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Xbox Cloud Gaming (xCloud) 2022 review: Poised for greatness

Discussing the state of Xbox Game Pass Cloud Gaming in 2022.

Xbox Game Pass xCloud
(Image: © Jez Corden | Windows Central)

One of Microsoft's biggest bets for the future of Xbox is Xbox Game Pass. The service provides all-you-can-eat access to a variety of games for a relatively low monthly fee. One big component of Xbox Game Pass is its cloud streaming platform, generally known by its codename Project xCloud. The full list of cloud streaming Xbox Game Pass titles grows every month, with many games coming with bespoke touch controls.

Xbox Game Pass cloud streaming is still technically in beta, and hasn't yet fully rolled out to all the major markets Xbox is involved in. As such, we'll continually update this review in the months and years ahead to reflect changes and improvements coming to the platform. Regardless, we thought we'd showcase the best of what Xbox Game Pass cloud streaming is today, and give a final verdict on how it stacks up to the competition, and its overall value.

This is Xbox Game Pass Cloud Gaming, the artist formerly known as Project xCloud.

Xbox Game Pass Cloud Gaming: Price and availability

Xbox Game Pass

Source: Matt Brown | Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Matt Brown | Windows Central)

Xbox Game Pass Ultimate is required to access the cloud gaming portion of the service. Game Pass Ultimate gives you Xbox Live Gold for multiplayer access on Xbox consoles, alongside a few hundred games to play natively on your Xbox console or capable Windows PC. The cloud gaming portion gives you access to dozens of games on an Android smart device, with a web version of the service currently available via the Xbox website (opens in new tab) to circumvent Apple's anti-consumer blocks on its anti-competitive iOS app store.

You can grab Xbox Game Pass Ultimate from Microsoft's website (opens in new tab) with a Microsoft account. There's a free trial for newcomers, coming in at just $1 for the first month, which is an absurdly good deal.

Right now, Xbox Game Pass streaming is available in 22 regions: Austria, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, South Korea, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the U.K., and the United States. Your experience will vary based on locality to the nearest Microsoft Azure data centers, though, and the connection on which you're playing.

Xbox Game Pass Cloud Gaming: The good stuff

8bitdo Xbox Controller Xcloud Review

Source: Jez Corden | Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Jez Corden | Windows Central)

Xbox Game Pass's cloud platform is pioneering, and many years in the works. We have reports and documents dating all the way back to 2012, about 10 years ago, where Microsoft began exploring and ramping up its tech in this space. Since then, Microsoft has become something of a cloud powerhouse, hitting an astronomical market cap in a battle for service dominance with Amazon and others. For its Xbox customers, Microsoft is gradually rolling out the ability to take your console experience with you anywhere, on any device, at any time. Well, provided you have a consistent connection, that is.

One of the biggest drawbacks of xCloud versus some of its competitors was latency superiority. Google's Stadia and others consistently best Microsoft's services in tests, at least previously. More recently, Microsoft rolled out some kind of OS update on the server-side, producing latency and streaming quality far closer to what we get on NVIDIA GeForce and others. The gap is steadily closing, and I'm now able to reliably play Halo at 60 FPS without having to account for lag or major artifacts, although again, the latency varies heavily depending on whether I'm in the U.K. or staying with my SO in Germany.

It's difficult to review latency definitively, because for you as the end-user, so many variables can impact your experience. The last time I wrote this, I was on 100MB down with Virgin Media in the U.K. I'm also using their in-house Virgin Media "SuperHub," made in partnership with Netgear, which is notoriously bad for signal degradation. I recently upgraded to 1,000MB down, to see how it might improve the experience. Sadly, it didn't seem to make a huge difference as you might expect. Signal noise and congestion in cities seems to play a big role in the quality of xCloud. I get a far, far better experience in the suburbs in Germany, with 100MB down, possibly due to lower amounts of congestion and noise. Overall, I am seeing performance quality far closer to Stadia than I was previously, at least where latency and artifacts are concerned. Although, I would say that Stadia and NVIDIA GeForce still have an edge here, as of 2022.

Where competitors definitively do not have an edge is the library quality. Microsoft has invested a mountain of cash into its portfolio, buying various studios like Undead Labs, Compulsion, Obsidian, Playground Games, and publisher ZeniMax Media itself, responsible for Fallout, The Elder Scrolls, and DOOM. Microsoft also intends to buy Activision Blizzard, which will boost Xbox Game Pass and cloud by a truly insane amount. Microsoft has made apparent its desire to include all of these games day one into Xbox Game Pass, which is the type of commitment Google Stadia, PlayStation Now, and others have simply failed to match. Microsoft has also partnered heavily with EA to bring many of its classics to the service, alongside various other major publishers. Many large AAA games are available in the service, on devices that aren't powerful enough to run them natively.

Some games are even cloud-aware, including the likes of Streets of Rage 4, Hades, and Minecraft Dungeons. Some of these games can be played entirely without an attached controller, with user interfaces designed and scaled to match your smartphone's touch screen. This is where xCloud really shines in my view. If you're gaming on your phone, chances are you don't want to be heaving around an additional peripheral, which also needs to be charged up and most likely connected with Bluetooth. There is a range of great phone clips for Xbox Game Pass cloud gaming designed exactly for that purpose, but they're a bit clunky to use, as we'll discuss in the next section.

XCloud

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

The Xbox ecosystem in general is already just far more cloud-aware and cloud-capable than some of the competing solutions out there. When I fire up Prey on my phone, my save files synchronize from the cloud, uploaded from my home Xbox. Right away, I'm back in my current save, and ready to get gaming. All of my friends are available to invite into games, and all of my Xbox achievements sync up to my profile. All of this just works as a natural process of being in the Xbox ecosystem, without needing an additional subscription to access cloud saves or multiplayer. It's all included in Xbox Game Pass, with cloud saves and achievements included for free as part of the Xbox ecosystem promise.

Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass cloud streaming platform has some incredible promise, and works well for the most part, but there is a range of technical hurdles that remain, potentially holding back mainstream adoption.

Xbox Game Pass Cloud Gaming: The bad stuff

Source: Matt Brown | Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Matt Brown | Windows Central)

There are a few things that hold Project xCloud back, which are gradually being eliminated over time. This is a new ecosystem, with new tech, in relatively uncharted waters. Microsoft and its competitors are still exploring the space and figuring things out, so growing pains are to be expected. Let's examine the biggest problems as of 2022.

First of all, the experience of gaming on your phone, generally, isn't very pleasant. Some games like Minecraft Dungeons and Streets of Rage 4 do have custom touch controls designed specifically to be played on your smartphone. Many others simply do not. The default Xbox gamepad touch experience is not great unless it has been designed specifically for the game in question, like the previously mentioned titles. By default, it interferes with UI elements, gameplay, and beyond.

For most, you'll want to use one of these products from our best controllers for Xbox Cloud Gaming roundup. A lot of these are expensive, though, and have a range of downsides of their own. The phone clips for mounting your phone on top of a controller are most often cheap, flimsy, and unbalanced, leading to an uncomfortable ergonomic experience. Most of the phone controllers have their own downsides too, not least of all Bluetooth, which just sucks in general.

PowerA Moga phone clip

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

While using a Bluetooth connection to control xCloud games, you're introducing an additional layer of latency, on top of the server connection. It might only be milliseconds, but they stack up, and contribute negatively to the overall experience.

Some of the best phone clip options, such as the Razer Kishi, support only a small subset of devices. Clamp-based ones like the GameSir X2 are often too small and uncomfortable when compared to a full-size Xbox controller that many of these games are designed for. These however at least incorporate USB-C, eliminating the extra lag from Bluetooth. The downside then becomes the phone screen size itself.

Most Xbox games on Xbox Game Pass's cloud service are, as you might expect, designed for the big screen. Tiny fonts, minimalistic UI scaling, and zoomed-out cameras can make certain games just awful to play on a 5-7-inch display. They handle far better on a tablet device, such as these from our best tablets for Xbox cloud gaming roundup, but then you're back at the original problem — having to carry around and charge a separate controller. Microsoft really needs to step in and build a device that others can follow, because the solutions out there right now aren't fully hitting the mark, for various reasons.

Source: Daniel Rubino | Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Daniel Rubino | Windows Central)

The other big downside of Xbox Game Pass cloud gaming is the quality of the service. Microsoft has rolled out Xbox Series X-level upgrades to its server infrastructure throughout this year, though, and it has helped improve the quality in general. It's still odd, though, that I get better quality service in rural Germany, on a slower connection, farther away from a data center, than I do in the U.K. You also need access to your router's configuration, as well as the inclination to set it up correctly. Cloud gaming does not perform well on 2.4GHz Wi-Fi, and in some situations, you need to change router settings to force your signal onto 5GHz. National infrastructure seems to play a big role in the overall delivery of the service too, which could present a barrier for the platform's expansion. It's undeniable how much better it has gotten in recent months, though.

You simply can't discount the massive technical achievement that is Project xCloud.

There are a lot of games that handle low latency well too, including slower-paced games and turn-based titles. More fast-paced games like DOOM or RAGE 2 are still a bit outside the scope of what I'd call a good experience, given the latency. The new servers have brought SSD loading speeds though, which was another pain point of the previous infrastructure.

Gaming on a handheld device is a markedly different experience to that of gaming on a console. Until more games are designed to account for the cloud, and until we get more devices that are balanced, comfortable, and Bluetooth-free, xCloud won't be able to reach its full potential.

Xbox Game Pass Cloud Gaming: Competition

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Xbox Game Pass Ultimate doesn't really have many serious competitors at the same level. PlayStation Now from Sony has roughly comparable performance to Xbox Game Pass Cloud Gaming and a robust presence on PC. As of writing, Xbox Game Pass is available widely only on Android, with a web version available at Xbox.com/play. However, Xbox Game Pass has a sizeable library advantage over PlayStation Now, albeit for a slightly higher price point. You do get access to the library natively on console and PC, however, but it remains a bit odd that there isn't a tier of Xbox Game Pass that is cloud-streaming only, or allows for family members in the same household to access the games via some kind of family pass.

The only other major competitors right now are NVIDIA GeForce Now, and Google Stadia. At least NVIDIA GeForce is definitively better in terms of latency, but they all lack in terms of home-grown content and exclusive games. The only other major competitor in the space is Amazon Luna, which is available only in the U.S. as of writing. There are rumors that other companies like Netflix and even Walmart are exploring an entry into cloud gaming in the future, but it's highly doubtful that they'll mount any form of realistic challenge. PlayStation Now also has the content but lacks the server infrastructure to compete as of writing.

Xbox Game Pass Cloud Gaming: Should you subscribe?

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

Xbox Game Pass Cloud Gaming is a bundled feature with Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, which includes Xbox Live Gold, Game Pass for console, and PC Game Pass. You really do get an absurd amount of content for $15 per month, providing you plan to make frequent use of it. If you're planning to use only the cloud portion of the service, the value is degraded a bit. It makes me wonder why Microsoft has yet to offer a tier that is designed purely for cloud use, but perhaps that will come someday in the future. A family plan wouldn't go amiss either. All that being said, you simply can't discount the massive technical achievement that is Project xCloud. But is that enough to make it worth buying?

You should buy this if ...

  • You want to play Xbox games on the go
  • You have access to a high-quality stable network environment

You shouldn't buy this if ...

  • You're not a fan of playing with touch controls on a small screen
  • You don't want to carry an Xbox controller around with you
  • You have poor Wi-Fi connectivity

Everything about Xbox Game Pass cloud streaming is ripe for improvement and iteration, and in a lot of ways, it reminds me of the early days of console gaming in general. This is a completely new paradigm and will potentially take some time to get right, but Microsoft is well placed to navigate the space, and potentially, ultimately, come out on top.

Whether or not Xbox Game Pass cloud streaming is a worthwhile investment today though, is entirely at your discretion. For an introductory price of $1, however, Microsoft makes it pretty damned easy to try it out.

Jez Corden is a Senior Editor for Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!