Project xCloud Hands-on: An exciting first look at Xbox game streaming on mobile

There's still much to learn about xCloud, but the service has made a solid first impression

Project xCloud

Last October, Microsoft unveiled Project xCloud, an ambitious service that aims to stream console-quality games to a multitude of devices, including, most notably, smartphones and tablets.

However, Microsoft has been slow to reveal more details about the service, only occasionally mentioning its broader potential over the past several months.

Now, the company is finally pulling back the curtain on the initiative by making it playable to the public for the first time at E3 2019. It was there that I got to go hands-on with xCloud, and while it’s clear that Microsoft still has much to reveal about the service, what I saw looks promising.

A variety of games

At the demo station, Microsoft was offering several games from its Xbox Game Studios: Gears 4, Halo 5: Guardians, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and Forza Horizon 4. These were all playable on the Samsung Galaxy S10 series of smartphones, although Microsoft says the service will run on the S7 series or later as well. Each phone was mounted to an Xbox One controller for a natural feeling gaming experience.

Meanwhile, roughly a dozen other smartphones and tablets were displayed in the glass behind the kiosk to show what other games look like on xCloud, including Crackdown 3Killer InstinctSea of ThievesState of Decay 2 and Ori and the Blind Forest. So far, Microsoft has only shown xCloud running on Android devices, with no specific word as of yet on an iOS rollout.

I briefly went hands-on with each of the four playable titles, and the experience was largely impressive. Playing through bits of the early sections of Halo 5: Guardians in up to 60fps felt very smooth. This isn’t one of those Call of Duty-lite knock-offs for mobile — it’s a full-fledged console and PC shooter, playable on an S10.

Similarly, the high-octane, visceral nature of Vancouver-based The Coalition’s Gears 4 feels and looks great on the phone. Even in the busier moments of gameplay — like beating down a swarm of Grunts in Halo 5 or chainsaw-executing Locusts in Gears — xCloud largely kept up with the action. The idea of playing these kinds of games on the go on a smartphone equipped with the excellent Xbox One controller is tantalizing, to be sure.

With all of that said, there was a slight — yet still noticeable — amount of input lag. In a fast-paced shooter or racing game, this is an issue that’s made all the more apparent. Hellblade — with its many stretches of environmental puzzles and exploration — certainly fared better in this regard, although there were still delays here and there.

Because these were short spurts of gameplay, it’s difficult to gauge just how smooth the experience will be in longer sessions. As the on-site Xbox reps pointed out, the xCloud trials were running off of a massive, busy network in the Microsoft Theater, which no doubt contributed to the lag.

Moreover, the service is still a number of months away before it launches in full Preview to the wider public in October. Therefore, there is still time to iron out these issues, and it’s likely Microsoft will be able to do just that.

Uncertain future

The biggest remaining questions regard xCloud’s games lineup, pricing and full technical specs.

You might have noticed a pattern among all of the games I mentioned — they’re all older titles from Microsoft’s own lineup of studios. In other words, the tech giant hasn’t yet shown off upcoming games or titles from other publishers. How the bigger upcoming titles like Halo Infinite or Gears 5 will fare on the service remains to be seen. Similarly, while Microsoft says it has already given xCloud development kits to companies like Capcom, specific titles have yet to be demonstrated publicly.

Therefore, it’s tricky to compare xCloud performance to Google’s rival Stadia streaming service, which I tried out in March. There, I was able to play Ubisoft Quebec’s Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, a sprawling open-world action-adventure game that’s radically different from Microsoft’s featured xCloud titles. Unlike Microsoft, Google has also shown off at least one upcoming title — Bethesda’s frenetic shooter Doom Eternal. 

On paper, though, Microsoft is still better positioned than Google to fully capitalize on the promise of game streaming. While Google certainly has the capital and cloud networks to support the endeavour, it lacks the robust gaming business that Microsoft has built for nearly 20 years with Xbox. Indeed, Microsoft has said that the lineup of more than 3,500 games it offers on Xbox One — which includes titles from three generations of Xbox hardware — all have the technical capacity to run on xCloud.

Of course, it remains to be seen just how many of these games wind up being supported by xCloud, but in terms of potential, there is much more to be found there than with Google’s initial 30-odd Stadia launch lineup.

Project xCloud State of Decay 2

Microsoft has also done a better job so far in speaking about how xCloud will optimize games for the mobile experience. For example, Microsoft is working on an API called “IsStreaming” to let a game know it’s streaming on the cloud and enhance the streaming experience accordingly. In practice, this could result in adjustments like hosting multiplayer matched on a single server to reduce latency or shrinking font sizes of a console game to account for a phone’s comparatively small display.

That’s all good to know in the meantime since pricing is still yet to be confirmed.

For now, Microsoft has confirmed that Xbox One owners will be able to use their console as a free xCloud streaming platform, which cuts the cost in one way, at least. On the other hand, the biggest promise of the service is on-the-go high-quality gaming experiences, not when you’re at home and near your console. As such, pricing for on-the-go streaming remains to be seen.

For context, after the mandatory $169 CAD ‘Founder’s Edition’ bundle (which includes a three-month subscription, limited edition controller and Chromecast Ultra), Google will charge $11.99/month for a Stadia subscription, plus extra for certain new titles. Microsoft’s xCloud pricing approach is unknown at this time.

Thankfully, there is still time to learn all of this before xCloud debuts in Preview in October. As it stands, Microsoft has given a mostly satisfying first look at the service, and I’m eager to see more over time.