Project xCloud Hands-on Suggests It Will Disappoint a Crucial Kind of Gamer

We put Microsoft's cloud service to the test.

The upcoming cloud gaming war will be waged between Google’s Stadia and Microsoft’s xCloud. Stadia has quickly made its take on the first-person shooter a key selling point, integrating specialized features like Stream Connect which will add dimension this genre in particular. Assuming Stadia’s features (and service) perform as advertised, Microsoft should be worried, based on the hands-on time Inverse had at E3 2019.

To be sure, the xCloud we demoed is still a work in progress. Microsoft announced that limited trial of xCloud would begin in the fall, at which point, its price, expected performance, game library, and minimum internet speeds to run the service would also be revealed.

In the meantime, attendees of the E3 2019 video game convention in Los Angeles got a taste of the cloud gaming future. While the service will likely undergo more refining by the fall, Inverse still found the early version of xCloud to be impressive. But a specific demographic of gamers may be disappointed.

microsoft e3 2019 xcloud demo
Two xCloud demos available to play at E3 2019.

xCloud: How It Worked

The xCloud demo Inverse tested was connected to one of Microsoft’s Azure data centers in the Bay Area, roughly 400 miles away from E3. The cloud service’s brains consist of barebones Xbox One consoles mounted onto server blades. These bundles of Xboxes run the games, which in this case were Halo 5, Gears of War 4, and Resident Evil 7. The server then streamed the video output over the internet to the mobile phones available at Microsoft’s booth.

xCloud: The Hardware

xCloud’s biggest selling point is that it’ll let Xbox fans play the games they love on any device they want without a console. Microsoft announced that xCloud will run on smartphones, tablets, and laptops though only mobile phones were available for the E3 demos.

As part of the hands on, Inverse tested the service using two devices, Samsung Galaxy S10+ and the gaming-centric Razer Phone 2. Each smartphone was attached to an Xbox controller with various third-party plastic hinges that Microsoft representatives told me they bought on Amazon.

Microsoft wasn’t demoing any tablets or laptops with the service just yet.

microsoft xcloud e3 2019
Eventually, xCloud will work on Android and iOS tablets.

xCloud: Internet Speeds

Microsoft has yet to reveal what the minimum required broadband speed will be to run xCloud. But a Microsoft representative tells Inverse that average-to-low broadband speeds should be enough to run the service.

“Internet speeds between seven to ten megabits per second should be enough to run games in 720p,” the representative said. “Like the typical speeds required to play videos on YouTube.”

That’s slightly lower than Stadia’s announced 10Mbps minimum for 720p, but Inverse couldn’t verify the Microsoft booth’s internet speeds, and the representatives were even a bit cagey about this element of the experience.

xCloud: Experience

To start, the xCloud demo of Halo 5, Gears of War 4, and Resident Evil 7 ran smoothly, smooth enough to make me a little suspicious that the convention center’s wifi was as shoddy as I’d been led to believe.

Microsoft wouldn’t let me connect to the E3 wifi network to run a speed test (though to be fair, they have good reason to avoid letting reporters access their network), and Microsoft also could have supplied its own wifi networks to run demos. So, for now, I’ll have to trust that the game was being run using typical broadband speeds. But regardless, there were still some issues with the game play, particularly during Halo 5 and Gears of War.

The Microsoft representative said that all of the games were running at 720p resolution at 60 frames per second, but there were still notable frame drops when the on-screen action picked up in both first-person shooters. Inverse also noticed some latency whenever when we tried to make last-minute adjustments to our aim, or go for a flick shot. Those small slip ups will be problems in high stakes FPS games.

On the other hand, Resident Evil 7 ran like a breeze. At least for now, xCloud seems optimal for action-adventure games where high-precision isn’t required.

Though the service still has a lot to prove, its E3 2019 demos were reassuring. That Stadia was able to announce a price, game library, and release date before xCloud — despite having little-to-no industry experience, particularly when compared with legendary xBox — created the perception that something was awry. That doesn’t appear to be the case. But xCloud presently lacks in a key dimension where Stadia seems determined to excel. That should have Microsoft worried.

Media via Danny Paez