What did you get up to on your Christmas holidays? I know, I know; we’re already well into January. The decorations are back in the loft, the only Celebrations left in the tin are Mars bars and Bountys, and no one at work will shut up about how they have to spend the month doing a poo on a chemical toilet because it’s “Caravanuary”.
But, like an over-enthusiastic primary schooler, I’m here to tell you about my Christmas. Because I got two things: a Bluetooth-enabled Xbox controller (presumably my last one communicated in semaphore) and an invite to Microsoft’s xCloud beta.
xCloud, for the uninitiated or plain uninterested, is Microsoft’s still-in-the-oven game streaming service. Currently operating mostly in a closed invite-only beta test, it can be seen as a rival to Google’s controversial Stadia platform.
Like many, I read with great interest Mr Biffo’s experiences with Stadia, which went against the prevailing gaming press opinion (and the opinion of lots of people on the internet, presumably all of whom have played it extensively before commenting with such vitriol). I’ve not got Stadia – looks a bit too expensive for what it is from where I’m sitting, but I can very much imagine it works well enough – but I was asked by Mr B to share my experiences with xCloud.
So, what is xCloud? Right from the start – with the caveat that it’s still in beta – Microsoft seems to be aiming for a different audience to Google. Whilst Stadia has been touted as being a high-end games console beamed straight to your telly, xCloud is currently only available as an Android app.
Though it’ll eventually roll out to other phones, desktops, and TV services, the intent is clear: this is a casual service, not a graphics fest. They’re not chasing 4K – indeed, the consoles hooked up like battery hens in Microsoft’s server farms are modified Xbox One Ss, not fancy high-end Xs. Also the small screen of a mobile can be more forgiving, although that comes with its own problems, of which more later.
Accessing the app is simple enough, and the interface is very familiar to anyone who’s used an Xbox companion app in the past (and it shares a lot of design elements with the Xbox One front-end, although thankfully it’s a bit easier to navigate).
At the moment there are over sixty games to choose from, and I’ve tried a range of them, although not exhaustively. As a diligent correspondent I’ve had a go at genres I’m normally not fond of, such as fighting games, to give you a broader overview. I should say at this point that I’m not Digital Foundry; I love the work those guys do, but I’m not a pixel-counter, nor did I pull out a stopwatch to compare load times.
I’ve tried to be relatively thorough, but if you’re after a technical analysis, you’re better off elsewhere. Rather I’m trying to explain how it feels to play a console game beamed from the Upside Down straight to your Motorola. Also it’s probably worth stating that I have fairly decent broadband, averaging about 30mb/s. Bear that in mind as I continue.
Selecting a game from the list prompts a cute waiting graphic of a rocket as it gets the game ready to stream, but after that you are to all intents and purposes playing on an Xbox.
You can’t go back to your dashboard, but all pop-ups and achievement notifications are the same, and when I played a game I already owned I received a standard “syncing your profile” message as it retrieved my save from the cloud. Load times feel a bit quicker to me: I’ve always thought big titles like Halo and Forza took a bit too long to get started, but it definitely felt like I was up and in the game faster than usual.
And first things first, the experience of playing a full-fat Xbox game on your phone is quite staggering. Forza Horizon 4 is one of the prettiest games of the generation as far as I’m concerned, and to see that level of fidelity in the palm of your hands is mind-blowing. It looks like it shouldn’t be possible. Similarly, as a big Halo fan, playing Halo 5: Guardians on your Twitter box is remarkable. It’s a proper Halo game, but it’s tiny. And it absolutely works.
That’s my biggest takeaway: the service works. The games look fantastic – if they’re running at 720p or whatever, it’s mitigated by the small screen. Halo – which is a fairly fast-paced shooter – proceeded without any bumps and I didn’t feel like my experience was hampered by the fact it was streaming (which is not to say the experience is perfect, but I’ll come to that in a bit). Similarly Crackdown 3, which is a slower game anyway; I doubt anyone but the most ardent pixel-counter could have guessed it wasn’t running locally.
Generally speaking, the vast majority of games I tried – from little indies like Overcooked to big guns like Gears 5 – ran more-or-less completely smoothly and with only the rarest instance of visual breakup or loss of fidelity (and again, I’ll come back to that bit).
Whilst I found xCloud impressive, it’s not perfect. There is definitely an almost-imperceptible lag; the only time I noticed it was the first time I hit a button or moved an analogue stick. It didn’t feel quite as responsive as it should.
Once the games got going it never felt slow or unresponsive, but maybe more ardent twitch-gamers would notice it more. There were other connectivity issues though: sometimes (rarely) a game would seemingly drop out, and I’d have a very brief “looking for a connection” screen before it would resume. In these cases, the game is paused, so whilst it was a bit of an immersion-breaker it didn’t ruin the gameplay.
Although the frame-rate was mostly consistent, audio would sometimes clip out or stutter, which can be irritating but was thankfully intermittent; again I want to stress for the majority of my time things ran very well. Forza Horizon 4, however, suffered from some strange moments where it would hang for a split second, and as a result you’d find yourself flung off course, your movements coming milliseconds too late, the corner unseen until after you should have turned. Thankfully Forza’s rewind option could restore my pride and my position, but if you were paying for the service you’d expect it to operate better than that.
To be honest, though, the biggest issue I had was just the very act of playing on a phone. Microsoft have said that eventually they plan to have xCloud games operated scalable HUDs, where menus and text will expand to be more legible when played on a smaller scren, but right now it can get very squinty.
With games like Crackdown, where you’re often firing at enemies halfway across a city block, it would be almost impossible to see who was shooting at you without the game’s lock-on targeting and damage indicators. It’s just not as comfortable to play as a game designed for use on a phone, or even a Switch game. Again, I’m hoping this is something that can be mitigated when it comes out of beta, but for the time being I strongly recommend buying a clip to connect your phone to your controller.
So, on the whole, As it’s still in beta I’m far more willing to overlook technical rough edges of xCloud than if it was a paid service.
As it stands, any major disruptions to the streaming – visuals momentarily going blocky, dropped frames, etc – seemed to mostly occur when distance or walls were placed in between my phone and my router. Going upstairs is the only time I saw the graphics deteriorate in any way (which sadly turns playing a shooter on the toilet into something of a crap shoot).
So maybe the quality of your wifi is just as important as your overall internet speed. But even then – gaming in bed, for instance – it was more than acceptable. All in all – and as I said before, this wasn’t an exhaustive deep-dive – the only games that experienced ongoing frame-rate issues were Forza, Sea of Thieves, and Gears, in the latter’s case only when I tried to play a multiplayer game.
I do wonder if the online nature of these games – Forza pulling driver data from the cloud, Thieves being a shared world, Gears obviously in multiplayer – added some kind of extra strain to the servers. Or maybe it’s something else, or maybe it was just luck of the draw.
xCloud is not perfect, it feels unfinished, and from Mr Biffo’s articles last year it sounds as if Stadia is for now the better experience. But the sheer shock of seeing console-quality games all small and stuff is still a delight. And where I think Microsoft will ultimately have the edge is their library. If this is going to be folded into some form of Game Pass service, that could be hundreds of games available to stream later this year.
The ability to possibly integrate it into the console’s architecture – eg streaming game demos before purchase – adds further intrigue to the endeavour. Is game streaming as good as local console gaming? From my experience with xCloud, no, but as someone coming from a background of trying to get games to run on under-specced PCs and having to cope with blocky visuals or sub-optimal frame-rates, it’s certainly within my own acceptable limits of playability, and it does suggest to me that streaming is a future for gaming, something that will become mainstream.
Eye strain notwithstanding.