Who could have imagined that one day, gaming consoles would become unnecessary, even redundant? We have had them in our bedrooms since we were kids and in our living rooms for so long that the idea of having an empty space next to or under our TV seems unthinkable. Of course, consoles still exist - indeed, we'll soon enter a new generation thanks to the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X - but it's still equally true that soon there'll be new options that will change the way that we interact with entertainment. Among these, at the forefront of this changing of the guard, there's cloud gaming. Inaugurated, a little awkwardly we might add, with services such as Google Stadia, the fate of this new way of playing video games could be in the hands of Project xCloud, Microsoft's new cloud gaming service currently being previewed in some European countries, including Italy, where we played.
Revealed in October 2018, Project xCloud is the way Microsoft has decided to approach the game streaming conundrum. Announced ahead of Stadia back in 2018, the core pillars of the service immediately established the essential elements that could one day help usher in a decisive change for the world of video games. And based on our first impressions with the service, we think that Microsoft is on the right path as it embarks on this ambitious journey, with all the difficulties and problems you might find on any new adventure.
What surprised us about Project xCloud, from the very first moment we opened up the app, is the absolute ease with which we could use the service. We have tested it on our Samsung S9 phone (xCloud is currently available only for Android devices), using a 1GB Fiber FTTH Wi-Fi connection. Once the app started, we were greeted by a minimalist, linear, but very clean interface, where you can view all the games available on the service. You can either consult the games through an elegant sliding mosaic UI or through the appropriate search button located at the top of the app. Despite being in beta, Project xCloud already presents a line-up of respectable games (five new ones were added just yesterday), which range across different genres, including racing, platformers, fighting games, RPGs... every player will find a game to suit his or her tastes.
During our testing, we've tried a good number of the games in the catalogue in order to try and understand what the average was in terms of loading times for each product. On average, games take from 30 seconds to one minute to load, perfectly in line with the waiting times for games on Xbox One. Once started, if you haven't done it before, you can connect your controller via Bluetooth (your standard Xbox One controller works just fine), and in just a few intuitive steps, you can connect your device to your smartphone/tablet easily. In a couple of clicks, you can finally access your game and enjoy your experience in total freedom, directly from your mobile device. But on balance, how does Project xCloud perform?
The answer is, in our experience: incredibly well. Although we didn't have high expectations, Microsoft's new product is very impressive. We have explored most of the games in the library, but we wanted to focus on genres that could put the service under stress. In particular, we focused on Forza Horizon 4, Mortal Kombat X, and Borderlands 2 ... and, damn, the results were impressive!
Let's start from the graphics side of things: despite enjoying the experience on a small 5.8-inch screen with a resolution of 2960x1440 pixels, the games almost exploded from the screen with vitality and bright colours. Although they are quite demanding experiences technically, we never noticed big frame-drops - at least, nothing that decisively compromised the experience. The only thing that disappointed us a little was on the audio side, often slowing down or "croaking", possibly due to either the presence of simultaneously connected users or from on-screen effects.
Aside from these issues, which we hope Microsoft will fix by upgrading its infrastructure in the near future, the cloud gaming service has left us pleasantly surprised. We haven't encountered many issues in terms of latency, although we have noticed small imperfections in terms of video compression. Besides these defects - all solvable and also bearing in mind that the service is still in beta - we can only be enthusiastic about the way Microsoft is developing the platform so that it might compete with Google Stadia, which remains the cloud service with the most solid and efficient infrastructure.
In an ideal world, the perfect combination would be a cloud gaming platform with an infrastructure offered by Stadia and a massive lineup like that we can find on Project xCloud. However, Microsoft still has a lot of time to make all the changes and improvements necessary to allow Project xCloud to shine. Based on our first impressions, we certainly have more confidence in the project and we look forward to seeing what Project xCloud can do once it becomes an active service available for one and all - only then can we judge whether it's a success or a failure. And perhaps not only Project xCloud but also cloud gaming in a broader sense because, at the moment, it's still in limbo and waiting to truly take off.