Streaming might be the future of gaming, but a number of companies at E3 2019 are trying to convince us that it's actually the present. Google Stadia, Bethesda's new Orion, and Microsoft's Project xCloud are all showing off their services this year. These are iterative efforts, builtd on the game streaming services of days past, like the defunct OnLive or PlayStation now, which continues to putter around in the background.
I remain skeptical about streaming. There are certainly games where I think it would work well, like RPGs or strategy titles. I enjoyed streaming the occasional PS4 game to my Vita back in the day. But the infrastructure isn't there across North America to support game streaming as the only option. And even with my robust connection, there are YouTube videos that hitch, buffer, and simply stop day-to-day. Google's own Stadia announcement stream kept dropping into low resolution while I was watching it.
During an Xbox showcase at E3 2019, I had the chance to try out Project xCloud, Microsoft's Xbox One streaming service. Like Google, Microsoft has existing streaming expertise via its Azure cloud services. Drawing on that, I admit that the Project xCloud demo actually impressed me.
At a small demo kiosk, Microsoft showed off four games on smartphones with tethered Xbox One controllers: Gears of War 4, Hellblade, Forza Horizon 4, and Halo 5: Guardians. I tried two of the titles, which I thought would give me a good spread of what xCloud could do.
Gears of War 4 was probably the roughest demo. It works, with low noticeable latency. Avid Gears fans might feel extra frames of lag, but for me, it worked great. The issue was one of frame rate; the Horde mode was playable, and Microsoft had the 30 fps version running on my demo unit. Any time there were frame dips, it was hard to tell if that was the game natively, or an xCloud issue. The second was I did notice the occasional artifacts, especially in the darker parts of the stream.
In contrast, Halo 5: Guardians was stunning. It was running at a smooth 60fps, and it was crisp and clear to my eyes. I didn't see much in the way of artifacts either. Honestly, seeing Halo at a rock solid 60fps on a phone is damned impressive, and it's smart for Microsoft to put that front-and-center.
I do have questions though. The demo units had Android smartphones attached to controllers, but Microsoft has yet to say anything about a physical peripheral that consumers can purchase that will do the same. And while Halo 5: Guardians on xCloud might be running on an Xbox One X—we didn't get to see the systems running these games—I do wonder how the streaming service will fare for those with an original Xbox One or Xbox One S. There also few details on whether the home console streaming, similar to PS4 streaming to Vita, will have any additional costs. I don't think I would have streaming as my only option, but the ability to briefly untether myself from the couch is nice.
Microsoft will have a public test for Project xCloud sometime later this year, giving us a chance to see how the service runs outside controlled conditions. Hopefully, we'll also get more hard details about service specifics then. Until then, I walked away from playing Halo 5: Guardians on a smartphone with an intrigued eyebrow raised. That's a fantastic demo and the closer Microsoft can get to that in home conditions, the better Project xCloud will turn out.
Microsoft announced at yesterday's E3 2019 press conference that all Xbox One games would be streamable via xCloud in October. You can find all of our E3 2019 coverage so far here.