Microsoft Project xCloud Hands On: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly
It seems like everyone is working on their own game streaming service these days. Microsoft isn't going to let Google and NVIDIA have all the fun and have been working on their own Xbox based streaming service currently known as Project xCloud. Project xCloud is aimed squarely at the on-the-go person being designed around the smartphone gaming experience so don't expect a big-screen experience right now without hooking your phone up, and then why wouldn't you just use your Xbox instead. Right now you'll need to sign up for the Preview as it is still very much in Beta, but even so, it's game library completely obliterates what Stadia's paid-for service is delivering. Project xCloud is running off of modified Xbox One S hardware so that there's no need for emulation, it simply works from an Xbox in the cloud, but pricing upon its official release is something to keep an eye out for. The following is based on my first week's experience gaming using Project xCloud for myself.
One of the best parts of Project xCloud is its absolute ease of use. Once you receive your invite to the Beta Program, you simply sign in through a small app downloaded from the Play Store (as it's limited to Android at the moment, though Microsoft has plans to include iOS as well), connect up a controller, sign in, and away you go. I used my Red Magic phone paired with my One S controller via Bluetooth with a phone holder attached. The first thing that got my attention was the massive library available already, over 30 games when I started and it has already grown to over 50 by the time of me writing this. What's even better was the fact that this used my same login as the Xbox allowing for my cloud saves to pick right up so I didn't have to start anything over, it was a literal extension of my Xbox.
Did the games look good? For a mobile experience, certainly. Games were fairly crisp across my home wifi; to be fair I have a gigabit connection but had similar results using my mobile connection. I played some more dark games to get an idea of how blacks looked and I was impressed by how games like Shadow of the Tomb Raider looked along with more fast-paced games like Devil May Cry V pulled it off. Was there compression? Yes, it's a reality of this type of gaming. But, was it distracting? No, not to me, I had to really lean in and look for it.
If you were expecting blazing load times, then you might come away a bit disappointed here. While the load times feel greatly reduced from the native Xbox experience they're still pretty long for a cloud-based service and I found myself at times wondering if there was a problem loading a game up and ended up trying to exit the xCloud service only to see the game finally load as I was leaving.
You had better plan to bring some good vision along with you for this ride as this was the first time I questioned a bit of the target on a decision made here. The game UI in all of these titles was designed around the big screen experience and that leads to some unholy small text in subtitles and on-screen elements. It seems like a small thing, but as you're playing through games you'll notice it is fairly difficult at times to read in-game signs or even identifying things on the screen. While the games look good and are very detailed it almost starts to become sensory overload trying to keep everything in check. I know it seems like an odd thing but once experienced it will make sense, hopefully, at least the developers will start to include a 'small screen' UI option within the game menu.
Latency, the killer of all things cloud. The latency of movies and web browsing applications is not a comparable experience, these things buffer and deliver a smooth and consistent experience while video games are highly interactive and need to be responsive. You hit a button and it takes a moment to react or pull the thumbstick only to have a delayed movement, this is simply immersion breaking. And it is here, but it's not unwieldy depending on the game you're trying to play. While the experience on games like DiRT Rally 2.0, Gears 5, and Halo 5 left me feeling like I was dragging my character through molasses other games like Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Devil May Cry V, and especially Bloodstained left a generally good impressing and I had a lot of fun playing those games using Project xCloud. The latency felt on par with the preview I took part in some time back with Stadia but was still not near what you get with GeForce Now, but only one of these services is available to retail at the moment.
Another concern, as always with streaming services, is data caps. You'll need to actively monitor your data usage when using something like xCloud but with its focus being on the small screen experience you should get much more mileage than those trying to hit a 4K60 experience.
It's Still Early
There is still plenty of room for improvement since Project xCloud is in its preview stage and is already as polished and on par of an experience as Google's paid Stadia service. Eventually, Project xCloud will join the ranks of Stadia and Playstation Now as a paid streaming service and at that point will likely, and needs to be a much more polished experience. I hope they can manage to get the latency much closer to what GeForce Now is able to deliver and use that as their internal benchmark rather than what Stadia is currently delivering. But, what I'm most interested in is when Microsoft extends this to allow me to use my personal Xbox as my own xCloud server, so I can do this using my hardware and library rather than a paid service. The future of gaming is clearly going to be revolving around who can offer the most in terms of a platform, rather than just who has the flashiest hardware.