Microsoft’s Project xCloud is well-positioned to usher in the game streaming era

Microsoft has so far taken a wise approach to game streaming

When I first went hands-on with Project xCloud at E3 in June, I came away excited about Microsoft’s game streaming efforts.

Being able to play full AAA gaming experiences from the likes of Halo and Gears of War on a smartphone or tablet is really something that needs to be seen in order to be believed.

At Xbox’s XO19 fan event in London, England, the company had xCloud on display with several more games that it’s recently added to the preview. Since June, Microsoft has also revealed more about its long-term goals for xCloud. With all that said, I wanted to give xCloud another go, so while at XO19, I made a point of doing just that.

Overall, I came out of the event even more impressed by the technology and eager to see what Microsoft does with it.

To start, it’s worth noting that Microsoft’s first public showing of xCloud at E3 was predominantly made up of older games like Halo 5: Guardians and Gears of War 4. Since these had already been iterated upon multiple times through PC ports and/or 4K HDR updates on Xbox One X, this meant that xCloud’s full potential wasn’t quite being shown off.

Now, the xCloud preview includes more recent games, especially those that challenge the service in a number of different ways. The two most impressive games I tried out were Capcom’s Devil May Cry 5 and Vancouver-based The Coalition’s Gears 5. As two of my favourite games of this year, I’ve played both extensively, which made them good fits for me to gauge how well they perform on xCloud.

Remarkably, I found the experience in both cases to be nearly on par with my time with them on Xbox One X. With Devil May Cry 5, keeping a consistently high resolution and frame rate — as well as little to no latency in button presses — is essential to supporting the game’s over-the-top flashy and stylish combat. Thankfully, slashing, shooting and motorcycle-bashing baddies as demon hunter Dante felt practically as fluid and responsive as I remembered.

Likewise, the fast-paced, visceral gunplay of Gears 5 translated well to a smartphone. With Gears, I did notice a bit of latency, with Kait reacting to my button presses just a bit more slowly than expected. That said, this is a preview build, so kinks like this can be ironed out later down the line.

Other new games I played that I’m less familiar with include IO Interactive’s Hitman (2016) and Bandai Namco’s Tekken 7. It’s good to see that my repeated losses to Kasumi were purely the result of my own lack of skill and not any technical limitations. Similarly, xCloud’s streaming of Hitman remained solid even when the action heated up and police came after me, so I was able to react with the quick button responses necessary to counter their punches and escape.

Ultimately, though, I’m less interested in how a curated list of games perform and more concerned with Microsoft’s broader goals for the service. At XO19, the company revealed that it intends to bring the service to Windows 10 and support third-party controllers like rival PlayStation’s DualShock 4, thus opening up xCloud’s reach.

Further, Microsoft clarified at XO19 that the goal is to blend xCloud with Xbox’s pre-existing services and features like Game Pass and backward compatibility to create a more robust experience. Hypothetically speaking, this could allow AAA Xbox games like Halo: Infinite to launch day one on Game Pass and you play some of it in 4K HDR on the Scarlett before leaving the house and picking up where you left off using xCloud.

Project xCloud wall

To be sure, it’s important to remain realistic about how well this will all play out. Namely, xCloud is a ways off from an official launch, so its ongoing technical performance and the extent to which Microsoft will support the service ultimately remain to be seen. Having said that, there are still a great many reasons to be optimistic about its success, beyond its current solid showing during previews.

As a whole, the potential of having the thousands of games that have released across Xbox, Xbox 360 and Xbox One playable via streaming is undeniably promising. With rival game streaming services like Google Stadia only supporting a few dozen titles around launch, it’s reassuring to know that xCloud’s catalogue will undoubtedly be far larger.

More importantly, Microsoft has been approaching game streaming in a very careful and conscientious way. For one thing, Xbox head Phil Spencer has been quite candid that xCloud is meant to complement the traditional gaming experience, not fully replace it.

“We started with xCloud as something that extends the gameplay experience for our current customers. We didn’t talk about xCloud replacing your console experience, we didn’t talk about it replacing your PC experience,” said Spencer during a media presentation at XO19. “Rather, we said, ‘if you’re playing your games on your console and you want to take those games with you, we have a way to do that.’”

Additionally, Spencer is upfront about the fact that this technology is still in its infancy and, therefore, needs time to grow.

“I think we’re just at the beginning of this streaming march and it will be multiple years before you see this tech perfected,” said Spencer. “But the only way for us to do that is hand-in-hand with players who are giving us feedback about the experience that we have.”

In the end, that’s why I’m excited for xCloud. It’s part of an ambitious vision for the future of gaming that also considers how many people will still prefer to game using dedicated hardware. Nearly everything I’ve seen so far indicates that Microsoft is going about game streaming the right way, and I can’t wait to see how it all comes to fruition.

Public trials for xCloud are currently only available in the U.S., U.K. and Korea. However, Microsoft confirmed at XO19 that the preview will extend to Canada and other markets sometime in 2020.