(Pocket-lint) - Cloud gaming has unfairly teased us in the past. While services from Nvidia, PlayStation and the now defunct OnLive dangled tantalising carrots in front of our eager faces, they each turned out to be better on paper than a big or small screen.
However, we're nothing if not optimistic so, despite the knock backs and issues, we always held onto the hope that one day the technology would match the potential. Surely, someone can successfully realise our dream of playing triple-A games on a mobile device or TV without a console or PC in sight? Someone like, say, Microsoft?
Its xCloud service is ambitious and packed with promise. And, while it won't have an easy ride with a very capable rival in Google's Stadia breathing over its shoulder, our experience with it so far gives us the impression that it could be the "Netflix of games" we've been looking for.
Playing xCloud live
We got to play an early trial version of xCloud during an Xbox Showcase event in the newly opened central London Microsoft superstore and, although our experience was brief, it was enough to give us hope.
We played two games on the platform - Halo 5: Guardians and Forza Horizon 4 - and, so far, it seems that Microsoft has cracked some of the technology issues that have plagued others in the past.
Most importantly, we were impressed with its handling of latency. To provide a console-like experience remotely, you need to crack the latency/lag issue and the responsiveness of both games, especially Halo 5, was better than we've felt before.
Latency is the time it takes for a game to recognise a button press. Every gaming platform experiences it, especially when using wireless controllers, but cloud gaming has much more room for error than a local machine so the time differential is greater and, therefore, a game won't feel as responsive.
For example, as xCloud and any other cloud gaming platform hosts the gameplay on remote servers miles from your location, a control code needs to sent over the internet, often via a TV or mobile device. It is then recognised by the server, the resulting motion is performed by the game, then the video of your play needs to be sent back to the screen. Each of these steps adds milliseconds of latency and the more added, the more stilted and laggy the gameplay will seem.
Microsoft tackles this in a couple of ways. For starters, it has data centres across the globe, including two in the UK, and the shorter distance between the gamer and the centre the better. We were told that the one used during our demo was sited in the south of England, so ideal for playing in London.
In addition, we were using an Xbox One controller plugged into a Samsung Galaxy S10+ through USB-C, rather than a wireless controller connection. That meant that any additional latency added by a wireless Bluetooth or Wi-Fi connection was eliminated.
Both of those factors made a huge difference in our brief test as, while it didn't quite feel the same as playing a game on an Xbox One S or One X at home, it came very close. Certainly close enough to be a dismissable caveat when you realise you are playing Forza on a phone.
We were also impressed by the video stream itself. We were told that the resolution was 720p, which is absolutely fine on a 6.4-inch screen. Crisp, detailed and without any streaming picture artifacts. It'll look softer on a TV, running at that resolution, but you are likely to have a better internet connection at home and therefore stream at a higher resolution as standard.
Perhaps more remarkable is that the showcase demo used an isolated mobile internet connection, running around 7.5Mbps. That's very low indeed - lower than the national average broadband speed and significantly lower than 4G speeds, let alone 5G. It was good proof that xCloud could work pretty much anywhere.
Plus, it will run at 60fps, even at those speeds. Forza Horizon 4, for example, looked super smooth, running at 60fps on a phone.
Packed with potential
While we were impressed with our, albeit brief, dabble with xCloud, there are still plenty of unanswered questions. For example, Microsoft is yet to reveal how much a subscription will cost or whether you get access to a library of titles for a flat fee.
Its biggest rival, Stadia, isn't really a membership service at all, with a Stadia Pro subscription paying for 4K HDR video and, possibly, a free game per month. We wonder if Microsoft will head down a similar route or whether it will offer something like Xbox Game Pass but in the cloud.
We hope it's the latter. The tech certainly seems to be heading in the right direction and, if you could get a decent selection of Xbox One games included in one monthly fee, it would represent a very decent alternative to conventional gaming, maybe even something that will complement it for existing console owners.
There is also a question mark over supported devices. At present, we only know for sure that xCloud will run on Android handsets and tablets. We have had no word on whether it will also run on iPhone and iPad come launch day.
Apple has already announced that, with the launch of iOS 13, its devices will gain compatibility with Xbox One controllers, so that's a promising indication that it plans to support xCloud. But, it has also turned away similar cloud gaming platforms in the past.
Let's just hope it sees as much potential in this particular service as we do.
We are certainly excited by the prospect of xCloud. We didn't get to play for a prolonged period, nor did we get time with all the test games on offer, but what we did see proved that cloud gaming has legs.
The latency issue, while not completely expunged, has been suppressed enough to be an acceptable trade-off for triple-A gaming on the move.
We wait for the start of the public beta release in October with bated breath, that's for sure.