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Could Onlive's latest move change core gaming?

LA Noire on iPad could shake up traditional platforms, reckons Nick Cowen

It's not every day you see something that shouldn't be possible.

Actually, strike that; I work in the video games industry and on this beat you see something every other day that shouldn't be possible. Still, we'd had almost come to accept that there was absolutely no way that a console or PC quality experience could make the jump to tablets or smartphones.

Yet, this week, streaming games provider OnLive demonstrated to us that not only is its service capable of porting console experiences to mobile platforms, they're capable of offering the same quality of experience, too.

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All of a sudden, the platform contest has been blown wide open.

Mobile platforms may have stolen the march on Nintendo's consoles over the last year or so as the 'go-to' platform for casual gamers, but let's face it, core gamers still adhere to the console and PC platforms.

Angry Birds and Plants Vs Zombies are certainly capable of winning a fair share of that core market, but unless games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, L.A. Noire or Assassin's Creed: Revelations can be successfully ported to tablets and smartphones, they will forever remain secondary platforms in the eyes of the core gamer community.

This is why it's quite shocking to see Ezio Auditore da Firenze on an iPad. In some swanky demo rooms near Tower Bridge, I watch as OnLive's UK General Manager Bruce Gove puts the Italian assassin through his paces near the beginning of Assassin's Creed: Revelations, first on Apple's tablet, and then on a device running the Android OS.

Aside from the fingerprint smudges on the screen, the game looks no different from its console and PC brethren. And there's no lag.

"We're going live with playable tablets and other playable mobile devices," said Gove. "For about six months we've had a viewer out there where you could get a client for OnLive, but the only thing it allowed you to do was interact socially, but it didn't allow you to actually play any games.

"What that did for us was it gave us a lot of valuable network data which allowed us to do a lot of tuning and tweaking with regards to all the different devices, so we can offer a fully functioning, playable version of that app."

When OnLive goes live this week with its new app, according to Gove, players who sign up for the streaming game service will gain access to around twenty-five core games. All will be available to play on smartphones and tablets capable of running the OnLive app and three of them won't even require a peripheral.

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Rockstar's hard-boiled groundbreaking crime thriller, L.A. Noire, Ubisoft's exercise in deity-powered physics manipulation, From Dust, and Traveller's Tales take on the Dark Knight, LEGO Batman will all be available for download - and all of them will boast a touchscreen interface.

Oh, and as an extra bonus, anyone who downloads the OnLive app onto a device capable of running it and creates an account at www.onlive.co.uk, will receive a free copy of LEGO: Batman.

There are a couple of caveats. First up, anyone who has already downloaded the OnLive app will need to delete it and download the new one. The change in functionality between the two does not accommodate an update.

Second, said Gove, they'll need a decent Wi-Fi connection: "The games need at least 2Megs of bandwidth to deliver the optimum experience," he adds.

They'll also need to not be competing for bandwith, as OnLive was in its temporary HQ down near Tower Bridge. This impacted somewhat on the demo of LEGO: Batman. While we can report that the controls do work and their touchscreen layout is both intuitive and easy to use, during our time with the game on a tablet we did experience potentially game-breaking lag.

This wasn't a problem we had with Assassin's Creed: Revelations, however. Ubisoft's open-world stab-fest functioned in exactly the same way as one would expect from the console version. However, we did have to use the OnLive console peripheral to play it and Gove is quite forthcoming that this may be the case for a number of games that are available on the OnLive service.

"Ultimately the publishers have the final say," he explained, "if they decide that the optimal experience on a tablet or smartphone platform has to involve a control-pad peripheral, that's the experience that will be offered"

That's fair enough, really. Publishers calling the shots on how their games are experienced and what sort of interfaces best benefit the player is how the industry should work, quite frankly.

But what's interesting is how many developers and publisher are prepared to play ball with OnLive and how accommodating the service provider has been with both them and consumers.

While it may be too early to call OnLive the wave of the future, what is very clear is that both the service provider and certain segments of the video games community seem prepared to pony up for the long game.

If OnLive's baby steps onto mobile platforms involve the sort of experiences one doesn't find outside consoles or PCs, who knows where the service will be two or three years from now.

If you're interested, getting on the ground floor, it's free. And it happens on Thursday.

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