By Dan Moren
February 28, 2020 11:00 AM PT
Project xCloud Preview impressions: More than playable, less than perfect
I’d probably shock twelve-year-old me if I went back in time and told him that for the last thirteen years I’d been an avid user of a game console built by none other than Microsoft.1 But here I am, on my second Xbox, and I remain pretty happy with my gaming choices over the past decade and change.
That said, I also own a Nintendo Switch, which has the benefit of being able to go wherever I do. The Xbox doesn’t match that portability…yet.
A few weeks back, I signed up for beta access to Microsoft’s new Project xCloud game streaming service, right on the heels of its availability on iOS. (Though Microsoft had announced the service would support the iPhone and iPad, earlier betas had only worked on Android.) I’ve spent a little bit of time with it over the past couple weeks, and though it’s not without its flaws, I’ve come away impressed at what Microsoft has put together, even in this early stage.
The idea behind Project xCloud is simple: use an app on your smartphone or tablet to stream console games. You’ll also need a Bluetooth-compatible Xbox controller which, thanks to iOS 13, can easily be paired with your iOS devices.2 During the preview period, Microsoft doesn’t require users to own an Xbox console or the games—it’s unclear what the final finished product will require.3
While the Android version of the preview apparently supports more than 50 games, the iOS version currently only offers a “single” title: Microsoft’s own Halo: The Master Chief Collection, which includes the first six Halo games, including updated versions of Halo and Halo 2. These are obviously good showcase titles for Microsoft, given that the newest game on there, Halo 4, is from 2012, so they aren’t as graphically intensive as games being released in 2020. But they’re not without their own inherent challenges: Halo is a very twitch-oriented first-person shooter series, meaning that running into problems with latency can significantly affect gameplay—especially in multiplayer.
I’ve spent most of my time in the single-player campaign of the original Halo‘s 2011 remaster, since it’s a game I’ve played only a little, and I’ve been mostly impressed with the performance. Though there is definitely some lag at times (especially with sound effects, weirdly), I haven’t felt that it impacted my enjoyment of the game—or, perhaps I’m more forgiving, given the title’s age.
I did try a little bit of Halo 3 multiplayer, something that I spent a lot of time with in its heyday, and I acquitted myself reasonably. Though I definitely experienced some lag here and there, I didn’t feel like it hurt me more significantly than my rustiness at the game, though I did find myself cranking up the look sensitivity to make the controls feel more responsive.
Graphics are a mixed bag: playing on my 10.5-inch iPad Pro, they were sometimes crystal clear, and other times—especially in outdoor scenes on Halo‘s eponymous ring—somewhat muddy and pixelated. Scenes that seemed less graphically demanding, such as driving through underground tunnels, were far clearer. It’s possible to chalk up some of this to my Internet connection or router, though my speed tests regularly register 100 Mbps downstream, which is far in excess of the 10Mbps connection Microsoft says is required. (I did occasionally get a notification saying my connection was weak.) Project xCloud does support cellular networks as well, but I’m not sure I’m willing to put my data plan through that as yet.
Speaking of usage, Project xCloud will definitely chew through your battery—but that’s no surprise, given the demands on graphics and CPU, display, and both the Internet and Bluetooth connections. Your mileage may, of course, vary, but don’t expect this to be an all-day gaming affair—or, at least, bring a charger.
There’s also the challenge of playing on a much smaller screen than usual, which raises questions of viewing angles and reading onscreen text. My first attempt at playing games was with my iPhone 11 Pro and I quickly understood why Microsoft recommends a clip for attaching your phone to your controller. Even propped up in a stand at the correct angle, getting close enough to the screen to see details like the HUD was a (often literal) pain.
I fared better on my 10.5-inch iPad Pro, though even there I still had trouble at times arranging it at the right height. But using the Smart Keyboard in its “stand” arrangement wasn’t too bad for playing at my desk.
Using the Xbox controller was perhaps the best part of the experience, since it required no adaptation on my part whatsoever (other than making sure Halo was using my preferred control scheme). Supposedly xCloud will allow developers to roll out custom touch controls for games, though on something like an FPS, it’s really hard to match the precision of a controller, as many iOS game developers have discovered over the years.
That said, I did run into some issues with the controller where buttons didn’t react immediately and then sometimes “caught up,” resulting in double shots, or in some cases, turning an automatic weapon into a semi-automatic. In the original Halo in particular, the zoom functionality of the sniper rifle, which has both a 2x and 10x level was especially unreliable, requiring me to mash the button several times to get to the higher zoom.
Out of curiosity, I did at one point try to mirror my iPad’s display to my Apple TV to see if I could use it as though it were a console, but the graphics and sound stuttered unplayably. (Again, it’s quite possibly that my setup may be part of the problem there.) I’ll be interested to see if Microsoft will consider porting the app to the Apple TV, or if that would hew too close to its Xbox business.
I’m not sure if I want to play an entire console game via a streaming setup, but depending on how xCloud pricing and availability work out—things that Microsoft hasn’t discussed yet—it could be an attractive option for those who don’t want to invest in yet another console. And, as an Xbox owner, the ability to pick up and play where I left off on my console while I’m on the go—one of the major selling points of the Nintendo Switch—has a lot of appeal.
And, obviously, Microsoft’s not alone in this streaming market: Google has already launched its own offering, Stadia, though initial reviews have not been unequivocally positive. It’ll be interesting to see how these two competitors build out their services in terms of not only the quality of streaming offered, but also the game libraries. Given Microsoft’s existing status in the game market, it may have to worry more about cutting into sales of its hardware—though I imagine that whatever is offered in Project xCloud will not come close to what will be available on its next-generation Xbox Series X console, due later this year. Then again, for those of us who want to catch up on a whole generation of games that we may have missed, streaming older titles may be just fine.
But for a service that is only in beta so far, Project xCloud feels remarkably solid, if still in need of improvement. It’ll be interesting to see how that progresses throughout the beta process and into the final product.
- Also, he’d probably be wondering what the hell happened to all his hair? ↩
- Supposedly Sony’s Dual Shock controller will be supported in the future as well. ↩
- Confusingly, Microsoft also has a beta of a Console Streaming program that lets you stream games you own directly from your Xbox to a mobile device. It’s unclear how these two services will intersect or differ when they’re finally released. ↩
[Dan Moren is the official Dan of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest novel, The Aleph Extraction, is out now and available in fine book stores everywhere, so be sure to pick up a copy.]
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