Microsoft recently expanded its Preview Program of Project xCloud - also known as Xbox Game Streaming - to more countries, including Canada, so I was able to try the service out for myself. Here are my first impressions.
What is Project xCloud / Xbox Game Streaming and how does it work?
In short, this is Microsoft’s version of Google Stadia. xCloud allows anyone to stream console-quality games to their smart devices - just like Netflix streams movies and tv shows.
This means you can play Halo, Gears or Destiny 2 on your phone, as long as a Bluetooth controller is connected. Your controller input gets uploaded to a server in the cloud, and the game video and sound get streamed to your phone. Because so much data is up/downloaded, a fast and stable connection, as well as high or no data cap are the requirements.
How does it currently run?
Setup is easy and fast - you download the app on your supported smart device, sign in to your account and connect a Bluetooth controller. I’ve tried both the Xbox One and Switch Pro controller, and while they work, my phone had problems registering the button presses from the Switch Pro controller. I think this is more of an issue between phone and controller, as I had this in other games/apps as well. The Xbox One controller works great.
In the current preview program, you can play a surprisingly varied number of games for free, including Destiny 2, Gears 5, Forza Horizon 4 and Forza 7, Halo 5, Kingdom Come Deliverance, Sea of Thieves and Civilization VI. I think there’s something for everyone there, including some MMORPGs, sports and indie titles and I’m surprised how much content there is for a free public beta program.
If you use your Xbox or Gamepass account for the xCloud beta, your cloud saves carry over so you can continue to play with your Gears5 save and the likes on your phone.
First I started up the latest entry in this classic Xbox franchise. Loading times were okay, they are pretty much the same as on the console/PC version of the game. As soon as I got into the actual game, the stream pretty much melted down. While staying connected, the picture became blurry and pixelated, like a heavily compressed video. Tearing took over and I could barely make out what I was looking at. This combined with massive input lag made the game unplayable.
Forza Horizon 4
I tried the flagship arcade racer next and luckily the experience was better. The video stream seemed smooth all the way and the graphics impressed, even on a small screen. Input lag was less noticeable but still there, which made driving difficult, but this might have been my connection. Trying the game again on a Sunday evening, I encountered some tearing in the video stream, it didn’t bother me too much on my 10-minute test but was definitely not ideal. This might have been also a service peak hour, but it’s not something you wanna see if you wanna chill and play a bit on your weekend.
This game impressed me the most. Playing a fully-fledged online experience like this on your phone feels like a glimpse into the future, though the input lag soured the experience once again. I overshot my aim regularly and was probably only able to hit enemies with the console auto-aim snapping on them a bit. As soon as I entered the tower - Destiny 2’s social hub world - the illusion broke apart. The video stream became teary and blurry again and I couldn’t make out what I was looking at. I assume that the online part of the game ate up the bandwidth for the video stream, but that’s just an uneducated guess.
I tried all three games over my lower end connection at home as well as over a high-speed connection. The experience was pretty much the same on both connections. When game streaming works, it’s definitely a great experience and a giant leap to a hardware-agnostic gaming experience. But it’s the biggest obstacle that is still the bandwidth, currently the up and downstream on most internet connections that are available to me here on Canada’s west coast will not suffice for a smooth gaming experience, but that is something that can and hopefully will change soon.
Another point is that the game experiences themselves will have to adapt. My phone is not small, but I had major problems reading text and prompts on it, as it was all scaled for TV. I assume in the future games will have “phone UI modes” to compensate for when played on the go.
Microsoft’s offer on with Xbox Game Streaming positions itself where I see the near future of game streaming as well: As a parallel service to classic PC or console gaming experience. The full release and pricing are not yet released, but I predict it will be integrated or offered as a tier in Microsofts current Game Pass offers. Granting access to games already on your account or having them included in the subscription just makes sense and was also one of the biggest gripes the public had with Google’s comparable Stadia service. I can definitely see a lucrative future for it.