Xbox Cloud Gaming Isn’t a Replacement for an Xbox Handheld (Yet)

Microsoft’s venture into the world of video game streaming isn’t all that new anymore. In fact, it’s been publicly available since late 2019, for anyone with an Android phone, which is *checks notes* a lot of people. However, as the not-so-proud owner of an iPhone, the future of Xbox Cloud Gaming has been agonisingly out of reach for me. It’s become such a large part of Microsoft’s plans, whether that’s pushing Xbox Game Pass or attempting to corral a casual audience not willing to buy a console, that it’s been strange watching from the sidelines.

After all, this isn’t just Xbox’s first experiment with cloud gaming – it’s also its first proper time diving into the world of handheld gaming, beyond the odd Microsoft IP being ported to one of Nintendo’s portable consoles, and a few Windows Phone titles. With the service formerly known as Project xCloud coming to Apple products in open beta just last week, I’ve finally been able to go hands-on with the service, and so far I’m left feeling… conflicted about Xbox Cloud Gaming. There’s potential here, for sure, but the idea of jumping into an Xbox game on the go still feels a long way off.

Following some quick workarounds via the Xbox website, which sees Xbox Cloud Gaming added to the iPhone as an app in everything but name, I began my streaming journey in the place that made the most sense – Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary. The idea of a portable Halo game has been tantalising ever since off-screen footage of a Halo DS prototype was released by IGN, but with Microsoft never competing with Nintendo or Sony in the handheld space, the concept has never truly come to pass.

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So with my iPhone clipped to my Xbox controller, in the grasp of a cheap, plasticky grip I bought on Amazon, I set forth ensconced in the boots of Master Chief. Like so many handheld gaming experiences that have come before, however, playing a console game on a phone through Xbox Cloud Gaming comes at a price. Even sitting in my living room, right by my wi-fi router, playing through the first couple of stages of Halo was a significantly lesser experience. While I didn’t experience any major stuttering or loss of connection, an ever-present input lag meant that it was incredibly difficult to line up any shots properly. Halo is well known for its fine-tuned controls, and even the most minor input lag – probably less than a single second – was enough to make the game feel sluggish. There was still a strange sense of wonder to the whole experience (I’m playing Halo on my phone!) but it was far from ideal.  

The thing is, this is nothing new to the world of handheld gaming. Shrinking a console game down to run on a portable device always comes with a few compromises, and as someone whose first consoles were all handhelds, I’m used to these compromises. A reduced resolution, some compressed audio, a dodgy frame rate – I’m used to taking the hit on these, in order to play a game like Dragon Quest XI from the comfort of my bed, or while sitting on the loo.

Speaking of Dragon Quest, that was my next port of call on my cloud gaming journey. Even with my so-called ‘superfast’ internet connection, I was experiencing enough input lag to make Halo feel like a struggle, but what about a game with a much slower pace? My hunch turned out to be right – booting up Dragon Quest XI S on iPhone was a completely different story. The bright graphics shone on the iPhone’s OLED screen, and the problems that came with laggy controls in my previous experience were greatly negated by the JRPG’s turn-based battle system and slow-paced exploration. I even got to try out Dragon Quest’s built-in touch controls, which worked rather nicely, until my phone began to get so hot I could hardly hold it anymore.

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This is another problem that comes with Xbox Cloud Gaming on mobile. While a modern handheld, like the Nintendo Switch, can still occasionally get a bit hot, or drain in battery rather quickly, these things are usually less of a problem for a dedicated handheld device. When it’s your phone, however, that’s a different story, and seeing my phone battery draining at lightning speed after less than an hour of play was rather unnerving. I daren’t think how long an older model would last (or how quickly it could catch fire?) given an extended play session.

Still, Dragon Quest XI S proves to be the best experiment I’ve had with Xbox Cloud Gaming. A dabble with DIRT 5 was a slight disaster, with the negative impact of lag on a fast-paced racer eventually giving way to a buffering slideshow when I travelled just a few feet upstairs and away from my router. Celeste was, surprisingly, a much better experience, even with the precision required to pull off that game’s deadly platforming – instant restarts definitely helped, though, and button controls proved far more precise than the built-in touch controls.

Of course, the Xbox Cloud Gaming service is still in beta on iPhone and PC, and things could yet improve. But it’s difficult right now to get a sense of how important this service will be for Microsoft’s plans. Even with good internet speeds, in a controlled home environment, significant input lag led to a poor experience for most of the games I tried – it’s hard to imagine playing out in the real world, whether that’s on erratic train wi-fi or inconsistent mobile data.

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However, there’s always the chance that these could be bigger problems for someone like me, who puts such importance on how a game feels to control. Perhaps for a more casual – or younger – player, simply removing the barrier of needing an expensive console to play hundreds of great games is enough. As someone who grew up playing shrunken-down titles like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater or Splinter Cell on the GBA, you’d think that the small quality-of-life problems that come with streaming a game would be less of a problem.

But perhaps that’s the issue. With Xbox Cloud Gaming, Microsoft is piping Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S game directly into your phone. It looks so much like playing your console on your TV, complete with the Xbox Series X|S home screen and menus, that even the smallest problems suddenly send you careening down into a strange, almost uncanny valley-like situation.  On top of that, a lot of the games contain UI elements and text boxes that are built to be blown up onto a big screen. When squeezed into the confines of a six-inch screen, some elements of the games become two small to comfortably see.

Unlike the games I grew up playing on the GameBoy or Nintendo DS, most of the Xbox Cloud Gaming library wasn’t designed with handheld play in mind, and even if everything was running without a hitch, they still wouldn’t feel at home being played on a phone. Maybe the technology will eventually catch up in the next couple of years, but for now, playing Xbox games on my iPhone through Xbox Cloud Gaming feels like a poor imitation of the real thing.

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