Call it Project xCloud; call it Xbox Game Pass (Beta) for Android; call it “Xbox cloud gaming.” Whatever you want to call it, Microsoft’s answer to technology like PlayStation Now, Google Stadia and Nvidia GeForce Now is finally here, at least in open beta form.
All you need is an Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription ($15 per month) and an Android device from the last five years, and you can stream some of the most beloved Xbox games ever made directly to your phone or tablet.
Better still: Xbox Game Pass Ultimate isn’t a streaming-or-bust platform, like Stadia. If you’ve got powerful enough hardware — such as an Xbox One or a gaming PC — you can simply download the games and take full advantage of your own equipment. In theory, Xbox Game Pass with Project xCloud is the best of both worlds, and a blueprint for how game downloads and streaming can work hand-in-hand in the not-so-distant future.
On the other hand, having tested the functionality firsthand, the future isn’t here just yet. The Xbox Game Pass app needs a little more functionality and a lot more polish before it’s ready to unify your games library. Players still need more control over when to stream and when to download, as well as what kind of quality they should expect at every step along the way. Ideally, every game should be available on every platform — and some kind of functionality for players who prefer individual purchases to subscriptions would be a good idea, too.
Still, the cohesive Game Pass Ultimate is a blueprint for how game companies should handle streaming in the future — and how Microsoft’s own Xbox Series X could evolve from being simply a console, to being a whole ecosystem.
Xbox Game Pass (Beta): What works
First, let me give a brief description of how Xbox Game Pass (Beta) works. You sign up for an Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription, which gives you access to more than 100 downloadable games for Xbox One and PC. As long as your subscription is active, you can play as many of the games as you like; the moment your subscription lapses, you lose access to all of them, like a streaming video service.
Now, an Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription also lets you stream many of these titles to an Android phone or tablet. When the service launches fully on September 15, there will be more than 100 games from which to choose; right now, in open beta, you get just fewer than 40. For the most part, you just pick the game you want to stream, and pick up right where you left off on the Xbox or PC. You need a powerful Internet connection (10 Mbps is the minimum, but more is better), as well as an Xbox controller.
When everything is running at full capacity, Microsoft Game Pass Ultimate with Project xCloud feels like a huge step forward for cross-platform gaming. During my tests, I had the best results with A Plague Tale: Innocence, partially because it’s not the most graphically demanding game, and partially because it’s available with cross-save functionality on Xbox One and the Game Pass app.
Here’s how a play session went: I started the game on my Android tablet, just to see if it would work. While the app itself isn’t perfect, I was eventually able to get A Plague Tale up and running. It streamed directly from a Microsoft server in what appeared to be 720p, no installation required. With an Xbox controller connected via Bluetooth, my experience was almost identical to what I’d find on a console, simply on a smaller screen.
From there, I saved the game, shut down the app, and sat down on my couch in front of the Xbox One, where I had the game fully installed and ready to play. The game synced my save data, and I jumped right back into the action, only this time on a big screen with better graphics and no risk of latency.
I tried the same experiment in reverse with Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, starting a brand-new save file on the Xbox, then transitioning back to the tablet after playing through the first chapter. Once again, the syncing process worked flawlessly, and playing on a tablet was almost as smooth as playing through on a powerful Xbox console. Had the two games also supported cross-saves with the PC, the trifecta would have been complete — but more on that shortly.
Simply put, this is what gaming in the 21st century should look like. You choose your screen, and your game follows you, regardless of where you want to play. Better still — one subscription fee gets you access to hundreds of games across three platforms. If Microsoft wanted to demonstrate that the future of gaming doesn’t have to be tied to a single console, or even buying new games on launch day (as first-party titles get Day One Game Pass releases), it’s hard to imagine a better demonstration.
Xbox Game Pass (Beta): What doesn’t work
While I can see that Xbox Game Pass Ultimate plus xCloud has the potential to be my ideal gaming platform, it’s not quite there yet. In fact, it would have to make similar functionalities available to those who don’t have an Xbox Game Pass subscription, and I’m not sure whether that’s in line with the company’s strategy. Other issues, such as app design and cross-save compatibility, seem a little more treatable in the short term.
First, there’s the Game Pass app itself, which is not great on Android, Xbox or PC. Browsing and searching for games is a bit of a crapshoot, and there’s no easy way to tell whether the game you want to play is available on any platform other than the one you’re currently using. (If you download a game on Xbox One, in other words, it may not be available for PC or streaming.) The Android app is laggy and sometimes unresponsive, even on powerful systems, and there’s always a little stuttering while streaming games, regardless of how strong your connection may be. The PC app is likewise a bit of a mess, dropping connection frequently while downloading games, then not restarting the downloads until prompted — sometimes multiple times.
Cross-play and cross-save functionality are Project xCloud’s biggest stumbling blocks, however. I was excited to play both Gears of War: Ultimate Edition and A Plague Tale on my PC once I was done testing them on the Xbox and Game Pass app. However, neither game supports Xbox Play Anywhere (which is a totally different program from Xbox Game Pass Ultimate or Project xCloud — Microsoft really needs to unify all of its various initiatives somehow). There are 78 games that do currently support cross-saves across any platform, which is a good start. But for games that don’t have Play Anywhere certification, it’s extremely difficult to tell which saves will sync with which platforms.
Likewise, as stated above, which games are available on which platforms seems rather arbitrary. Right now, since Game Pass on Android is in beta, it doesn’t have that many games. That’s fair. But I can’t play The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan on PC. I can’t play Faeria on an Xbox. I can’t play either one on the Android app. While I understand there are probably technical hurdles to overcome, Xbox Game Pass Ultimate would be much easier to understand if the proposition were “play any game that we offer, on any platform.”
There’s also something inherently limiting about the fact that you need an Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription to stream games. I understand that server space and operations aren’t free, but I can only imagine how frustrating it would be to buy a game like Gears 5 à la carte, then also have to pay a $15-per-month subscription fee on top of that just so that you can stream it to a tablet. Some cloud streaming options for gamers who own games outright — even if it’s paid — would go a long way.
Finally, I also wish that the Xbox Game Pass app on all three systems gave you a little more control over when to stream and when to download. At present, you need to download games on PC and Xbox, and you need to stream directly from the cloud on a tablet. I’d like to have the option to stream from a local Xbox to a tablet, as you can do on PC. I’d also like an option to stream games to low-powered PCs — or even to an Xbox, to help ease the long installation process if nothing else. The PS4 can stream games directly from PlayStation Now; there’s no theoretical reason why an Xbox One — or an Xbox Series X — couldn’t do the same.
Xbox Game Pass outlook
In short, I can see the future of gaming in the Xbox Game Pass Ultimate service coupled with Project xCloud functionality — but it’s not quite here yet. Either way, if this is what Microsoft is hoping to build up with its push for an Xbox Series X ecosystem, I hope that other game developers will follow its lead, and let us play on the screens that best suit our needs.