By Lewis Empson
Microsoft has set out to revolutionise portable gaming with the launch of their long anticipated ‘Project xCloud’. This new streaming service utilises your Android phone or tablet to stream your Xbox One games library on the go; all you need is a stable internet connection and a compatible Xbox wireless controller. Although this new service is in its early days I have some thoughts to share – some pros, perhaps more cons. I’ve had some early hands on time with xCloud and to put it simply I’m impressed, disappointed and confused.
xCloud certainly presents a compelling argument for Microsoft to contend in the portable gaming scene with its extensive library of triple-a games like Destiny 2 and The Outer Worlds, as well as a huge selection of first party exclusive titles including Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Gears 5 and Forza Horizon 4 – all available to play on the go. The variety is enticing for a plethora of different gamers and some of these titles lend themselves especially well to portable play; such as the Gears of War titles as you can play a quick multiplayer deathmatch on the bus.
Another pretty great aspect of xCloud is that it is included as part of the already fantastic deal that is Game Pass Ultimate. This means that you get full access to Xbox Live Gold multiplayer and free monthly games, Xbox Game Pass with a huge selection of must play titles and Project xCloud for portable Xbox gaming all for £10.99 a month. It basically feels like you’re robbing Microsoft at this point but I’m not complaining. Although this may not specifically be a benefit of xCloud itself; its technically quite impressive and fun to play around with these big titles on your mobile phone – its a bit of an upgrade from Angry Birds.
Here’s where xCloud kind of falls apart. I tested it on my home Wi-Fi network playing Halo: Reach from The Master Chief Collection, so not a massively intensive game (in fact a port of an Xbox 360 game) and was therefore expecting some decent performance. However upon attempting to play the single player campaign I was met with blocky resolution, laggy and wildly inconsistent framerates, constant screen tearing issues and extremely de-synced sound. As previously mentioned I tested this on my home network and still had all of these issues so I dread to think how this will fare in its natural habitat on mobile networks which are much more unstable and unpredictable than a fibre broadband connection. It truly has to be the worst way to play my favourite game and I gave it every chance to shine by not challenging the system too much with intensive multiplayer.
Another issue I had was that these games are obviously optimised for large television screens, not a 5-6 inch mobile phone screen. This became a real issue when it came to reading menus, button prompts, HUDs and general UI interfaces. It felt very awkward to navigate the game’s interfaces and admittedly I may not have the best vision but those shrunken down mini-maps and ammo indicators required some sort of gaming magnifying glass. This may not be an issue if you had an Android tablet as your xCloud display however that compromises portability greatly and thus defeats the main purpose of xCloud – which conveniently brings me to my main question in relation to xCloud…
Who exactly is xCloud made for? If you were to compare it to a dedicated mobile gaming platform with the ability to play games at home and take them on the go – perhaps a Nintendo Switch – it just falters at every hurdle. In terms of portability, yes it’s convenient as it utilises your phone that you already carry but does not factor in the required Xbox Wireless Controller (third party options do give some decent solutions but that’s an extra unexpected cost) as well as the mount to clip your phone onto the controller. Comparatively the Switch is one complete package the size of a tablet with screen and controllers all bundled together. Also although I have praised Xbox’s games selection – they just don’t all work well as portable games. Like who is going to want to start a raid on Destiny 2 or complete a whole story mission in Batman: Arkham Knight on their smartphone whilst waiting for the train. It just feels strange trying to squeeze a full console gaming session into a quick, handheld portable affair. Finally I am also very confused as to what made Microsoft think it was a good idea to promote a portable, on-the-go gaming solution during a time where we are urged to stay at home – remember to stay safe gamers and probably don’t go and risk your life to play some Tomb Raider out of the house.
Of course this is in its early stages and many improvements are bound to happen but xCloud right now feels like an oddity. Gamers have been begging for Microsoft to get into the portable game for years and now they’ve finally done it, it just feels kind of weird. Everything should be going for xCloud but something just isn’t clicking for me – although user experiences may differ so if you’re already a Game Pass Ultimate subscriber (and don’t have an iPhone) then it might be right up your alley. However for me, I can’t really get to grips with its practicality or its poor performance and have left the experience disappointed yet hopeful to see it fulfil its greater potential in the future.