Xbox Game Pass’s xCloud streaming service is now in beta for Android mobile devices, and the arrival of a new cloud-based streaming platform again highlights how intriguing the streaming idea can be. But streaming games from the internet, rather than playing them on your own hardware, has been around in various forms for a while, and it has always suffered from something of a practicality gap between conception and execution. Sure, if you’ve got a stable enough internet connection, it’s nice to play video games without having to spring for expensive hardware–especially in the often-confusing, technical world of PC gaming. But if you’re already pretty interested in video games, you’re probably already pretty invested in video games. For the largest audience of people who like games, what’s the real upshot of streaming if they’ve already bought in?
Playing with xCloud on an Android device, the thing that struck me most was how much the service can unlock you from the traditional places where games have to be played. It’s the thing that has most endeared me to my Nintendo Switch: I can wander around my apartment with it, I can take it outside or to bed, and I can play it without tying up a TV or computer that other people sharing space with me might also want to use. Firing up xCloud on an Android phone and jumping into a Halo: Master Chief Collection multiplayer match, I had the same feeling–a feeling we’ve all come to enjoy.
I’m speaking, of course, about enjoying a full-fledged AAA video game from the toilet.
The xCloud service is now in beta for Android devices (sorry, Apple users), and it’s very easy to set up and use. You’ll need the $15-a-month Game Pass Ultimate subscription to use it, but once you have that, it’s just a matter of downloading and signing into the Xbox Game Pass app on Android to get into games. Apart from the cost, the biggest barrier of entry to xCloud is its controller requirement. Minecraft Dungeons sports touch controls, but few other titles do right now (something Microsoft says it expects to change as the service ramps up), so you need a gamepad with Bluetooth support or compatible USB connections. I spent way more time struggling to get an Xbox One controller to pair with my Android phone using Bluetooth than I ever did actually firing up a game. Once you’re signed in, however, it’s a matter of two taps to start playing something: one to open the app and another to pick the game you want.
The thing that immediately made xCloud seem useful to me was what it gains in using Microsoft’s existing gaming architecture on PC and Xbox One with Game Pass. Already, Game Pass has revitalized my interest in my Xbox One, opening up a big library of games both on console and PC. I’ve found myself playing and enjoying a lot of games I wouldn’t otherwise have the time or drive to bother with because they’re so readily available, and specifically available in multiple locations. Microsoft’s cloud streaming service adds a lot to that versatility.
It’s not just that you can stream a game onto an Android phone with xCloud, although that’s the most immediately obvious aspect of the service. Yes, I streamed a bunch of full games without downloading them onto a device ostensibly incapable of otherwise handling them, and that’s cool. But what impressed me about xCloud was that I was able to stream Ori and the Will of the Wisps and leap immediately into the save file I’d started on Xbox One. I fired up Spiritfarer and seamlessly picked up the game I’d started on PC. I was able to start a Halo: Reach campaign on the phone, then switch back to a bigger screen when I felt like it. What makes Microsoft’s offering stand apart from, say, Google Stadia, is that in transferring games between platforms, I’m not stuck always streaming–I can stream for a bit on a phone and then switch to a more stable game running on my PC or Xbox if I prefer it, or need more responsiveness.
The upshot of cloud gaming for me isn’t really about having another device to play games on. I play a lot of games on a lot of things, across all manner of different hardware. Even in 2020, though, the trouble is that all those devices tend to play different games. I have a handful of titles on my Switch, a few interesting mobile games on my phone, exclusives I play on my PlayStation 4, exclusives I play on my Xbox, PC games I get from Steam or Epic. Even if games are available on multiple platforms, there’s rarely any overlap.
Game Pass opens up those doors a bit, so now I’m playing Halo on Xbox and PC, but I’m still stuck in one of those two spots, or lugging hardware back and forth between rooms to play certain games. And the cool thing about xCloud is the inkling that I don’t have to be in a specific spot with a bunch of specific gear in order to play a specific game. I can play Ori in any room of my apartment, including the commode, and I don’t have to do any frustrating uploading of save files or downloading of games.
It’s worth noting that while I haven’t tested xCloud as extensively as I might if I were reviewing the service, I spent the better part of a day just testing games and found, at least on my Los Angeles internet connection, that they all ran pretty damn well. Input lag, aliasing, and frame drops are common problems with streaming games, and I noticed minimal issues on all three fronts. I even managed to hop into a Halo 3 multiplayer match and not get the bottom score, despite being very out of practice with its 2007 control scheme. I played Spiritfarer, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, Halo: Reach, Halo 3, Batman: Arkham Knight, Gears 5, and Journey to the Savage Planet, and everything worked pretty well. I felt a little input lag and saw some aliasing in Reach, but it was far from being unplayable, and that was the worst of it.
We should also note that while the Game Pass library is pretty extensive, it still does have some fracturing. Not every Xbox game is playable on PC and vice versa, and neither of those two libraries is wholly available to stream through xCloud. So while I’m lauding what the service adds in jumping from platform to platform and gaming setup to gaming setup, we have to acknowledge that that’s still not possible even with every Game Pass game. Even with the strides forward on this front, there’s still a long way to go.
Having messed with xCloud, my stance on cloud gaming is still more or less that, just as with services such as Stadia or PlayStation Now, this is a novelty with useful aspects that I don’t really need. Really, most of what I like about xCloud is what I like about Game Pass. But I do have to say that beating up thugs in Arkham City and tending my boat-farm in Spiritfarer while pooping is an intoxicating, heady freedom. It makes me wish I could play every game I own while pooping–among, you know, other things. I’m hoping xCloud leads to more possibilities like it, from more gaming companies.