Xbox Cloud Gaming Is a Wonder—Until I Tried Halo

Cloud Gaming with Xbox Game Pass, originally called Project xCloud back when the streaming service was in preview, launched last week on Sept. 15. It’s another game streaming service like GeForce Now, Stadia, and Shadow that lets you play video games over wifi or a mobile connection. There are no downloads or installs necessary, aside from the app to access the games. Not every single game offered on Xbox Game Pass is cloud-enabled, but there are a lot: 169 right now, which is more than twice the size of Stadia’s library but still pales in comparison to GeForce Now’s 650-plus games. Xbox is winning me over with its Cloud Gaming with Xbox Game Pass service, but there are still some kinks it needs to work out.

It doesn’t seem like cloud gaming is going to be a fad. Several developers recently signed deals with Google to make games exclusively for Stadia. Nvidia just released a ChromeOS version of GeForce Now. And even Amazon is making its own cloud gaming service. But will more people opt to play games like Metro Exodus on their phones instead of a PC or console? Even with a good internet connection, I don’t see more people using their phones as their primary gaming device, at least not right now. Cloud gaming is all about options. It lets you play where you want to and how you want to. It’s nice to have the option to fire up something on a long road trip or as you’re relaxing in bed. That’s not a bad thing.

Xbox provided me with a Samsung Note 20 5G and a Razer Kishi to try out its cloud gaming service on Android, which was nice because I immensely prefer a smartphone gamepad to a regular controller. It feels similar to using a Nintendo Switch.

Opening the app and digging into the game choices, it’s quickly clear that Xbox Game Pass makes up for the games that Stadia, probably its best known and primary competitor, doesn’t offer. I’m talking TacomaSubnauticaBlair WitchAfterpartyJourney to the Savage Planet—those are some of the games Stadia doesn’t have. Xbox Game Pass has more games that are interesting to me. And even though I have standalone PC copies of most of those games I listed above, being able to stream them to my phone is a nice novelty. On the flip side, Cloud Gaming with Xbox Game Pass doesn’t have Borderlands 3Doom EternalRed Dead Redemption 2, and other “big name” games. It has a lot of popular games, don’t get me wrong, but Stadia has more of the first-person shooter games that I’m into.

Maybe a big issue (or bonus, depending on your gaming habits) is that the service is entirely subscription-based. It’s great for saving money and having yourself open to a large library of excellent titles, but there’s something appealing about Stadia’s business model, too. Stadia doesn’t require a monthly subscription. You buy the game outright and it’s yours to keep and play on your phone, computer, or TV. You can’t stream games to your phone without a subscription, and if you cancel your subscription, you can’t access that game anymore unless you buy it outright.

I wouldn’t say one model is better than the other. With Xbox Game Pass, you can try out a game to see if you like it before spending $30 or more on the entire thing—but you are $15 extra in the hole every month. If you play more than a handful of games a month, the pass is definitely worth it. But again, you don’t have to subscribe to anything to use Stadia on your phone.

What surprised me, though, was the performance compared to Google Stadia. It sometimes struggled. Even though I was connected to my wifi network, with a download speed of 300+ Mbps, some games lagged either visually or auditorily, or both. Cloud gaming will suffer under poor network conditions, that’s obvious, but there’s no reason Halo: Reach should be lagging with that good of a wifi connection. Just the theme song playing over the main menu sounded like a radio signal cutting in and out, and that continued well into the beginning of the game. Restarting the entire app seemed to fix the problem, but then I routinely encountered a major issue trying to get Halo: Reach, and the rest of the Master Chief collection, to load again.

When I booted the game back up, the theme music played smoothly, but the entire screen was black, save for the Halo logo in the bottom right corner. I could use the thumbstick to move between the main menu options, and I could hear the little “whoosh” and “click” noise as I did that, but I had no idea what I was selecting.

I tried loading another game, Journey to the Savage Planet and had no issues. The game loaded fine and played smoothly. Same with Forza Horizon 4 and a few of the other 13 total games I tried under the “Plays great on mobile” category. Other games I tried that were not in that category were Blair Witch and Destiny 2, and while I could get them to load, it took a couple of minutes. (Destiny 2 on Stadia loads a bit faster.) Once loaded they played pretty smoothly, save for a few tiny hiccups here and there.

Cloud Gaming with Xbox Game Pass has the same shortfalls as cloud gaming on any other platform. Network or server issues can cause lag and high latency, long loading times, and other things that just don’t happen when you play a game that’s been installed directly on your own PC or console. When cloud gaming works, it works well, but when it doesn’t work it makes you want to chuck your phone into traffic.

I like the technology, and I think this is a major reason why Microsoft has a shot in the next generation of the console wars. When it works, Cloud Gaming with Xbox Game Pass is a robust service and a kind of bonus for people already subscribing to play these games on their brand-new consoles. As a standalone, it’s a little less compelling than something like Stadia, but I can see Cloud Gaming with Xbox Game Pass as a good alternative for parents with children who don’t want to or can’t drop hundreds of dollars on a new console. Those of us who have been used to console or PC gaming for decades mostly likely won’t treat cloud gaming as our primary way to play games, but it’s nice to have the option.

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