www.onlive.com you can go right now and just download it, try it out, you'll be amazed if you stop for a moment and realize its not running on your computer at all. There are such great community features, such as the messaging, spectating, brag clips, and the zero latency multiplayer.

Unlike other games you play online where you can see players jittering around on the screen, people using hacks and exploits, and other latency related issues, OnLive is completely devoid of these things. OnLive is basically run like a giant LAN network, so when you're spectating someone or playing a multiplayer game with them, there is no latency/lag/pause/jitter. It is instantaneous. What they see is EXACTLY what you see, and it's amazing.


2. It needs a crazy amazing internet connection


When people see or hear "FIVE MEGABIT CONNECTION" they turn the other way and can't fathom an internet connection so glorious and amazing as 5MB/s. But does MB equal Megabit? No, it doesn't. MB and Mb are two very different things, MB is known as Megabyte and Mb is known as Megabit. So what are the differences? Well Megabyte (or MB) is usually a measurement of size, you can see it when looking over files on your computer. Files like music which are 3MB, or movies which are 600MB, are all every day normal things and we don't question it.

However, Megabit (or Mb) is not the same thing, in fact its much LOWER than MB. This is usually a measurment of internet speed, but only really used in the marketing of the internet service. Why would they use Mb over MB though when marketing a connection? Well 1MB is equal to 8Mb, and initially that 8 looks bigger than that 1 even though they mean the same thing. One Megabyte = Eight Megabit, which can be confusing but its true and thats just how things are.

So lets go back to OnLive which requires at maximum a connection of 5Mb/s. Well that's not bad at all! I basically need a download speed of 0.610MB/s, or more commonly seen as 625KB/s. What exactly is the difference between 5Mb and 5MB, and why does it matter? If I say you're getting a 5Mb connection, majority of the population instantly assumes you will be downloading at 5MB a second. However, to download 5 Megabytes would take you around a minute on a 5 Megabit connection.

What's better is the micro-console takes even less bandwidth than your PC or Mac does. Depending on your TV size you'll require a different amount of bandwidth. 52" is 5Mb/s, 42" is 4Mb/s, 32" is 3Mb/s etc. So it's safe to assume that if you have a 22" TV that you'll need 2Mb/s, that's the idea anyway.

And for those waiting to shout about bandwidth caps, OnLive has partnered with many ISPs to not only re-route your connection to give you the best experience, but if rumors are true then OnLive doesn't affect your bandwidth cap. And even if it did, Comcast for example has a 250GB bandwidth cap which would give you 150 to 300 hours of gameplay a month. So no, you don't need some amazing internet connection.


3. If the company goes under you can't keep the games


This is somewhat of an odd statement, especially from people who just blindly attack the service without understanding it at all. First off, I don't think the games will be lost if the company goes under, since they are just sitting in a database somewhere which can be scaled to any size. Secondly, the company would only go under if you aren't buy or renting games, and if you aren't doing that anyway then you wouldn't have any games to keep regardless.

Basically its a moot point, especially since they just seem to be getting bigger and bigger which is strange for a 'failing' company.
 

4. Theres lag


If there's lag its not because of OnLive thats for sure. Your internet is the issue at that point, and speaks more to the service of your ISP rather than the service of OnLive. Oh, you're saying the game itself is lagging? Again, not the fault of OnLive. Just Cause 2 is the only game on the service that runs at a sluggish pace, but this is because its running the PC version of the software. I ran Just Cause 2 on my PC as well, and it had that same sluggish feel as it did in OnLive. The PS3 version didn't have this issue though, so I would only assume that the Just Cause 2 engine isn't very optimized for PC hardware.


5. The video looks shitty


The current output for OnLive on PC and Mac is 1280x720, which is more commonly referred to as 720p. They are releasing 1080p output once the micro-console arrives, but I'll just use the current 720p resolution for this arguement. When you play OnLive on a monitor with the resolution at 1920x1080, which is more commonly referred to as 1080p, you are scaling the image which causes blurring. There are two video streams that OnLive uses while a game is being played. One is the media stream, which is used when spectating someone or when a brag clip is taken. This stream is usually lower in quality, more akin to a YouTube video. The second stream is the gaming stream, which is used when you're actually playing a game. The gaming stream is optimized for playing the game and looks crisp and clear. Of course you may see some compression if you look for it or take a screenshot, but OnLive is made to look great in motion and not in a still frame.


6. Theres no games


Of course the game selection is limited, the console isn't even out yet. However, they have 35 games right now and hope to have 50 games total before the end of the year. Not to mention another 100 games are currently in the pipeline for release in 2011, many of which are day-in-date with the console releases as well.

Still, for a new console launch it has more games than Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 launched with. Xbox 360 launched with 18 titles, six of which were exclusive to the system. PlayStation 3 launched with 15 titles, six of which were exclusive to the system. OnLive has 35 games right at this moment, and may get more on the December 2nd launch of the micro-console, however that is more than Xbox 360 and PS3 had combined. Of course there are no exclusive titles yet, but given time I'm sure we'll see some interesting software come to OnLive.


7. Its too expensive


The Micro-Console pre-order announcement was made on the 17th, stating it costs $99 (keep in mind it never has to be upgraded). What do you get with this $99? Well you get the micro-console itself (never has to be upgraded), an extremely high-quality wireless controller, HDMI Cable, Ethernet Cable, and a Promo Code good for any game on the service. The OnLive controller has been praised by reviewers, many stating that its higher quality than first party controllers for Xbox 360 and PS3. Controllers for Xbox 360 and PS3 are usually $50, so lets assume that the controller is half the package price. The Promo Code is worth $50 as well, so there's your $99 right there. Basically you get the Console, HDMI Cable, and Ethernet cable all for free, its one of the best deals out there.

When the Xbox 360 launched it was between $299 and $399, and curently sells between $299 and $399. When the PlayStation 3 launched it was between $499 and $599, and currently sells between $299 and $399. Usually these do not come with a game, and if they do you don't have a choice over what game it is. All you get is the system, component cables (so if you have an HDMI TV you need to buy it seperately), power cable and a controller. If you're just looking to play games and enjoy them with your friends, $99 is a much smaller pill to swallow.


8. If the internet goes down you can't play games.


 Well thats true, but just like on Xbox 360 or PS3 if your internet is down you won't be playing games online. Sure you could play a single-player game, but gaming with others is generally more fun, even if they are just watching you play like on OnLive. Yes you could have your friends come over and play games with you, but you could also go over to your friends house and play OnLive there.


9. I already have a Xbox 360/PS3, OnLive is pointless...


Sure it might be pointless for you right now, but wait until the next generation consoles come out. OnLive will be running those next-gen games just as well as Xbox 720 or PS4 without any other fees. When your 360 red rings or your PS3 yellow lights you want to be sitting there for weeks waiting for it to come back from being repaired? Or even worse, your console is out of warrenty so not you have to pay even MORE to get it back. $99 or a basic computer and you can be on your games playing online.


10. I already have a PC, OnLive is pointless...


Of course we have the PC gamers who like their expensive parts, piracy, and being able to modify the games as they see it. That's all fine and dandy, but because you paid $800 to $1,500 for a computer to do all of that doesn't make the OnLive service or its console any less impressive or useful. OnLive supports user add-ons which we'll see when their official forums launch, and also supports Keyboard & Mouse along with Controller. 

However, this doesn't mean OnLive is trying to replace your computer. It is its own platform, but it's a console first and formost even if they have a PC and Mac client. Soon they'll have OnLive on the iPad and iPhone, but that doesn't mean OnLive is a mobile gaming service. And just because majority of the games on OnLive are the PC versions doesn't mean its a PC completely maxed out. The PC versions of the game are just easier to port and are scaled to compete with console versions. Again, its a service to compete with consoles, which is why they are releasing the micro-console.     

47 Comments

OnLive Has The BEST Customer Appreciation!

 Full Article Here: http://blog.onlive.com/2010/11/24/a-special-thanks-to-onlive-founding-members/

OnLive exploded with users since the November 17th announcement of the Micro-Console pre-orders, and today they wanted to thank everyone who supported the service. If you rented or bought a playpass on OnLive before November 23rd, you should have received an e-mail with a promo code for a free game.

For those that have rented or bought two playpasses before November 23rd, you should have received the promo code for a free game, as well as a free Micro-Console! That's right, a completely free Micro-Console (just gotta pay shipping) which comes with yet another free game! So that's two free games AND a free micro-console that comes with the awesome wireless controller, HDMI cable, ethernet cable, power cable, and console itself.

This is an amazing gift to give to those customers who support the service. I myself have followed OnLive since its announcement at GDC 2009, its launch in June 2010, and even pre-ordered the Micro-Console. But to check my e-mail today and see that I not only got a free game, but that the pre-order I had made was also free?! I can't express how happy I was.

But that's not all! This weekend OnLive is having a HUGE Thanksgiving Sale, and tons of games are being marked down. But if you're interested in checking out OnLive, this weekend might be the time.    

47 Comments

The OnLive Micro-Console Pre-Orders Have Begun (Positive Reviews)

Finally after have months the OnLive Micro-Console is finally here!

I personally love OnLive, been gaming with it since June when it released. Jumping into a game is great, purchasing is easy, and sharing experiences with my friends has never been more fun. The community aspects is one of the reasons I really enjoy OnLive, along with the end of hardware dependency. OnLive isn't worried about PS3 and Xbox 360 right now, they are looking to the future hardware when people are asked to shell out another $500-$600 for the next generation consoles. I never have to update OnLive or the new Micro-Console, and I personally know a bunch of people that have sold their Xbox 360s and PS3s to use the OnLive Service exclusively.

They could use more titles but the prices are very fair, with titles being either half the MSRP or $10 below the console SKU (since this is for all intents and purposes a console). They even have a renting option, and in December they will have a monthly pass that lets you play whatever you want for one price. 1080p output, voice chat, four controllers to a console, playable on PC & Mac, iPhone & iPad compatibility, all of it is amazing and literally the future of gaming. When I buy a game I just throw the discs into a giant CD Binder anyway, OnLive just erases the need to have anything else (unless I care about Sony, Nintendo, or Microsoft first-party titles). It's certainly not for everyone as a decent internet connection is required, but I love it and can't wait for my micro-console to get here.
 
UKGear IGN Onlive MicroConsole Review Here!  
 
Theres a video review here 
(the library has doubled since then and it's free forever instead of for a year)

  

Here's a PC vs PS3 vs OnLive Comparison: 
  
  

And here's a demonstration video of how OnLive gives that living room experience:
     
16 Comments

Vanguard Review - 2010 - In it to win it?

Let's get the obvious out of the way, Vanguard had a horrible history and a horrible launch. However, much is changing for what many consider the spiritual successor to the original EverQuest. The community is fighting back to make sure their favorite game is noticed by those who blindly call Vanguard a 'broken and bug-littered game'. Efforts like http://www.offtheisle.com and articles on MMORPG.com help promote Vanguard in a positive community effort. With new features added since launch, like mentoring, riftways, class revamps, and new high-level raids, Vanguard isn't going down without a fight.

Vanguard has certainly improved over the years, anyone saying otherwise is willingly ignorant or has yet to actually play the game within the last month. The first and most noticeable change, is the performance and quality increase since the launch of Vanguard. While playing the game across Windows XP, Windows 7, Ubuntu 9.10 (WINE 1.1.32) and MacOSX Leopard (DarWINE 1.1.32), performance was always solid and never slowed down. The only issues I came across were BSOD on Windows 7 (until I changed Sound to Generic Hardware) and the rain not displaying in Windows 7, which really wasn't an issue given Vanguards other great qualities.

I could talk about the history and horrible launch, but this is 2010 and those events took place nearly three and a half years ago and are hardly relevant. So what is Vanguard today? In all respects, Vanguard is the spiritual successor to EverQuest. This basically means that Vanguard is not for World of Warcraft fans who expect to hit max level in two days, or for players who expect crafting to be a one-click affair. This isn't to say that Vanguard is harder than other games, it just has much more depth than your average MMO. The biggest mistake many new players make is assuming they have to rush to max level (55) as quick as possible, however the 'end-game' in Vanguard starts at level 10.

Vanguard is a game filled with tons of amazing creatures, beautiful vast landscapes, and a novel or two worth of lore for everything in the game. There are five different spheres for you to advance in, each with their own equipment pages in your inventory. I'll go over these and their details below, but first lets go over the races of the world known as Telon. There are 19 races, featuring Humans (Thestran/Qaliathari/Kojani/Mordebi), Dwarfs, Halflings, Elves (Dark/Half/High/Wood), Humanoids (Vulmane/Kurashasa/Raki), Barbarians (Varanjar/Varanthari), Orcs, Goblins, Lesser Giants, and Gnomes.  
 

 Flying a Wyvern towards the port city of Khal.

While the character models aren't nearly as detailed or good-looking in games such as AION, Age of Conan, and EverQuest 2, once in-game they fit exceptionally well with how the world looks. However, many of the player models are essentially the same body scaled with a different head or texture, leaving the humanoid races without tails. I find most of the animations to be quite realistic, especially with two handed weapons and dual wielding. It was a bit awkward getting used to the animations though, as many current games feature insane acrobatics, with characters flailing around while jumping and spinning wildly. Vanguard is certainly a nice change of pace from those ridiculous over-the-top animations, keeping action sequences subtle but engaging.

Adventuring is the most popular sphere in the game, since most people who play an MMORPG expect to be adventuring majority of the time. There are 15 classes to choose from, each broken into Protective Fighter, Offensive Fighter, Healer, or Arcane Caster archetypes. These include Dread Knight, Paladin, Warrior, Bard, Monk, Ranger, Rogue, Bloodmage, Cleric, Disciple, Shaman, Druid, Necromancer, Psionicist, and Sorcerer. Although there are some similarities between classes in the same archetype, all classes play very differently from each other. While the general idea of a class can be inferred by the description, playing each class feels different and unique from other games, which is quite an accomplishment.

Of course there are thousands of quests and areas, each with their own detailed descriptions and lore. You will have to read quest descriptions for information on how to complete quests or find locations, though there is a quest tracker that will help. I did come across a few that were bugged or broken, but petitioning a GM quickly cleared up the matter. There are also hundreds of dungeons in Vanguard for all level ranges, the first of which starts at level 4. Many new players miss out on the great starting dungeons when they begin on the Isle of Dawn, but the Isle of Dawn is a nice glimpse at what Vanguard is. However, many will say the Isle is a bad representation of the actual game, and favor the racial starting areas to give a better sense of the world and progress. To give you an idea, the Isle of Dawn is large in its own right, but each continent in Vanguard (Thestra, Qalia, and Kojan) is at least 100 times larger than the Isle. Did I mention there are no instances? 
    
Standing in the rain on the Jharru Flats.

Crafting is probably the second most popular sphere, since other games have had crafting as well. The difference is that Crafting in Vanguard is just as involved to level as Adventuring is, and if you really want to be a good crafter you need to master all three continent styles. Most other games allow you to Adventure and craft on the side to make some extra cash, in Vanguard though crafting takes dedication. A huge change from other games is the complexity of the crafting process, which gives you time to think your way through a balancing act of quality, progress, and action points. You also won't waste any of your own materials (except utilities, which are very cheap) since you level up crafting through Work Orders. These are quests that focus on leveling, outfitting, and rewarding your crafter sphere, without having to make the same worthless item a million times for experience and then try to break even.

Harvesting isn't so much a sphere but you do need to level the skill by reading books on how to gather higher tier materials. The interesting thing about harvesting in Vanguard though, aside from your equipment helping with how much material you gather, is your group can also assist in gathering as long as they have the basic tool. Needless to say, gathering groups are very common, and usually bring lower level and higher level adventuring players together. Fishing is similar to harvesting, though it's far more engaging than you'll find in other MMOs. If you hated clicking that stupid cork in WoW for hours on end, then Vanguards fishing system will be a refreshing change. Player-skill is definitely a factor, and its just as fun and relaxing as real fishing can be. Sadly it isn't available on the Isle of Dawn, but its certainly one of my favorite time wasters in Vanguard.

Diplomacy is a brand new concept to MMORPGs, and it's a mechanic that should be taken and abused by all other games. You're probably wondering what a Diplomat does, and what makes it such an amazing progression path. Lets just say, Diplomacy is like politics in a card game. Doing quest chains rewards you with tons of back story and lore. Outside of the quest lines, Diplomacy is mostly about Civic Diplomacy, which has a diplomat getting blackmail from around the city and using it to manipulate NPCs to give certain buffs to people who enter the city. These could be Adventuring, Crafting, Diplomacy or Gathering buffs, and there can be more than one at a time. Diplomacy buffs give a card for the duration of the buff, while the other sphere buffs raise stats.

 A group fighting on the continent of Kojan, with the Arks of Harmony floating over head.

The graphics in Vanguard are simply awe-inspiring. The style, look, and feel of the game is based on concept art from the late Kieth Parkinson. Looking through his fantastic gallery of paintings and then playing Vanguard seems to make his paintings come to life. Every blade of grass sways in the wind with the trees, while the draw distance allows for impressive vistas. The great thing about Vanguard is you never feel like you've been somewhere twice, simply because of the many landmarks the game has. Giving directions like "Take a left at the big tree, then go past the tent to the lake..." are easy to follow. Spell effects also look great, and really fit the look and style of the game. The environmental effects really catch my eye as well, such as smoke or mud geysers. Off in the distance I might see two stacks of smoke from some burning huts, realistically rising steadily and dissipating. Literally makes you stop and stare in wonder, it's really hard to describe, but perhaps it has something to do with the scale of the world.

The music and sound effects in the game are amazing. I was lucky enough to purchase the Collector's Edition for $20, which came with the soundtrack. Nearly every track screams fantasy, and every one fits seamlessly with the world. Sound effects in Vanguard are also impressive, especially with the amount of variety and creativity. The first time you gather some legs from a spider, the sound will naturally make you cringe from the sickly detailed sounds.

Death in Vanguard has a very nice balance between meaningful and meaningless. When you die, you can wait for someone to raise you or release to an alter. Once at the alter, you can either summon your corpse and lose 10% of your exp while suffering a durability hit to your equipment, or run back to your corpse losing 1% and taking no durability hit (aside from the damage done during battle). You can also drag corpses and give people permission to drag yours, while some classes can summon you to them and raise you. It's a system that promotes team work, but that doesn't mean you can't solo in Vanguard.
 
 A kojani style sloop, caravel, and galleon docked in Khal.

Vanguard has an absurd amount of mounts, the most common of which is horses. By as early as level 10, you'll find yourself with a cheap horse, tack & barding, and horseshoes to assist in traversing the huge world of Telon. Each race also has a mount specific to them, which requires an allegiance to their city and platinum coins specific to that city. There are two versions, one at level 30 and another at level 50. There are also Boats in Vanguard, which are built by crafters, and fully customized every which way you want from the paint to the adornments. There are also a multitude of flying mounts, which are permanently obtained around level 45. Many are available for rent around the world though, to help assist with travel. 

Many things certainly impress me about Vanguard. It's challenging, makes you feel powerful and important at all levels. Khegor's End is a great example of a Dungeon done well...and it's for levels 15-20. It's an extremely large and epic experience, on par with what other games might consider end-game. They also give importance to players who enjoy Diplomacy and Crafting, giving them their own equipment, titles, and quest lines. It goes back to being a little old school, with the recent trend in MMOs being simplicity and instant gratification. In Vanguard, there is definitely a feeling of accomplishment when you do something, and you truly fear death.

It's easy to ignore anything positive about a game that just three years ago was unplayable, but Vanguard is not an experience to be missed. The population is rapidly growing again, thanks to the efforts of a very dedicated community, so why not give it a try? World of Warcraft will be here a while, EverQuest 2 isn't what it used to be, and announced titles such as RIFT, FFXIV, and TERA all advertise the same exact graphics and gameplay. Games with the depth, beauty, and content such as Vanguard is a dying breed, especially in this new age of Facebook and Browser-based games. Give it a try, ignore the doom and gloom from naysayers, and see how it is for yourself. If you've tried it before, then try it again, MMOs are always changing and evolving.
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AION: Tower of Eternity Video Review

Feel free to read the written review for AION: Tower of Eternity on GiantBomb

  


NCSoft is a company you either love or hate, and for the most part I'm not a fan of NCSoft. They certainly take chances with some of the MMOs they publish, but there are more disappointments than treasures. Lineage was the first game released by NCSoft in 1998, and was a great game at the time. When Lineage II released in 2004, it felt like the series had taken two steps backwards. Set 150 years before Lineage and sporting impressive 3D graphics, the character creation and gameplay were both just extremely limited. City of Heroes, which was also released in 2004, was a title I was ambitiously following. I had hero concepts made and participated on the forums, but once the game released and the thrill of creating a hero wore off the game just couldn't hold up for me.

Guild Wars was released in 2005 and marketed itself as an 'MMORPG without the subscription'. This always bugged me, since the 'MMO' aspect was nothing more than a city hub in the style of the Diablo 2 lobby. Aside from the false marketing, there was no jumping and many invisible walls, which made the fairly short journey to level twenty feel even more limited and linear. NCSoft really started getting on my bad side when they shut down Auto Assault, an awesome post-apocalyptic vehicular combat MMO, released in 2006 and closed shortly after in 2007. Later in 2007 Tabula Rasa was released and had a similar feel to Auto Assault, but of course was closed in early 2009. Both Auto Assault and Tabula Rasa were amazing games that I really enjoyed, but to NCSoft they just didn't have enough development to fulfill their potential. So after all of these disappointments, I promised myself I wouldn't play another NCSoft game no matter how good it looked....

AION was announced on May 2006 along with a preview at the Electronic Entertainment Expo. I was reluctant to care since it was coming from NCSoft, shrugging it off as another Lineage II style game with shallow game play and nice graphics. In the months following, trailers were released which looked great but again I had absolutely no interest in falling for a game that NCSoft was publishing. I hadn't heard about AION again until April 2009 when the Chinese version was released, so I decided to at least give it a try so I could back up any negative critique I may have about the game. To my complete and utter disbelief, AION: The Tower of Eternity, is likely the most fulfilling and enjoyable experience I've ever had in an MMO. It's clear that NCSoft has spent lots of time on every facet of AION, from the smallest of details, to the story, all the way down to the method of payment. After it's numerous failures, it's finally time NCSoft got one right, and it seems like they know it's good.



Let me just get this out of the way, AION is an incredibly gorgeous game in both visuals and sound. The game uses a heavily modified version of the CryEngine, and the presentation as well as the performance is unlike anything I've seen in an MMO. The world has a grand scale, and the idle animations are based on your surroundings. If it's raining your character will hold an elephant ear leaf, if you're in the water it'll reach down and grab a fish out of the water, and there's something different for every environment. The music is beautifully composed by Ryo Kunihiko, whose most notable works were the soundtracks to The Twelve Kingdoms and Emma. The world of Ateria and the music go so well together to create a mood, that you hardly ever notice it's there. The interface is also wonderfully done, and works to complement the gameplay experience rather than control it. The heads-up display is defaulted at the bottom, but you can move it to the top which you might be more accustom to.

In AION you start off by choosing a faction, either the light influenced Elyos or the dark influenced Asmodians. This isn't to say that the Elyos are good and the Asmodians evil, but reflects the side of Ateria they were born and raised on. Once you choose a faction, you're asked to choose from one of four basic archetypes: Warrior, Scout, Mage, and Priest. Warriors excel at heavily armored close-quarters combat, and can later specialize in Gladiator or Templar. The Gladiator is a heavily armored close combat DPS class that can use a large range of weapons, while the Templar is a heavily armored tanking class with the ability to use protection chants. Scouts combine agility with swift attacks, and can later specialize in Ranger or Assassin. The Ranger has many varied long range attacks and has the ability to use traps, while the Assassin sneaks around and strikes without being detected.

The Mage is physically weak but casts devastatingly powerful magic, and can specialize in Spiritmaster or Sorcerer. The Spiritmaster can summon and control the four elements (Air, Earth, Fire, and Water), while the Sorcerer uses the four elements in long-ranged magical combat. The Priest can use healing, self-protection, melee combat, and ranged magic attacks, and later specializes in Cleric or Chanter. The Cleric is your main healer and protector, while the Chanter is a healer but with emphasis on buffing and fortification. The Elyos and Asmodian classes are the same, though armor and weapon styles differ between the two races. This is where my only complaint comes in, as you don't have much control over differentiating your character from another of the same class. In a small attempt to remedy this, AION has Stigma which are five slots that allow you to place the ability of another class into each one starting at level 20. It's mainly intended to surprise enemies in PVP combat, as you won't know which special abilities the player is capable of using.

Once you have your class selected, you'll be brought to the character creation screen. You have full control over your character, with sliders to modify the head and body however you want. If you're looking to get right into the game without creating a character, AION provides a number of pre-made character appearances that you can edit or use as is. The number of available options is impressive, especially since every face, hairstyle, beard, and tattoo is viable and stylish. When you get into the advanced options of the face and body, you can literally make any character you can think of. From a child to a giant to a freak, it's all up to you and AION gives you the tools to easily get it done. The customization doesn't end there though as you're able to alter the color of your equipment, and use any weapon or armor style you like to craft with the stats of a different item. This allows you to control the look of your equipment without sacrificing better stats of an item you might find visually unappealing.



When you finally enter the game you may be tempted to start killing everything you see, or blindly accept quests and focus on what needs to get done. If you do either of these you'll be missing out on the amazing story that AION provides. Every mission, quest, and NPC is aware of what is going on in the world, which means everything you do carries with you on your journey. There's conflict in the world of Ateria, and all of the quests and missions you receive will be directly related to this conflict. On the Elyos side you have the Kobolds and Krall that are attempting to refine Odium, while the Mumu and Mau work to refine Odella on the Asmodian side. The conflicts are similar, but the differences between the Elysos and Asmodian campaign are in the details. Your character also has a personal journey to uncover their past or future, depending on which race you choose to play as. Some quest descriptions can go on five to six pages, but it's worth taking in every detail the AION developers worked so hard to create. If you choose not to read everything, you may get stuck on some quests as the key to completing them can only be found in the initial quest description when you accept it.

Combat in AION is nicely paced and visually exciting, especially once skill chains are presented to your character. Skill chains are combos that can only be used by linking together skills in a particular order, or once certain prerequisites have been met. Some skill chains can branch into alternate combos, which can be more useful in certain situations. To obtain these and other skills, you'll have to visit a trainer and purchase skill books from them. You can buy them regardless of level as long as you have the funds, that way you can have the skill books on hand if you're close to leveling. Another aspect to combat is Divine Power, also known as DP, which you're able to use once you become a Daeva at level 10. DP is accumulated over time by killing monsters, and is used to cast powerful class-specific abilities. These can range from a helpful heal to a massive burst of damage, but the rate at which DP accumulates keeps these skills from being over powered.

Aside from Divine Power, you also get the ability to fly at level 10. Flying in AION plays a huge part in the experience as you continue to level up and move to new areas, but you can only stay airborne for a minute before falling. In the first combat area you visit as a Daeva, either Verteron or Altgard, you'll be able to fly freely. You get some practice flying from the quests and materials in the area, such as gathering Aether or finding a fossil in the cliff wall. You'll also get your first taste of aerial combat here, but keep in mind that flight can be deadly if you aren't mindful of the timer. You can't fly in every area, but you can still use your wings to glide down hills and cliffs. Gliding is easy to use but hard to master, and when you get the hang of it you can cover impressive distances. You can upgrade your wings later on to increase your flight time, but these wings can be very costly and can't be equipped until level 30.

As a Daeva you can also take up crafting in the main city, Sanctum or Pandemonium depending on your faction. There are 6 production professions: Weapon-smith, Armor-smith, Tailoring, Alchemy, Handyman, and Chef; and 2 extracting professions: Materials and Aether. You can master all the professions if you have the money, and work orders are available to help you level them. Work Orders are profession specific quests that give you a temporary recipe and the materials to make it, minus the fuel. As you level your chosen profession, you'll be able to buy recipes from a profession specific supplier.

The act of crafting and gathering in AION is simple, but quite rewarding and can be a relaxing experience. When you begin to craft or gather, a Pass/Fail meter will appear and begin to figure the odds automatically. Sometimes you can get critical passes and fill an entire bar instantly, and I'll note that I've never gotten a critical failure so I'm not sure if they exist. While crafting or gathering you also have a random chance to obtain a rare version of the item you're trying to obtain. It's not clear what triggers this, but I've heard DP plays a part though it could be completely random.



When you get around level 25, you'll start making your way into the PVP area known as the Abyss. The abyss is a dark and twisted wasteland of past wars, where there's no flight timer and legions capture castles from the opposing faction. Participating in PVP will reward you with increased ranks as you battle against fellow players, changing the appearance of your wings to reflect your status. Also while fighting against other players in PVP, you'll receive points that can be used to purchase high-end armor and weapons. Joining a Legion, AIONs version of a guild, will not only give you other players to group with but will also yield rewards while your legion holds a castle in the Abyss. As the legion levels up, you'll be able to create legion capes from a variety of styles, and even upload your own custom made images to display on the back.

AION is an amazing game, and for me it's biggest innovation is the price model. Usually the price models for MMOs are either subscription based or free to play with cash shop, but AION doesn't use either of them. Instead you pay for the time you want to play, which some may love and others hate. Your average MMO subscription is about $15.00 for a month of play time, but when you aren't playing you're still paying for that time. I play an MMO about 30 hours a week, so the other 138 hours in that week are just going to waste.

I've spent $8.00 on AION for 104 hours of game time, which after two weeks of playing still has about 40 hours left. When I'm not playing my time is still there, so when I want to take a break for a month or so my time will still be there when I get back. I'll give you another example. $18.00 will get you 205 hours, and to use up all of that time you'd have to play nearly 8 hours a day, everyday for a month. $35.00 will get you 410 hours, and to use up all of that time you'd have to play nearly 5 hours a day, everyday for three months. The more time you buy, the less per 2 hour unit you pay so buy in bulk.

AION is amazingly easy to try, and free to download. There's a 6 hour game time trial and is probably the most enjoyable MMO you'll ever play. Of course this is strictly speaking of the Chinese release so all of this is subject to change for the US release, but either way this game shouldn't be missed.
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OnLive - Gaming without the Hardware

OnLive made a huge impact on gaming news sites, but mainly with doubts and other concerns with the technology. For those that aren't familiar with OnLive, it's a  gaming on-demand service that uses cloud computing to stream video of a game playing on a high performance server. So basically, you logon to the service, pick a game, and you're playing without any downloading, a gaming console, or high performance computer.


  


The OnLive service is created by Steve Perlman (Atari, Apple, WebTV and MOVA) and Mike McGarvey (Eidos), and hopes to bring high quality gaming to gamers who can't afford to upgrade computer hardware or gaming consoles. Many people are worried about how it will affect the gaming industry, hardware and console manufactures, and if it will even work. Here are my thoughts, and why I think OnLive will revolutionize gaming without taking it over.

Console Gaming will always be around because of first party titles such as Killzone 2, Little Big Planet, Gears of War, Halo 3, Mario Galaxy, Metroid Prime 3, and so forth. These are the titles that sell consoles, and a service like OnLive will probably not have these titles unless Sony, Microsoft, or Nintendo made them available for it. A more realistic scenario would be Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony adapting their own version of OnLive with their entire library available through a similar service. As long as there are compelling first party games, consoles will continue to sell.

Video Cards and Computer Hardware Upgrade sales have been declining since the current generation of consoles. Hardcore PC Gamers, Game Developers, Console Manufacturers, Movie Industry etc, all rely on advanced computer hardware and the latest technology. The target audience of OnLive isn't going to update their computers, if they even own a computer. Some gamers are looking at OnLive as a means to never buy a console or upgrade their PCs again, but there will be games on a console or PC that OnLive won't support that you'll want to play.



So with the consoles and computer hardware worries out of the way, lets move on to the publishers which are the ones who benefit the most from OnLive. OnLive will give casual gamers, parents, and lower income households the ability to play high quality games on their TV or basic laptop for a small fee. This means developers can get their games out to a larger audience, and the development studios can take bigger risks. Piracy is also eliminated with the OnLive service, since players don't have physical access to the games, hardware, or servers. Piracy is way too popular for PC Games and Console Games, mainly because gamers don't care if the development studios get the funds to continue working or not; just as long as they get to play the new hot game. I won't get into a long winded explanation about why piracy needs to stop, how it hurts gaming, etc because I know those that do pirate software and games could care less.

With the OnLive system many are worried about bandwidth usage for capped lines and latency. When using the OnLive service, there's two quality settings that you can play at based on the connection speed of your ISP. A resolution of 720p requires a connection that is marketed at 5MB, and standard definition requires a connection that is marketed at 1.5MB. This doesn't mean that it will use 5MB/s for 720p gaming or 1.5MB/s for standard definition gaming, but more like (and this is an estimate) 150kb/s to 300kb/s for standard and 300kb/s to 500kb/s for 720p while using the service. That's about 60-120 hours of 720p gaming a month for those on bandwidth capped connections (depending on the connection of course), which is a very reasonable amount of gaming in my opinion.

And finally, I don't see how some can be skeptical of the service. It's taken 7 years to develop, and Steve Pearlman has helped pioneer many current mainstays in internet and technology (QuickTime, WebTV, MOVA). So it's been demonstrated at GDC, they have the support of 10 major publishing partners, and Steve Pearlman with Mike McGarvey is at the head of OnLive. There's no reason to doubt their achievement, and OnLive will revolutionize the gaming industry as we know it for the better. Pricing will be affordable, more people will be able to game, and publishers get more sales and don't have to worry about piracy. Overall it's a very positive service, and others should put their skepticisms aside and embrace a step forward for games and development. Gaming hasn't progressed in years, and OnLive is just what we need to push gaming further and keep it alive.



  
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Initial Windows 7 Reaction

Original Post at my personal blog, http://www.saithetechguy.com/

The release candidate for Windows 7 was leaked earlier this week, so I thought I would see how it was performing. Having been a long time Linux user, and knowing the performance issues with Vista, I wasn't expecting much.

After a surprisingly quick install, I powered up my laptop assuming I'd have to go and download all of the drivers for my hardware; mainly video, sound, and network card. Again, I was surprised when my Internet was actually working, and Windows 7 had set the default resolution to my monitors 1080p standard. So right from the get go Windows 7 had a quick install, no driver installs needed, and performance was on par with my Ubuntu 8.10 install in terms of speed. I decided to check out a few of the features unique to Windows 7 and see how the file-system stability was. 

Having a clean install, I decided to transfer over 100GB of data straight to the Windows 7 install drive, and received a few more surprises. First thing I noticed was the network file transfer speed was two times faster than in Ubuntu, with Windows 7 transferring 12MB/s and Ubuntu transferring 6.5MB/s. After the 100GB of data were transferred, I moved files around to different folders, installed applications, edited some files, played some games, and other usual actions to attempt and fragment the drive. When I analyzed the disk, I was shocked to see 1% fragmentation especially since Ubuntu with the same data had 2% fragmentation.

So aside from all of the great performance, Windows 7 also has some interesting features and effects. The desktop has some great themes to choose from, my favorite being Characters. This changes the wallpapers that will be cycled through, the system sounds, and the color of the taskbar and window boarders. The wallpaper changing by default every 30 minutes is fun, and the wallpapers in the Characters theme are really fantastic and stylish. Windows 7 also has an interesting feature called Aero Peek on-top of a redesigned taskbar which creates a very intuitive Desktop Manager.



I'm a huge fan of Compiz Fusion like any Linux user, and Aero Peek in combination with the redesigned taskbar really seem to work like a giant mix of Compiz Fusion features. Each application has it's own icon on the taskbar, and every window or tab unique to that application is manageable by hovering over the icon and checking out the previews. Here's where it gets interesting, because if you're like me and have multiple browser instances open with tabs in each, you can look through all of them easily with Aero Peek. Windows 7 also comes with some decently useful window docking points, for easy full-screen or half screen sizing. The half screen docking is useful when comparing two websites, or using one side for a research website and another for a word processor.

I am definitely impressed by how Windows 7 is performing, especially coming from Ubuntu. It's good to know that Microsoft will be giving away Windows 7 for free as an update to Windows Vista Home Premium, Business, and Ultimate users, as Windows 7 is essentially what Windows Vista should have been. My only gripe is the lack of multiple desktops, but when you get the hang of Aero Peek, every application seems to be it's own desktop which really improves your workflow.

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