Testing Microsoft’s Project xCloud: New streaming service feels like a magic trick

Gears 5, running on a Samsung Galaxy J3 smartphone via Project xCloud. (Thomas Wilde Photo)

Microsoft’s Project xCloud has gone live.

Last week, Microsoft began rolling out a public preview for its new cloud-based gaming service. Participants can play four Microsoft Studios console titles — Halo 5: Guardians, Gears 5, Sea of Thieves, and Killer Instinct — on their Android devices through Microsoft’s cloud server.

Full disclosure: I’m probably not working with the best possible conditions here. The only compatible Android device I had lying around is an old Samsung Galaxy G3 smartphone. I didn’t expect a lot going into this.

Instead, it turned out to be relatively painless. I was expecting the setup process to take most of my afternoon and involve a lot of troubleshooting. I paired a Bluetooth-enabled Xbox One controller to my phone, installed Microsoft’s xCloud streaming app, and before too much longer, I had Gears 5 — a full-length, modern console game, which is only almost two months old — running on my cheap smartphone. It feels like a magic trick.

While the service is in beta, and as such, has a lot of growing to do, it does have a handful of ongoing issues. I found both Gears 5 and Halo 5 to be playable enough despite the eyestrain-inducing size of my phone screen, but both games had real problems with control lag and refresh rate. My motions and menu options both routinely took a second or two to register, and the screen frequently had to take a second to visibly re-render the game after something had moved. Playing Gears 5 in particular, I got used to seeing a “wave” go down my screen every few seconds as I progressed through the first level.

The scenery in xCloud games looks great, but motion can be tricky. (Gears 5 screenshot)

The frame rate was solid once I found a fight to get into, and while the graphics are limited, they are still quite good. I didn’t have much of a problem fighting enemies or zeroing in on targets, besides the simple issues caused by playing on a screen that’s maybe 5 percent of the intended size.

All in all, it’s a perfectly acceptable way to play these games, although I should probably pick up a cheap Android tablet and give this another shot. I tried out xCloud on my phone mostly for the sake of being able to say I’ve done it, and now that I have, I feel reasonably confident in saying that it’s not a great idea. Gears 5 was meant for much bigger screens than this. I’m just impressed that I could run it on this old phone at all.

The current version of xCloud only includes four base games, without achievements available.

Cloud-based gaming in general, however, does present the issue of bandwidth. I had more issues with it in Halo 5 than anywhere else, but you end up transmitting and receiving a lot of data when you play games via xCloud, and it can easily overwhelm a WiFi connection.

xCloud runs off of Microsoft’s Azure data centers. When you fire up a game, you’re running an instance of it on one of those remote servers, which then streams to your device as what’s basically a video feed. Your device’s actual horsepower doesn’t matter, as long as you have a stable network connection and the ability to display video.

Over the course of a 15-minute session of Gears 5, playing at my home office, I used up about 522 MB of data. I didn’t have much of a problem with lag or the signal dropping out, but I was on a private connection and playing through a reasonably sedate stretch of the game’s first level. Halo 5, by comparison, took about 500 MB of bandwidth for 10 minutes of gameplay and dropped out almost immediately during the game’s first real fight.

That’s a lot less bandwidth than I’d actually expected the service to use up, but it does raise the same specter as every other cloud-based gaming service: sooner or later, it’s going to run into the problem of the American internet.

It’s certainly a cool party trick to get a modern HD game running on whatever random devices you have lying around, and the xCloud preview runs a lot better than I was expecting it would. But the entire idea of cloud-based gaming seems to be built around some kind of theoretical internet utopia. In the current post-net neutrality environment, you can already feel vultures circling across the country, waiting to slap an extra monthly fee on anyone who tries to connect to an Azure datacenter.

The first week of xCloud is planned to be part of a “phased approach,” as Microsoft brings more players aboard the service and adds more first- and third-party content. I’d be particularly interested in seeing how xCloud handles less graphically intensive games, such as deliberate retro-style throwbacks like Stardew Valley, or a couple of older titles from the archives; there are a lot of exclusives to the original Xbox that could be a lot of fun if they were made portable, like Jade Empire or Sudeki.

For now, though, Project xCloud has got a lot of potential. I’m skeptical about cloud-based gaming as a platform, but it’s a strange and audacious idea by Microsoft Studios to decouple Xbox games from the need to own an actual Xbox. The service is easy to set up, works surprisingly well, and means you could theoretically be playing top-end recent releases with as little as a cheap tablet. There’s a lot here worth keeping an eye on, particularly for game enthusiasts on a budget.

Microsoft provided a Bluetooth wireless controller for use with this article.

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