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 your phone.
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 buyable when xCloud eventually launches, and they also pointed out that the USB cable isn’t entirely essential: if you’d rather, 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 possibility of Bluetooth interference. (Anyone that uses Bluetooth headphones in busy public places will know this can be a pain.)
We picked up a phone/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 character 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.
You don’t want any discernable lag when you’re playing a first-person shooter, and luckily we couldn’t detect anything of the sort during our session with Halo 5. We ran around the map and shot down some enemies, and everything was working absolutely fine. 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, with the reality of playing an Xbox One game on a phone being 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 at that, and it could yet prove to be even more stunning. 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.
A little overwhelmed by the whole thing, we put down the xCloud-powered phone/controller and wandered off into other areas of the shop. There was a traditional demo area, where you could play upcoming games on Xbox One X consoles. And there was also an Xbox Game Pass area, where people were playing Xbox One games on laptops, thanks to a recent development that has seen Microsoft bring the Game Pass to PC. The days when you’d need a powerful console to play a powerful game truly seem to be finished, and nothing proves that quite like xCloud.
When we felt up to it, we headed back over to the xCloud table. We picked up another phone; this one was signed into Forza Horizon 4‘s recently released LEGO Speed Champions DLC. Again, it was hard to resist the swell of amazement as wonder as we whizzed around LEGO Valley in our little LEGO car. 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, and it was easy to tell what was going on. At one point we unlocked an achievement, and the little green box popped up in the exact same way as 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 a framerate drop, or a dreaded buffering screen. It was, as far as we could tell, a split-second lag that occurred just once. As soon as we realised that the action on the screen wasn’t moving as we’d expected, the stream corrected itself and our car carried on moving. 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 race. Microsoft will want to ensure that instances like this are minimal when xCloud launches for the public in October, because the last thing they want is for people to have a reason to complain about the service.
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 house, wanting to play an Xbox One game, connected to strong internet? 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, let’s not forget that xCloud is pretty incredible. It’s genuinely stunning to be able to play a console-sized game on a mobile device, and the idea of carrying on your saved games while you’re not at home is the stuff that dreams are made of. For xCloud to truly become the future of gaming, though, Microsoft needs 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.