Examining Xbox’s work on Project xCloud, it feels safe to assume it’s reflective of how the company seeks to integrate cloud gaming into its future pursuits. Xbox first introduced xCloud in 2019, aiming to allow gamers to play their favorite titles on any mobile device. Since then, Project xCloud has continued to grow and expand, launching on Android devices in September 2020. xCloud’s prominence in Xbox’s ongoing business strategy makes it all the more surprising that the service has struggled to make its way to Apple devices.
Due to complications with Apple and its App Store, xCloud’s launch on iOS devices hasn’t been an easy process, but Xbox was able to find a work around. Owing to Apple’s policies on in-app purchases and streaming services, Xbox was stymied in their efforts to get xCloud on the App Store. Though Xbox has made it possible for Project xCloud to be accessed via browsers on iOS devices, it is far from an ideal solution. It’s fortunate, then, that Xbox has begun to clear the hurdles that once kept its creation separate from Apple’s hardware.
Although xCloud on iOS is still in beta, Xbox has slowly started to roll out invitations so more people can access this service. Just recently, I received my invite to try out the beta service. While the service is groundbreaking given the circumstances, xCloud has the potential to grow in this new space and improve over time.
Connection is Key
As its name suggests, a central component of xCloud is its connection to the cloud through your device, with minor fluctuation in strength based on the kind of connection. During my time with the service I tested three different connection styles: LTE, 5G, and Wi-Fi. Though certain connections can be stronger than others, my experience with xCloud across the board was relatively consistent.
What’s curious is, contrary to what my experience indicates, xCloud sometimes acts as though the given Internet connection is faulty. When you begin streaming your game, you will see a connection icon at the top of your screen to let you know how strong of a signal you are receiving. Almost every time I was playing through LTE, and the other connections as well, that icon mentioned that I was having connection issues. Despite the alleged connection issues, I was still able to play my selected game.
Of course, gameplay over xCloud isn’t perfect; while a given game can start off fine, the service’s limits with regards to fast-paced action quickly become apparent. For example, loading up MLB The Show 21 was only a few seconds slower here than on the Series X. However, the experience of swinging a bat or throwing a pitch becomes frustrating when success at such activities is dependent on the state of the cloud connection. For a service that prides itself on quick access to major games, xCloud’s struggle to stay connected during play is a troubling sight.
To test the service on a game that doesn’t revolve around timing, I chose to try What Remains of Edith Finch. From the moment the game’s menu appeared, it was already having hiccups. Even after the game has finished loading, frame drops remain a consistent presence. Taking those technical issues into account, it was nonetheless clear to me that Edith Finch could be played if one was patient and determined.
One of the best aspects of the newest update for iOS is the ability to easily connect Xbox controllers to your phone or tablet in order to play games. Whether you are using an Xbox One or Series X controller, the process of connecting to Apple devices is straightforward and reminiscent of the means by which you connect a controller to a console. Having that added controller functionality with no extra hassle would be great in itself, but xCloud has more options for those seeking other means of controlling their games.
Certain games on xCloud allow use of touch controls that serve as a more than adequate substitution for a conventional controller. For instance, Stranger Things 3: The Game can be played using a given device’s touch screen. While not as reliant on button inputs or quick actions as other titles, playing this game with touch controls felt increasingly good with time. Those uninterested in either xCloud’s competent touch controls or Xbox controllers aren’t out of luck, though.
Various third party accessories, such as BackBone, can be attached to one’s Apple device and used to play games. For its part, BackBone is a controller accessory that attaches to the lightning port of iOS devices, accompanied by a downloadable app that compiles all of one’s controller compatible games and places them on the dashboard. Much as Backbone and other such devices can be praised for meeting a need for unconventional control options, it should be noted that they too can cause problems for users.
At least where the Backbone is concerned, its size being similar to the Nintendo Switch conflicted with the difference in button layout, leaving me with mixed emotions. On the one hand, that familiar size is comforting, as I recognized and felt accustomed to the scale of the device right from the start. However, the arrangement of buttons can lead one to mistakenly perform the wrong input, on account of mentally confusing the BackBone for a Switch. Setting aside that muddled aspect of the experience, however, it’s hard to argue that BackBone doesn’t offer enough to offset the possible discomfort.
Xbox Game Pass boasts over a hundred games that can be played without worry, a claim which xCloud makes an admirable effort to match. While not every Game Pass title is available on xCloud, both libraries are fairly similar in their catalogues. That range of games is especially useful for highlighting how awe-inspiring xCloud is as a product.
Regardless of the game’s scope or level of prestige, there’s always a sense of xCloud managing incredible feats of processing and performance. Playing games like What Remains of Edith Finch or Rain On Your Parade feels normal on the small screen of one’s phone, due to the scale of the title. That contrasts with the strange sense of satisfaction that comes from experiencing bigger titles, such as Halo: The Master Chief Collection or Outriders. While the specific experience of certain games may vary in quality, the sheer fact that we have the technology to make this sort of clouding gaming possible is exciting enough to overcome many issues.
As this service grows and Xbox is able to update its ability to connect to the cloud, xCloud could very well become the masterful app its creators desire. By the time that Halo Infinite launches later this year, it might be optimistic to say that xCloud will be at the point where it can run flawlessly while taking advantage of a phone’s power. I doubt that anyone will be experiencing 4K gameplay and high refresh rates, but it feels plausible that people will get to experience a full-scale Halo adventure on their phones that is free of significant technical issues.