Microsoft is clearly playing a different game this console generation. The Xbox Series X, its weaker, cheaper cousin the Xbox Series S, Smart Delivery, and Xbox Game Pass all add up to a very different platform compared to rival Sony or Nintendo. We still have to see if this strategy is going to work, but it's clear that the team at Xbox have a specific vision.
Today marks the launch of another pillar in Xbox's strategy: the launch of the service formerly known as Project xCloud. Well, I say "formerly known," but Microsoft has yet to give the service a new name. Instead, xCloud has been merged into Xbox Game Pass Ultimate as a new additional feature for the robust subscription. Microsoft simply calls it "cloud gaming," as opposed to a cool marketing name like "Game Pass Cloud," "Game Pass Instant Gaming," or "Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass Streaming So You'll Subscribe Please and Thank You."
Way back before the ongoing apocalypse, I previewed the beta of Project xCloud on Android. At the time, I tested the service across the available titles, on my home WiFi network and on several retail WiFi networks. It was a very different time: I was able to pull up a table at my local Safeway or Dunkin Donuts, and sit for a while playing games. I purchased the official mobile clip, which makes it possible to tether a standard Xbox One controller to a mobile phone, at my local Microsoft store.
The Microsoft Store I bought the clip at has since closed permanently. Safeway's WiFi hasn't worked in months and they've closed the cafe area where I originally tested xCloud and Google Stadia. Starbucks' seating is exceedingly limited and Dunkin Donuts' interior dining area is entirely closed, leaving me to test the service while standing and waiting for my coffee order. Cloud gaming is still a selling point for Game Pass, but it's launching into a different world.
Taking the Test
Apple is still forcing stringent rules on cloud gaming services like Xbox Game Pass and Google Stadia, so the new Game Pass app is Android only. You'll need a device that supports Android version 6.0 or higher—a Google Pixel 3a in my case—and Microsoft says you need a 5Ghz WiFi or mobile data connection with 10Mbps down.
Cloud for Xbox Game Pass launches with a library of more than 150 games. Xbox Game Studios mainstays like Gears 5, Forza Horizon 4, and Grounded are joined by games like A Plague Tale, Untitled Goose Game, and Yakuza 0. Game Pass is already a steal, and cloud gaming is one more excellent bullet point.
The new Game Pass app is a one-stop shop for the entire service. The home page has a handful of featured games, with categories like "Most popular" and "Plays great on mobile" guiding the user toward new games. Tabs for Cloud, Console, and PC Game Pass allow you to manage your library, with the console and PC tabs letting you install games to your Xbox console or PC straight from the app. There's also a "Jump Back In" section that highlights one of the better features of Xbox Game Pass cloud: the ability to pick up games you've previously played on mobile. These titles sync with with Xbox profiles and cloud saves, making it a great way to continue gaming away from your Xbox One.
Once I downloaded the new Xbox Game Pass app, the first game I booted up was Minecraft Dungeons. Mojang's dungeon crawler is unique among the rest of the catalog in that it actually includes touchscreen specific controls; for every other game, you need to attach a controller via Bluetooth or USB cable. The touchscreen controls appear directly on the screen, not unlike a mobile game, but I found them to be somewhat unresponsive. Attacks seemed fine, but general movement had noticeable input lag and occasionally my taps wouldn't register at all. Touchscreen controls are firmly a beta-level feature, and I'd stress that you need a controller ready to enjoy Minecraft Dungeons on Xbox Game Pass cloud.
Minecraft Dungeons was a false start in terms of cloud save syncing as well. I had previously beaten the game for review, but Minecraft Dungeons on Xbox Game Pass started me at the very beginning. Perhaps that's because I played the game on PC, not Xbox One, but I was unable to get my save game to mirror over.
Given my disappointment with the save situation, I moved over to Forza Horizon 4. The save sync issue persisted here, leading me to believe the problem was one of network congestion. Visually, Forza Horizon 4 is a stunning proof of concept for Xbox Game Pass cloud, with the English countryside whipping pass at high speed. The input lag makes driving feel a little muddier than playing natively on Xbox One, but the ability to rewind meant that I wasn't too bothered with over or under correcting.
Following my early tests of Minecraft Dungeons and Forza Horizon 4, subsequent cloud save syncs actually worked. When I tried out Gears 5, Recore, and Halo: The Master Chief Collection, all three titles remembered exactly where I left off. My profile synced across fine; considering I haven't played Recore since I reviewed it all the way back in 2016, I was oddly impressed to find Xbox hadn't written that save file off.
Loading a game session for the first time takes anywhere from 28-35 seconds, and returning to a session after switching to another app on my phone took around 10 seconds. Game Pass cloud gaming doesn't necessarily seem to save state—only after app switching did my game return to exactly where I left off. If I closed the session, or reconnected after a longer period, it loaded up my profile and save file. In the case of something like Gears 5, the game returned me to the last checkpoint after I clicked my way through the main menu. I do wish it was an instant save state situation, but I get that's probably expecting too much.
On my meaty connection, Verizon Fios 300 Mbps, I found everything ran well. But that's not a proper test, as it worked great during the preview. So I put my phone, the PowerA MOGA Mobile Gaming Clip, and my Xbox One controller in a bag and went on the road.
I was able to test Xbox Game Pass cloud on the WiFi in my building's lobby with no issues; Forza Horizon 4, Gears 5, and Batman: Arkham Knight all loaded up with no problem. Arkham Knight was another great showcase, looking down upon the neon lights and gothic architecture of Rocksteady's Gotham on my phone screen. It did highlight one issue of Xbox Game Pass on mobile though: these games were made for a television screen, so some of the text is entirely too small on mobile. Another interesting test was Afterparty from Night School Studio, as the adventure game doesn't rely heavily on pure reflexes, making it kind of the perfect game to play on mobile over WiFi.
When I tested Project xCloud previously, I found that the experience added stuttering and macroblocking when the wireless connection was weaker. Microsoft decided to prioritize continuity of play over visual fidelity. The current iteration will still skip frames to keep play smooth, but it's vastly improved in terms of clarity, with noticeably few artifacts during my tests, if any. Microsoft has clearly used the time to optimize the service, and I'm impressed.
As before, trying to test the service on Dunkin Donuts WiFi didn't work at all, though Microsoft has added an error message after only 5 seconds of attempted connection, rather than the service just hanging there. At Starbucks, I had to stand in the corner of my local store to test the Xbox Game Pass app, but that WiFi was robust enough for streaming to go off without a hitch. And here again, the streaming quality optimization shines through, with no issues in the service. The screenshots I took showed a bit of pixelization, but I was hard-pressed to notice that while playing. It's solidly "good enough."
A Look Into the Infinite Future
As I said in my last preview, Xbox Game Pass cloud gaming works because it's not the main focus of the service. This is an add-on to what Game Pass Ultimate already offers: a la carte gaming at $14.99 a month. Game Pass is frequently compared to Netflix, and with Ultimate and cloud gaming it really feels like it.
It resolves one of the major roadblocks on Game Pass' base offering, which is the time it takes to install the game on your Xbox One or PC. You might be interested in trying out Pillars of Eternity or Fallout 76, but those games have large file sizes, meaning you have to wait for the download. With cloud gaming, you start playing immediately following the 30 second session setup. I jumped from game-to-game during the latter part of my testing, playing No Man's Sky, Yakuza 0, Darksiders 3, and more on a whim. It's the same way I watch nonsense on Netflix or Amazon Prime, dabbling for 5 minutes before deciding if it's for me or not. And hey, if Microsoft Flight Simulator was on Game Pass, you wouldn't have to wait for 100+ GB to download before playing.
With the Game Pass app, I set The Escapists 2 to remote download on my Xbox One and then immediately started playing the game on the app. The barrier to playing is almost non-existent, and since the streaming gameplay is saved to your profile, you're able to start playing on the app and transition to your console later. I'd say the only issue I have with the service is you can't download and play at the same time from the Xbox console itself. I'd expect that's probably on Microsoft's radar though.
With cloud gaming, you can see where Microsoft is going with its new vision. Like Neo saying, "We need guns," then being presented with thousands of options within the Matrix, Game Pass puts a heaping cornucopia of games that are right at your fingertips on command. The console is just the waystation that's in-between you and the library—a way to play the games at the highest level of fidelity without any lag. But out there in the Matrix, there's the infinite Xbox platform, a collection of games available to play on your personal time table. You want to play now while the game downloads to your console? Go wild.
Sony has the services to do the same with PlayStation Now, but seems more focused on a traditional console generation. And maybe that's the best option to push consoles. But Microsoft has a cool vision of the future, and I'd like to see if Xbox will get there. Because if it does, that's a platform I'd love to play in.