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Halo Infinite Cloud Gaming mediocrity proves we still need consoles
DEC 21, 2021
Halo has low enough ping to explore the ring but too much input lag to frag.
Ever since Microsoft launched Xbox Cloud Gaming on phones and PCs with huge gaming libraries and reliable performance, some people have speculated whether Microsoft would need to sell more hardware in the future. If cloud gaming works well enough, it'll ensure limited Xbox Series X|S stock won't stop anyone from playing the latest games, even on old hardware.
Halo Infinite, arguably the biggest game from Microsoft and on Xbox Game Pass this year, exhibits how far cloud gaming has come, but also how far it still has to go. For now, Halo Infinite multiplayer is playable but not competitively playable; when every millisecond counts, cloud-based input lag ensures you'll never keep up against a player with more powerful hardware. But, at least, the campaign mode works well enough to recommend playing, even on the cloud.
On consoles, Halo Infinite multiplayer is a blast of a good time that's only gotten better since 343 Industries fixed battle pass progression and added more game modes like Team Slayer and SWAT. I'm no Halo master, but I generally have a positive K/D ratio at the end of matches. But while playing Infinite over cloud gaming, even with an excellent connection, I can only consistently do well against bots or in casual modes like Fiesta.
Visually, it looks smooth even when sprinting around. In combat, players' shields lighting up when you hit them really helps on a smaller screen. On the other hand, the UI text was designed for larger screens, making it harder to check your ammo count at a glance. Moving your right stick to aim also proves much more difficult on a phone, as making small adjustments to target a foe can feel harder.
The true issue, unsurprisingly, is with input lag.
To give Microsoft and xCloud all the credit they deserve, input lag on Halo Infinite is minimal, whether you use a Bluetooth or USB-C controller. You quickly mentally adjust to the difference, where reacting to a foe's movements takes slightly longer to manifest on screen. But against skilled opponents, or using the wrong weapons, you have no chance on the cloud when facing console or PC opponents.
Your easiest time is with spray-and-pray weapons like the Assault Rifle or Needler or power weapons like the Rocket Launcher or Gravity Hammer that require much less precision and timing. You can sort of aim where you want bullets to go and pull off a lucky kill. But good luck with a Battle Rifle; a foe can swerve back and forth headshotting you while you hopelessly try and fail to keep up with slower inputs. That's why a mode like Fiesta works best, since you can hope for at least one good weapon.
My only good matches came against pushover CPUs in Bot Bootcamp. 343 bots have a tendency to make a straight beeline at you while shooting or move in predictable patterns from afar. Compared to human players' improvisation, their consistency makes the lag surmountable.
Of course, when it comes to Xbox Cloud Gaming, any gamer can have a different experience based on their internet connection and router. So I polled my fellow gamers at Android Central and Windows Central, asking them to play over the cloud and convey their thoughts.
WC news writer Zachary Boddy had a much worse time than I did. Their first match over Wi-Fi was filled with "audio cut outs, large amounts of latency, lag, and freezes." After a router restart, they described the gameplay as "improved, but still nowhere near being a fun experience," and their third attempt over cellular had plenty of issues. Overall, they felt that other xCloud games offer a much more fun time.
Our Stadia writer Tom Meyer, on the other hand, felt that his streaming experience was "pretty smooth," even if it "wasn't as smooth as locally installed." He felt it was, at least, a big improvement over the Master Chief Collection in visual quality, with much less pixellation and artifacting on screen.
Overall, a playable compromise seems like the best way to describe Halo Infinite cloud gaming. As long as your connection works, it'll hopefully look good; but you'll quickly notice the difference in quality compared to a console.
Fortunately, I found the Halo Infinite campaign on normal difficulty to be playable. Each enemy type, from Grunts to Elites, have specific attack patterns when they spot you. If it takes an extra quarter-second to orient your reticule on an Elite after he dodges to the side, that still gives you enough time to get shots off skillfully.
I played long enough on Campaign to charge into an enemy base, blow up the fuel cells, and take out reinforcements and other targets with just a couple of deaths. Still, during my regular campaigning on the Xbox Series X, I rarely died on normal at all (that's not meant to be a brag, it's not Legendary or anything). It's playable, but naturally harder to spot foes on a six-inch phone screen. On my MacBook Pro, I had less trouble spotting them, but the lag still made me tend to stand still whenever I managed to aim at someone properly, making me a more vulnerable target for sticky grenades and flanking.
Just as when I played Forza Horizon 5 on cloud gaming, Halo Infinite is a respectable but slightly compromised experience. I may continue to play the campaign over the cloud so my partner can enjoy the TV sometimes, since I can treat the input lag as a small handicap. But otherwise, I would never play multiplayer on the cloud willingly; it compromises the experience just a little too much.
Overall, even though Halo Infinite easily numbers among the best Xbox Game Pass games, I wouldn't place it on our list of best xCloud games. Slower-paced games can absorb input lag much more easily, but Halo Infinite still needs local hardware for the best experience.
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