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Hands-On with Xbox Cloud Gaming for Windows, iPhone, and iPad

Posted April 26, 2021 | Games | Project Xcloud | Windows | Xbox | Xbox Cloud Gaming


Over the weekend, Microsoft allowed me into the preview for Xbox Game Gaming, formerly called Project xCloud, for Windows, iPhone, and iPad. And it’s a bit rough at this early stage.

As you may know, Xbox Cloud Gaming has been on a bit of a slow boil since its first public on Android way back in October 2019. Microsoft originally meant to bring the service—which is now a perk of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate—to Android, iOS (iPhone), and iPadOS (iPad), but the versions of Apple’s devices were limited to just a single game in preview because of that firm’s anticompetitive business practices. After letting the more limited iOS/iPadOS preview expire, Microsoft finally just gave up on releasing a native app on iPhone and iPad and launched Xbox Cloud Gaming only on Android in late 2020.

Since then, we learned that Microsoft would bring Xbox Cloud Gaming to Apple’s devices via a web app, bypassing Apple’s artificial App Store limitations. But, of course, the bigger issue here in the Windows community was why Microsoft didn’t have a Windows client available at launch last year. It seemed like an odd omission.

And it still does, really, especially when you consider that screenshots Xbox Cloud Gaming on Windows leaked over a year ago. But at least we’re making some headway now. Last week, the software giant announced that it would finally open up this service to users on Windows, iPhone, and iPad in a limited beta. Somewhat unexpectedly, all three clients are web-based. So not just iPhone and iPad, but also Windows.

According to Microsoft, Xbox Cloud Gaming will work in Apple Safari (on Apple’s devices), Google Chrome, or Microsoft Edge via a new landing page at xbox.com/play. The limited beta is invite-only for now, but it will expand over time. And you’ll pretty much need an Xbox Wireless Controller (connected via Bluetooth, an Xbox dongle (on PC only), or via a USB cable to play, though some games support on-screen touch controls too.

I didn’t receive my invitation for the limited beta until the weekend, and I was visiting friends and family in Boston, so I decided that my first tests of the service—via my iPad Air/Safari and an HP Spectre x360 14/Microsoft Edge—would focus solely on a few games with touch controls. And then I would test with a controller when I got home; we drove home on Sunday.

I’m excited for Xbox Cloud Gaming and am convinced, in many ways, that this is the future of gaming. But right now, the service is in a rough place, at least via the web client. And especially with touch controls, which are borderline useless, even for slow-moving games. I tested both Tell Me Why and The Walking Dead (the original Telltale series), specifically because they’re slow-moving, narrative-driven interactive stories. In both cases, the on-screen controls worked fine if all I needed to do was mash an X, Y, A, or B button. But when some precision was needed—to select an on-screen item, perhaps—it became quickly obvious that this system doesn’t work at all.

It’s a bit hard to explain the issue, which is not related to latency or connection speed, or any of the other problems one might expect of game streaming. Instead, it’s more of a sensitivity/accuracy issue, where I found myself over-shooting the object in alternate directions repeatedly as I tried to select it. In a game like The Walking Dead, that meant that I was frustratingly killed by a zombie repeatedly, as well. It’s one of the easiest sequences in the entire game, normally.

Once I got back home, I tried the Windows web client on my desktop PC and was reminded of an issue I had experienced on the laptop, but not the iPad: When I signed in with my custom (and now grandfathered-in) Outlook.com domain on Windows, Edge told me that I hadn’t yet been invited to play. But when I signed out and used the original (and literally 20-year-old) Hotmail.com account that sits behind that custom domain, it signed me in correctly. Weird.

Anyway, the point here was to see whether a controller improved the experience, so I picked up at that same point in The Walking Dead and I got that zombie on the first try. Excellent. (I connected via USB for the best possible connection.)

With that success out of the way, I figured it would be worth testing a more action-oriented title, and here I had the perfect test: Doom Eternal, which I’d previously played on Google Stadia as well. But I couldn’t get past the “Loading profile…” screen for some reason, so I tried Gears 5 instead. I had previously tested this game using Xbox Cloud Gaming with Android, but found the phone display to be prohibitively small when used with this console shooter.

On my PC, of course, the game looks great. The issue is performance, and in a variety of ways. Games take a long time to load on Xbox Cloud Gaming, which is an issue with all of the services I’ve tried so far. And so do individual levels. But dropped immediately into a Gears 5 action sequence—it synced my progress from previous play across consoles and Xbox Cloud Gaming on Android—I immediately hit all kinds of problems, from slow movement, inaccurate aiming, general lag, and even sound cutouts. It wasn’t completely unplayable. But it wasn’t great.

I need to do a lot more testing than this, but my initial take is that Xbox Cloud Gaming lags, ahem, a bit behind Google Stadia and Amazon Luna overall: Even with a controller, it’s not rock-solid, at least not yet. But I feel like it can get there, and of course the enormous game catalog and cross-platform capabilities are what really puts this service over the top, or will.

More soon.

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