If you’ve upgraded your PC’s operating system to Windows 10 or bought a computer that came with Microsoft’s newest OS, you may have noticed a new, bright-green icon in the Start Menu: Xbox. The free (and recently revamped) Xbox app lets you perform many Xbox-related functions on your Windows 10 PC, including purchasing select Xbox One titles, voice chatting with friends, and recording gameplay footage. Unfortunately, Xbox lacks the massive game library to lure PC gamers away from Steam en masse, but it can coexist comfortably alongside Valve’s gaming marketplace because of the cool exclusive titles and Xbox Live elements it brings to the desktop.
To understand why Xbox is on PC, take a second to ponder Microsoft’s current position in the gaming world. Microsoft is warring with Sony on the console hardware side and with Valve on the software side, so extending the reach of its gaming division lets Redmond sell games to a demographic that may not own, or plan to purchase, an Xbox One S, an Xbox One X, or an upcoming Xbox Series X. The move is a wise one, as it lets PC gamers enjoy high-profile games that probably would have been exclusive to Xbox consoles in the past.
Getting started is a breeze in Windows 10. In fact, the app is only available for Microsoft’s newest operating system, so if your rig runs something older, you need to upgrade the OS to get a taste of it. Initially, everyone who had a Windows 10 PC had at least some version of the Xbox app. That old app became the Xbox Console Companion. Since this new Xbox PC app is currently in beta, you must download it separately. The good news is that it’s less of a challenge to uninstall. Thankfully, the app remains unobtrusive, so it doesn’t get in the way if you want to launch, say, Steam or the Epic Games Store.
If you sign in to the Xbox app with the same credentials you’ve used since your days gaming on the Xbox 360, your Xbox Avatar and friends list appear. You can also create a new account from scratch, if you choose.
The Xbox app experience on Windows 10 is much like the analogous service on Xbox One. You can chat and exchange messages with friends (you can now link your Steam, Facebook, Twitter, and Twitch accounts to stay in touch with pals), tweak your Xbox Avatar with a variety of cool gear (after downloading the separate Xbox Avatar app from the Microsoft Store), record gameplay footage, and purchase games.
Xbox Game Library
The best thing about the Xbox app is that it lets you purchase and download Xbox One titles to your PC without a console. There’s one caveat, however: The PC store selection is not nearly as broad as the console library, or as broad as the Steam library (which now includes several Microsoft games). For more niche PC games, check out specialized stores like retro game haven, GOG, and indie art gallery, itch.io.
On Xbox, naturally, you’ll find many Microsoft-owned titles, such as Cuphead, Forza Horizon 4, and Microsoft Flight Simulator, but not River City Girls or Final Fantasy XIII Remastered. It lacks Xbox 360 games, too. That said, there’s a growing number of third-party titles that nicely round out the storefront, such as Football Manager 2020, Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite, Metal Slug X, Rise of the Tomb Raider, and Shenmue I & II.
Unlike the previous version of the Xbox app, this version has a full-fledged, standalone store and not merely a Microsoft Store launcher. This is a huge improvement, as you no longer need to wade through casual and mobile games; it gives Xbox a PC-centric feel that conveys Microsoft’s new PC focus. However, that Microsoft Store still exists as a viable option to buy games, as well as movies and apps. Between that and the Xbox mobile and desktop companions app, it gets a little confusing knowing which piece of Microsoft gaming software does what exactly, especially since some of their features overlap.
Xbox Store on PC has game discovery features in the expected categories (Best-Sellers, Multiplayer Games), as well as some nice unexpected ones (4K, HDR). But it lacks Steam’s deeper dives, such as something that resembles Steam Curator Groups. That’s not a major negative, though; Xbox Store on PC is still in its infancy stage. At least you can read user reviews to help make an informed decision. We also couldn’t find any games that support VR headsets or Microsoft’s own mixed reality headsets. HoloLens apps are on the Microsoft Store.
While Microsoft’s copyright measures aren’t quite as draconian as we feared during the infamous Xbox One reveal, still expect to deal with digital rights management (DRM) on your games. At least Microsoft slowly started allowing mod support. You’ll also have to request a refund (within two weeks) as there’s no convenient self-service option.
When Two Become One
Microsoft’s platform unification means you only need to buy select games once to play them in multiple locations. The Xbox Play Anywhere initiative means that certain digital games you purchase are available for play on both PC and Xbox One—an excellent, inspired move by Microsoft. Your saves, DLC purchases, and achievements are available on both platforms, too.
If you own an Xbox One, you can stream any game from it to a PC on the same network. It works well, too—if you’re on a wired connection, that is. In our tests, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain stuttered a bit and suffered resolution dips when streamed via a wireless connection, but played near flawlessly over a wired connection. It’s not true PC gaming, as you need an Xbox One, but if you prefer to game on a laptop or desktop, it’s a nice way to bring more games to your Windows 10 setup.
As the app taps Xbox Live for online play, you can game with both PC and console players—and you don’t have to fork out money for an Xbox Live subscription for multiplayer gaming. We had a blast exchanging fists and feet with other Killer Instinct players.
In spring 2019, Microsoft brought one of its most profitable and critically acclaimed features to PC: Xbox Game Pass. Currently in beta, Xbox Game Pass for PC is an all-you-can-eat subscription service that lets you dive into a library of more than 100 titles and enjoy discounts on game purchases. In fact, Xbox Game Studios titles appear on Game Pass the same day that they go on sale, so you can immediately dive into a hot title like Gears 5 or Minecraft Dungeons.
So, how much does all this cost? During the Xbox Game Pass for PC beta, the service costs just $1 for the first month before increasing to $4.99 per month. Microsoft also offers Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, a higher-tier subscription that includes everything in vanilla Game Pass for PC plus access to more than 100 console games and Xbox Live Gold (Deals with Gold, Games with Gold, and console multiplayer). Subscribers also gain access to the promising Project xCloud game streaming beta. This is the tier for a person who owns both a PC and Xbox console. Xbox Game Pass Ultimate is currently $1 per month (discounted from $14.99 per month). Clearly, Microsoft’s long-term plan is to push as many players as possible to this service.
Game Pass subscribers receive discounts when buying games and add-ons. For a wider array of discounts, discounts that also contribute to charities, consider purchasing from Humble Bundle (owned by PCMag’s parent company, Ziff Davis).
Xbox Game Bar
Game Bar—the floating toolbar that’s invoked with the simultaneous pressing of the Windows and G keys or pressing start on an Xbox controller—received a massive overhaul in the Windows 10 May 2019 update.
Now, the overlay has a much-welcome customizable UI, Spotify integration, and meme creation functionality. As in previous iterations, Game Bar lets you post that you’re Looking For Group in a multiplayer title and initiate Game DVR recording. Previously, Game Bar featured Mixer broadcast integration, but Microsoft has since retired that video game live streaming service. Still, the set of features overall is much closer to the robust Steam than the basic Epic Games Store.
Xbox also brings game recording and snapshot functionality to your PC via the app’s integrated Game DVR. You can set it to record the last 10 minutes of your current play session, which made it a fine tool for capturing footage of us bodying gaming journalists from other publications in Killer Instinct. There’s also an option for up to four hours of non-background recording.
Game DVR lets you select your recording’s frame rate (30 or 60 frames per second), video quality (Standard or High), bit rate (up to 192kbps), and microphone and system volume.
In our tests, Game DVR worked well when it came to recording fighting game sessions with the fellas. In a nice touch, the Xbox app lets you upload video files and screenshots to your account’s cloud storage, so you can access the files from another PC running the Xbox app or an Xbox One.
Xbox on PC finally gives Microsoft a modern, gamer-centric platform on the personal computer. It brings Xbox Game Studios titles to the PC, so no one needs to shell out cash for a dedicated console. Still, even with its understandable limitations as a Microsoft-exclusive store, there is room for improvement. As the PC game store wars heat up, it’ll be interesting to see how Xbox evolves as Steam, Epic Games Store, and other outlets vie for gamers’ dollars. With a fresh look and feel, and the wonderful Game Pass in its back pocket, Xbox is in a position to achieve success, even without necessarily becoming number one.
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