Project xCloud: Hands-on with Microsoft’s Game Streaming Platform

Project xCloud will make your jaw hit the floor, but will you want to pay for it monthly?

Project xCloud Hands-on Impressions

This article comes from Den of Geek UK. 

Last week, Den of Geek popped along to the opening of the new Microsoft Store in London’s Oxford Circus. There, we were lucky enough to try out Project xCloud, the upcoming Microsoft game streaming platform that will allow you to play Xbox One games on mobile devices.

Two floors up within the totally swanky shop, a few members of staff were overseeing a table. On this table were six or seven smartphones, each of which was connected to a regular Xbox One controller by a USB cable and a special clip-on product. Microsoft staff explained that these clips will be purchasable when xCloud eventually launches, and they also pointed out that the USB cable isn’t entirely essential: you can also connect your phone to your controller using Bluetooth. For the purposes of showing xCloud at this event, Microsoft opted to go for a wired connection and bypass the Bluetooth interference. (Anyone that uses Bluetooth headphones in busy public places will know this can be a pain.)

We picked up a phone and controller and started to play. The handset we’d chosen was already midway through a game of Halo 5: Guardians, an Xbox One title from 2015 that was being streamed to the device from Microsoft’s Azure servers outside of London. The graphics were crystal clear, and the Spartan on the phone screen responded immediately to our commands on the controller. In short, it works. The magic of the internet can make it possible for a console game to work on your phone. Our mind was blown.

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You don’t want any lag when you’re playing a first-person shooter, and we didn’t experience anything of the sort during our session with Halo 5. We ran around the map and shot down some enemies, and actions and animations felt smooth during these fast-paced firefights. When nobody was looking, we went to the pause menu and exited the game. Loading it up again didn’t take long at all. 

It’s hard to wrap your head around it at first. The reality of playing an Xbox One game on a phone is every bit as tough to swallow as any other decent-sized leap in technology. Remember the first time you saw a really high-end Nintendo Switch game being played in portable mode? Witnessing xCloud in action is just as jaw-dropping as that, and it could yet prove to be even more stunning, once the service is fully operational. It’s a particularly incredible achievement when you think about how far portable gaming has come in the last 20 years. Remember, back in the Game Boy and Game Boy Advance days, when you couldn’t even see the blocky retro graphics without standing directly underneath a light source? It feels like a thousand lifetimes ago.

We picked up another phone; this one was logged into Forza Horizon 4‘s recently released LEGO Speed Champions DLC. We took part in an online race and smashed up some stuff. The game was fun, but the novelty of playing it on a phone elevated the experience even higher. The graphics once again looked great. At one point we unlocked an achievement, and the little green box popped up in the exact same way it would on a console. The font was a bit small, but it was easy enough to read.

With Forza, though, there was one moment when it felt like xCloud couldn’t quite keep up with itself. It wasn’t a full-on glitch, or framerate drop, or a dreaded buffering screen. It was, as far as we could tell, a split-second stutter that occurred just once. xCloud corrected itself quickly and our car carried on with the race. It wasn’t a major technological flub, but again, you don’t want any issues to get in the way when you’re in the middle of a fast-paced game where every any split-second decision can be the difference between winning or losing. Microsoft will want to ensure that instances of lag are minimal when xCloud launches for the public in the fall.

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The staff in the store said that the wireless internet connection these phones were using was somewhere between 5Mbps and 10Mbps, which is at the lower end of the spectrum. We’d hope that, with a better connection, you wouldn’t get any distracting flickers like the one we felt in Forza. But that does raise a question: how often are you away from your home wifi network, separated from your Xbox One? How much use you get out of xCloud will vary from person to person, depending on how often those stars align in your life. And, as usual, the subscription-based business model will mean that some people are using xCloud a lot more than others while still paying the same fee.

As a technological achievement, though, xCloud is pretty incredible. It’s genuinely stunning to be able to play a console-sized game on a mobile device, and the fact that you can take your save files on the go is a major boon for the service. For xCloud to truly become the future of gaming, Microsoft will need its players to come out and pay for it, helping the company beat out competition from Google’s Stadia service. But once you’ve picked your jaw up off the floor and recovered from the initial awe, will you want to keep paying for this kind of service every month? Only time will tell…

Project xCloud will begin to roll out in October, starting with a preview that will allow Xbox One owners to stream games from their own console to their own devices.