“Cloud processing.” You're almost certainly dismissive of the term by now because after all the boastful claims of Xbox One's launch, almost nothing came of it. It's supposed to allow your Xbox One to communicate with vastly more powerful computers over the internet, using this remote extra power to make your games better than a $300 console has any right to deliver. Yet what have seen of it so far? Titanfall's AI bots (which don't appear to be particularly special and are currently being enjoyed by about two people) and Forza's 'Drivatar' simulations of real gamers. Which, if I'm brutally honest, behave like normal AI drivers, only with an extra little pang of disappointment.
But then Gamescom 2015 happened, and the whole world saw Crackdown 3's fully destructible, online environments working their magic. Characters were shown leaping from windows moments before entire structures came down around them, with skyscrapers creating domino chains of destruction along the city block.
This isn't scripted spectacle in the style of Battlefield 4's high-rise destruction: This is all happening in real-time, and in a competitive online multiplayer environment. Crucially, the Xbox One is drawing it, yes… but it isn't calculating it all. That is happening somewhere else in the world. To put it simply, Xbox One talks to other, high-powered computers, and then draws pretty pictures based on their calculations. Draw said pretty pictures 30 times a second and you've got yourself a truly spectacular video game. And no matter how complex the calculations get, the game needn't slow down, as the load can be shared with more servers. Some 11 at once were being used in the Gamescom demo, but that's by no means the limit.
Anyone can see what a game-changer that is just by watching the Crackdown 3 trailer. This, is a true next-generation experience with no compromise. It's the realisation of the tech demos that were bandied around a while back (which turned out to be the prototypes of Crackdown 3, funnily enough).
That old tech demo is perfectly illustrative of Xbox One's problem in the console war to date. After running the simulation perfectly adequately to begin with, it hits a ceiling of processing ability and the 'local-only' processed image starts to falter, dropping frames and eventually comes to a grinding halt. Of course, no modern game would actually get released in that state, but the fact remains that Xbox One's native chipset has finite limitations. Every console does, but it's fair to say those limits are usually reached before those of PS4. As someone who bought both consoles and used to buy 360 versions over PS3 in 95% of cases, I can say this: given the choice I prefer to play games on PS4 because they will probably look better.
Look at the differences in games like Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition, GTA5, Project CARS, The Witcher 3, Battlefield Hardline… it's an exact reversal of last-gen's situation. Xbox has more difficulty meeting resolutions and frame-rates than PlayStation. Fact. If this was any other time in gaming history (so far), that situation would be set in stone. The generation would play out with occasional unlikely success stories and increasing levels of parity as the console's strengths are exploited, but MS would basically be playing catch-up. But this time the specs are not set in stone.
Very pleasingly, you don't need some mega-connection to the internet to enjoy the benefits of this. Crackdown is aiming to support 2-4Mbps connections. That's something even BT's bog-standard internet can do in the UK, and only rural areas of countries in most console territories would struggle to manage a 2mb connection. Even if you can't host Share Play sessions on your PS4, you can probably still enjoy Crackdown 3's rampant cloud-processed destruction.
You could argue that there's nothing stopping other platforms from using cloud processing too. It is technically possible for any net-connected device (PS4, iPhone… Wii U) to take advantage of an external server's power, but these servers don't just appear magically. It requires a server infrastructure and a significant outlay of money to set up. Currently, Sony doesn't appear to have that sort of functionality factored into its Gaikai roadmap. Nintendo certainly doesn't. Microsoft, on the other hand, already has a tested service in place and was using it long before Xbox One came along. It's called 'Azure' and it was being used as a company-wide email client, among other business uses, long before it was opened up to game developers. Microsoft's tech is ready to roll - it just needs to be built into games.
The developers seem certain of the potential (opens in new tab), and that's a great sign. That ready-made cloud-based behemoth means Xbox One really can become more than the console we know it to be right now. Certainly, game consoles change over time anyway (just look at last gen's early output compared to the level of more recent titles), so this isn't the final shot in the war by any means. But in terms of seeing the shiny new weapon Microsoft's bringing to the fight, it's a mouthwatering prospect.
It's also worth keeping in mind that, realistically, this technology is only going to be used to maximum effect if a game is developed with its strengths in mind. So we're probably only talking about Microsoft exclusives, at least to begin with. I can't imagine EA developing new FIFA with cloud-processing support for only one console - not unless Microsoft pays them to do it, which isn't completely out of the question. Now that would make things interesting...
But if Microsoft can get together a portfolio of exclusive Xbox One titles all clearly showcasing the augmented power of what would then be - undeniably - the most powerful games console on the planet, then it'll be Sony that's left playing catch-up. Tech may not be the only thing that makes games great, but a lot of people want to play - and own - the best. The most cutting-edge. Gamescom has shown, without doubt, Xbox One hasn't yet achieved its final form. And while all platforms are going to change and improve over the next six or seven years, Xbox's next evolution has the potential to be absolutely explosive. It's gonna go super-saiyan, I'm telling you.