Microsoft’s push into cloud gaming has been teased and gradually rolled out in what feels like an achingly slow fashion. It’s only in the last few months that it’s entered a public preview stage, and even then you could only register to try it out in three countries and with particular phones and internet speeds. Without an Android device to call my own, my first opportunity to go hands on with Project xCloud came at XO19 last week.
It’s funny holding a full gamepad with a smartphone clamped on and hovering over the top of it. It’s great in a way, the screen being positioned wherever you like, if that’s to the top of the controller or hovering over the sticks and buttons, and you can keep it feeling nice and balanced. You also have the great feel of having a gamepad without compromises in your hand. Full size sticks, full on triggers, big face buttons with great travel to them. I can imagine there’s a decade old prototype Xbox handheld in Microsoft HQ that looks an awful lot like this.
And the games you can play feel nice and responsive as well. It doesn’t feel like there’s much if any latency really getting in the way, outside of the driving heft that Forza Horizon 4 naturally has. The catalogue of games has expanded dramatically overnight, ballooning from 5 to 50, so even if you are more sensitive to latency than I am, you can pick more relaxed, less twitchy titles like Hello Neighbour or RAD to play instead.
However, there is a catch to streaming. What if your Wi-Fi isn’t fast enough? What if you lose a bar of phone signal? How does xCloud cope? Well, it’s not always particularly pretty, but it’s as elegant a solution as I can think of, seeming to put inputs first and the quality of the stream second. Gameplay trumps graphics in this case.
Those are Julia Hardy’s hands, not mine. I was silly enough not to take any photos of the xCloud set ups, in use or otherwise at XO19.
Playing on the set up at XO19, being held at the Copper Box Arena today and tomorrow, the situation wasn’t particularly ideal. They could’ve gone with the venue’s Wi-Fi or tried to use 4G, but both would’ve been, well, impossible. So the dozen or so demo devices were cabled in to provide both power and internet access, but even this wasn’t a seamless experience.
Quite regularly, the streamed game would suffer, a big scanline scrolling down the screen over the course of a second and effectively refreshing the video back to its regular glory. Through that, the games were still all more than playable. So no, not perfect, not like playing on your Xbox at home or even like playing on your home fibre connection, but good enough. And it should be noted that when it’s running smoothly, it can still look absolutely fantastic.
Connectivity will always be a sticking point for xCloud and its peers, but it also has the opportunity to be wonderfully liberating and to bring games to more people in more places. Announced at XO19 yesterday, Microsoft have also stated quite simple that as the streaming service expands in 2020, you’ll start to be able to quite simply play the games that you own digitally, and that xCloud will let Xbox Game Pass subscribers dip into that catalogue whenever and wherever they like. Sure, given the rivals both old and new, they really had to do it this way, but it’s great to have it confirmed.
But most importantly, Microsoft also realise that traditional console and PC gaming isn’t going anywhere. To them xCloud is currently an additive, it’s an expansion, a way to reach into new markets like India or expand their reach alongside consoles in the US and Europe.
So Project xCloud isn’t perfected right now, but even a brief glimpse of how it works with a not-so-great internet connection is enough to show that it has potential great potential.