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First Impressions of Project xCloud Preview

A Gamechanger, provided you have the infrastructure
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Phil Spencer, is in every sense of the word, confident about their upcoming next generation offerings. Not only is the Series X the more powerful console, it is backed by one of the best services out there in Game Pass. With the recent announcement that Project xCloud was going to be bundled with Game Pass Ultimate for free, they’ve already started flexing their guns, a challenge to the competition in every way. Xbox is not directly competing with IP exclusivity, but they’re developing an ecosystem that has the potential to be more inclusive.

It sounds quite ambitious but with nothing to lose, I signed up for the Project xCloud (Preview) as my Microsoft account is still active. Within a couple of hours, I was selected to be a tester for the tech. I don’t know how, but they probably looked at my Gamerscore, shrugged, and gave me the keys. I immediately picked up an Xbox One Bluetooth Controller and I was ready.

I signed in with my approved Microsoft account on my LG Q70, synced my bluetooth controller, and picked a game. I first tried Bloodstained as I wanted to quickly get right into the game with a platformer to test the streaming network. Just like Nintendo’s online NES and SNES, loading the game is time consuming (about 5-10 minutes). After a while, the Bluetooth sync with the Xbox controller wore off and I waited longer for the character select screen to settle. Finally, the game was interrupted by an unstable network connection and I was thrown back to the game select screen.

It was a disappointing start to something promising. Yet, when I returned to the game select, I counted the different games I missed out for this generation that was exclusive to Microsoft: Gears of War, Halo, Ori, and Sea of Thieves. I also saw games I’ve passed on that’s also available for the PS4 such as Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and A Plague Tale: Innocence. Both had good ratings, so it was a good opportunity to try out said games.

I loaded up Hellblade and again, the network kicked me out because of an unstable connection. I chose Mortal Kombat X to quickly go ahead and try the streaming quality of said service. Unlike Bloodstained and Hellblade, I was able to gain access right away even with an unstable connection. At two bars of wifi, I was able to watch choppy story cutscenes, slog through the quicktime events, and finally get a match in with Johnny Cage and Scorpion. The lag time was terrible and I wasn’t connecting with my fireballs and shadow kicks. Scorpion eventually won, so I quit and chose Tekken 7 instead. Again, the same experience bogged down my experience with the choppy cut scenes and control delays during the stream.

It’s not your phone, it’s the network

I remembered I still had a functioning LG G6. While LG Q70 had a larger screen, better Android software (Android 9 vs 8), and better Bluetooth sync (5.0 vs a 4.0) I wanted to test the system on a phone that’s a little older than my current device. I realized, if I’m already having a difficult time with my current phone, I have nothing to lose if I try the service out with an older phone. I went through the same games, and the performance was much better. In fact, they were leagues better. I progressed much further in both Mortal Kombat X and Tekken 7, and I eventually got through the opening credits of Hellblade without any lag or being kicked out of the stream.

Upon closer look, my LG G6 had a full wifi bar compared to my LG Q70, which had a poorer reception. In the end, it was not the power of the device, it was the strength of the network. It was great news because I was using my G6 as an audiobook and a vehicle for Netflix. When my phone clip arrives, my G6 has now become in a way my Xbox One. While I own a Switch Lite and PS4, once the xCloud goes live, I see the potential of playing quite a number of Xbox One games in its library.

However, if your reception is poor, the performance will be dreadful. While the xCloud is in the beta testing stages, I would hope that when the service goes live, they would improve on the lag and the delivery service of said games. I have not tried the new iteration of PS Now, but when I tried the service back in 2018, the performance was quite poor. Also take note that I’m testing on a 2.4 GHz wifi, with a fairly stable connection through a Canadian ISP. I may have the infrastructure required to sustain the stream, however once the activity through my wifi becomes unstable, it would be equivalent to the choppy experience I had with the LG Q70. At this point in this test environment, the stream isn’t sustainable. While it is obvious, a phone clip is recommended for better portability as when the current reception is poor, it would be easier to move to a spot for better reception.

Limitless Potential for Digital Gamers

I could see why Phil Spencer was confident in his approach for not having Xbox exclusives for Series X. I’m an exclusively digital player, so this service would be best for my lifestyle. At the height of streaming services (I currently subscribe to the Canadian equivalent of HBO Max and I piggyback on my housemates’ Netflix and Amazon Prime accounts), it’s a no-brainer to find a way to stream gaming next. Potentially, we could see Smart TVs in the future to come with an Xbox App hidden behind a subscription paywall with access to a limitless library.

It was the dream of Google Stadia to capitalize on this market, but unfortunately its business model of purchasing full prized games pales in comparison to a $15 monthly fee for Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, which bundles xCloud with said service when it launches in September.

The xCloud gives us digital gamers a worry-free environment as regards the space on our console hard drives. I really want to revisit Death Stranding again to gain insight to my Amazon Delivery guy’s psyche, however I’m not looking forward to downloading the 80-gigabyte monster into my PS4 hard drive that’s at capacity. With the xCloud, I can just take five to ten minutes to load up Gears of War 5 to get back into the action. (You also can earn achievements.) Hopefully we’ll reach a point in the ecosystem where we could switch the game off without saving and actually continue on the exact moment where we left off; the same way Netflix and Amazon Prime saves your position on Bojack Horseman or The Boys.

This also gives your Xbox the potential to become portable. With a decent wifi and a Bluetooth controller, you could play your games on the go at the mall, in between meetings, and even when waiting at the airport.

A Console Free Future

Speculating into the far future where the Xbox app could be installed on a Smart TV, Phil Spencer may be foreseeing a reality where consoles are a thing of the past. I don’t know about you, but you could literally own a gaming console at the price point of a game. Instead of purchasing Ghost of Tsushima this weekend, I bought a controller with a phone clip at the price point of the Digital Collector’s Edition. With the subscription costing about a Netflix or an HBO Max subscription, I could gain access to hundreds of games. I pay about the same amount for a Playstation Network account and all I really get are the monthly free games and extra discounts on PSN games. If Microsoft perfects this ecosystem the same way Netflix has, it’s definitely a gamechanger.

However, at this point, it is merely speculation on my current experience with xCloud. It could still flop or it could thrive. Hopefully when the network connection improvements are implemented with internet speeds below 10 Mbps and future controllers have better Bluetooth syncs with phones, tablets, and eventually Smart TVs– Microsoft has found a way to pave into the future of gaming without being held back by hardware constraints. It ultimately gives freedom to the gamers. 

For now, the time xCloud will be offered gratis with the Game Pass Ultimate is unknown. It is a convenient bonus along with the benefits offered with the Game Pass. Until we see the actual performance of said service in the wild, its potential is at most speculative at this point. Early adopters like myself that fit into their demographic, however will continue to explore this brave landscape of game streaming.

Author

Vincent Ternida’s book reviews and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Entropy Magazine, The Ormsby Review, and rabble.ca. His short stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in several anthologies including Write To Move Anthology, First Page Literature, and Seagery Zine. His short story "Elevator Lady" was long listed for the CBC Short Fiction Prize in 2019. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia and is spending the lockdown catching up with his Japanese RPGs.

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