Friday, September 17, 2021

Xbox Cloud Gaming review

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In 1998, if you wanted to watch Netflix, you had to rent a DVD then wait for the company to physically mail it to you. The service probably didn’t have exactly what you wanted, and you had to wait days to receive it. Still, it was ever-so-slightly more convenient than driving to the local “movie store” (we seriously called them that.) A few years later, the billion-dollar monolith Blockbuster was chasing Netflix’s crumbs.

But unlike Netflix, Xbox Cloud Gaming is entering a category already packed with heavyweight contenders. How does it stand up to services like GeForce Now, Rainway, Stadia, Shadow, PlayStation Now, and Amazon Luna?

Anyone who remembers this seismic shift understands how important Xbox’s Game Pass service might be. The all-you-can-eat game buffet has many of the same qualities that helped Netflix on its meteoric rise. It represents a seismic change in the industry, it’s a great value, and it still feels incredibly futuristic. And in the still-technically-beta Project xCloud, now officially called Xbox Cloud Gaming, Microsoft’s subscription service also already has the streaming feature it took Netflix years to develop – and it’s included for free with a Game Pass Ultimate subscription.

Xbox Cloud Gaming – Catalog and Interface
Xbox Cloud Gaming is currently available via a dedicated app on Android devices, as well as Windows 10 PCs and Apple devices via Microsoft Edge, Chrome, or Safari. While it started as a relatively limited service with minimal platform support, it’s quickly extended to a decent variety of platforms. Still, services like Stadia still have it beat with their support for TVs via Chromecast, while Rainway is available on practically everything. That said, Microsoft has plans for the service to come to TVs (sans Xbox) via a forthcoming streaming stick, as well as direct integration within smart TVs.

I’ve seen Xbox Cloud Gaming’s design – which lives inside the Xbox Game Pass app – a thousand times, in everything from Apple’s App Store to Amazon’s homepage. It’s a simple, well-designed page – there’s a rotating carousel of featured content at the top and lockers below. Those lockers designate recently played, recently added, popular games, and touchscreen-optimized games. It’s nothing fancy, and that’s a good thing. Within seconds, I could find what I was looking for and start a game.

Xbox Cloud Gaming’s native mobile support is limited to Android due to business disputes between Apple and Microsoft, but we tested the service extensively on Apple devices thanks to browser support. While it still feels pretty rough – with audio and controller latency issues abound – it’s also amazing to see Master Chief on your iPhone. And while it’s not advertised on their website, using Edge, Chrome, and even Safari on Mac also worked, at least during our testing. This is pretty stunning functionality to leave off their marketing, and I can easily see this being one of the best use-cases there is for GamePass.

The offerings themselves change often, but so far, there’s plenty to choose from. Near its original release, I counted 182 games. Now, there are 267 available to stream on Cloud Gaming, out of a total 385 available on Game Pass as a whole. There are some big-name games available like Doom Eternal, The Master Chief Collection, Halo 5, and Gears 5, and this list is growing impressively fast. Games like MLB The Show 21, Control, and Outriders have been added in the months since launch. Still, much of the catalog is composed of older hits and indies, many of which are relatively unknown. Xbox has promised a slew of first-party blockbusters all coming to Game Pass on the same day as their console release, but it’s not totally clear if all of these games will also be playable via Cloud Gaming. In other words, Game Pass (already) suffers from segmentation.

That’s because the Game Pass catalog is split between PC, Console, and Cloud. Currently, PC-exclusive games are not available to stream (though it’s something Microsoft is working on), and up until recently the Console catalog was identical to the Cloud catalog. Months ago, I surmised that the libraries would eventually deviate, and it would end with the Cloud catalog having the worst selection of the three. Sadly, I was right on the money. Already games like FIFA 21, Dragon Quest Builders 2, and even Xbox-exclusive The Medium are absent from the cloud catalog. Still, the cloud offerings are nothing to scoff at, with a well-rounded list of games ranging from racing to horror.

Tapping a game in your recently played locker instantly launches it, while tapping a new game displays the product page, complete with screenshots, ESRB rating, and the ability to install it to your console or PC. On Android, once you’re inside the game, settings and options are sleekly hidden away. Tapping the screen brings a small overlay in the top left-hand corner of the screen, with a microscopic ellipses and an Xbox button. The Xbox button brings up the familiar Guide menu, allowing you to see Friends, start a party, accept invitations, or view your achievements. Tapping the ellipses brings up a Cloud Gaming-specific menu, allowing you to mute or unmute your microphone, supply feedback to Xbox, or quit the game. (Swiping twice from the top or bottom of the screen also allows you to leave the game as well.) However, on Windows 10 browsers and Apple devices, the Xbox and ellipses icons are always on-screen. Any modern iOS or iPadOS device makes the experience even worse by also including the swipe bar on-screen at all times.

On mobile, Xbox Cloud Gaming deals with voice chat in a pretty smart way, letting you chat with friends using the microphone already on your phone. Unfortunately, without headphones, your friends and teammates will hear everything you hear, including their own voices. I found no way to turn off game audio while keeping my party chat on, which means the only practical way to play multiplayer games was with a headset. There’s a slew of games optimized for touchscreens. Many of these games are already on phones, but they’re far from “phone games.” There are games like Dead Cells, Slay the Spire, Streets of Rage 4, Hellblade, Minecraft Dungeons, and Tell Me Why. These games utilize on-screen touchpads that you can move, configure, and customize to whatever size phone you have. Doing so is a touch unintuitive, and the first time I loaded it up, several of the buttons were so far off the screen I had no idea they existed. But once I figured it out, I was able to play a few games without many problems besides the obvious ones: no tactile feedback, my fingers covering half the screen, and the general slipperiness of touchscreen gaming. Even so, it’s a viable way to log on for daily rewards or whatnot.

Xbox Cloud Gaming – Performance & Latency
Every streaming service review deserves a boilerplate disclaimer: When using Cloud Gaming (and every other game-streaming service), your internet connection is the single, mercilessly exacting determinant for how your experience will play out. Suppose you’re in the middle of rural America with a poor internet connection. In that case, there’s really nothing you can do to achieve even a subpar cloud gaming experience, shy of buying a satellite and pointing it into your living room. But as 5G rolls out across the country, the required speeds will become available to more and more Americans.

Xbox Cloud Gaming requires at least 10Mbps download speeds and recommends a 5GHz WiFi connection. At 940mbps down, my San Francisco internet connection was nearly 100 times faster than necessary. That kind of bandwidth isn’t typical though, even for San Francisco, so I also tried it using a slower (but still adequate) WiFi connection, as well as a connection much further from the router. The good news is connections were all pretty stable. Once a game started, I never dropped it. But checking a text message, or upping the brightness, or anything that required me to leave the game often booted me to the loading screen.

And unfortunately, loading takes a very long time – though it has improved greatly as the service has matured. For instance, several months ago, I measured that Halo 5 took 37 seconds to load. Today, it took just under 17 seconds. Graphical fidelity and game size doesn’t seem to factor, with smaller (possibly less in-demand) games sometimes taking longer to load. Celeste took 20 seconds to load, while Slay the Spire took 25 seconds to load. Which is, again, a marked improvement from where it started. Celeste had taken 47 seconds when Cloud Gaming launched on Android phones, and Slay the Spire had clocked in at a whopping 52 seconds.

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