Stadia, Google's streaming gaming platform, launches today. Is the service the first step towards the future of gaming, or will Stadia fall flat on its face? Here's what the early reviews say:
What Does Stadia Offer?
Stadia is Google's attempt to make cloud gaming happen, and the company has promised a lot: the ability to play basically any game at up to 4K on your TV, phone, tablet or laptop, with no lag and on existing internet infrastructure. And, based on these broad qualifiers, Stadia delivers.
Stadia isn't a console. It's a platform for streaming games from the cloud. You can play Stadia titles on a TV, on a computer or on a smartphone, although there are limitations on all of these categories, as I'll discuss later. You buy whichever game you want to play from Google, then stream it right away. There's no initial download, no patching and no buffering — just instantaneous gameplay.
Stadia Is Essentially A Beta Version Until 2020, But The Price Tag Isn't Cheap
Come November 19, those who anted up $129 for the Google Stadia Founder's Edition or functionally identical Premiere Edition will receive a Stadia controller, a 4K-ready Chromecast Ultra, and three months of the $10-a-month Stadia Pro subscription. This is the only way to get access to Stadia right now and for the foreseeable future.
And there's a reason for that: It's the only use case that feels finished. Google Stadia arrives with a litany of missing features, especially on PC and phones. As such, the Chromecast is the only device that supports 4K streaming at release, as well as 5.1 surround sound and the wireless Stadia controller. Those features won't hit other platforms until 2020.
Stadia's launch day is Tuesday… sort of. Really, consider this the start of Stadia's early-access beta period. Because Google's big promises haven't arrived, and at the price of the Stadia's Founder's Edition, I can't recommend anyone jump onboard at the moment. Google's experimental game streaming service, Stadia, launches without many of its promised features, and just a handful of games. It works, but there's not much incentive to buy in.
Despite The Monthly Fee, You're Still Buying — Not Renting — Games
While you've probably heard predictions that Google's Stadia will be the "Netflix of games," it turns out the analogy only goes so far. While Google intends to eventually have a back catalog of free games included for your $10 monthly fee, Stadia is not primarily a subscription service. The subscription only includes a single game as of today — Destiny 2. Primarily, Google tells us you should expect to buy, not rent cloud games for the same retail prices you'd find on other platforms like PlayStation Network, Xbox Live, and Steam.
Even when Stadia is at its best though, there's a catch: You will never own your Stadia games. You will never have local copies on your hardware, which means you have access to your games (games you paid for) only as long as they stay in the Stadia library. If Google decides to remove certain titles, or shutter the service entirely (it happens, pretty often in fact), the games you paid for will be gone.
Stadia's Current Roster Of Games Isn't Very Impressive
Stadia's 22 launch titles are uninspiring. They include: Assassin's Creed Odyssey, Attack on Titan: Final Battle 2, Destiny 2: The Collection, Farming Simulator 2019, Final Fantasy XV, Football Manager 2020, Grid 2019, Gylt, Just Dance 2020, Kine, Metro Exodus, Mortal Kombat 11, NBA 2K20, Rage 2, Red Dead Redemption 2, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Samurai Shodown, Thumper, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Tomb Raider 2013, Trials Rising, and Wolfenstein: Youngblood. About half came out this year, one is a Stadia exclusive (Gylt), and almost all of them are available on other platforms.
Provided You Have A Solid Internet Connection, The Streaming Quality Seems To Be Mostly Excellent
Stadia's performance is promising at worst, and impressive at best. Sitting in my bedroom, controller in hand, streaming Shadow of the Tomb Raider at 4K resolution, HDR color and 5.1 surround sound without a console anywhere in sight, I couldn't help but feel a little astounded. If this is the future of gaming, I could get used to it, at least on some level.
The bulk of my time on the Stadia was spent with the system in traditional TV mode. That means the Stadia controller connecting to Google's servers over wifi, and a Chromecast Ultra plugged into the back of my TV doing the same. For "best performance", Google recommends wiring the Chromecast up to a LAN, but doing so felt like overkill. Only once did I experience anything that looked like lag (when sending a picture message to my partner); every other time, it was perfect.
I have very fast internet connection at home, so the games were really crisp and fluid most of the time. It felt, generally, like I was playing on a regular console. But every now and again, I'd be reminded I was streaming when the graphics in a game dropped to a lower quality, or if the game just unexpectedly quit. That doesn't happen often on an Xbox or a PS4, and it's bad news if you're trying to finish a level or fight someone in a multiplayer game.
The Stadia Controller Is Only Necessary For Playing On A TV, But It's Very Comfortable
Google's gone way over the top comparing the controller to a chef's knife, but it's an excellent controller, seriously. It feels something like a blend of the XBox One controller and Nintendo Switch pro controller, with smooth analog triggers, solid rumble haptics, crisp analog sticks and d-pad. Playing with it feels effortless. I like how the Stadia button turns the platform on, and a solid rumble-throb kicks in to let you know the service has connected.
The controller is really comfortable to hold over long periods of time and has good battery life. That's important, since it's the only way to control the games you're playing. The button layout is different, but it was just as comfortable and really similar to the Nintendo Switch Pro controller. Setup between devices was usually pretty easy. I just turned the controller on and plugged it into either the Pixel 3a or computer I was using. Google says the controller will eventually work wirelessly with phones as it does with the Chromecast Ultra.
There's no reason anyone should buy into Stadia right now. Google has made sure of that, partly by underdelivering at launch and partly with a pricing scheme that sees you paying three times (for hardware, for the service, for games) just to be an early adopter.
Is Google Stadia the future? That's really two questions, I guess. First, "Is streaming the future of gaming?" Possibly. It's convenient, and even exciting at times. But if you're asking whether Stadia is the platform to get us there? I have my doubts.
Game streaming is finally viable, and Stadia is leading the charge — but with this launch, it's turning out to be more of a stroll. Hey, at least we're getting there.
If you're on the fence about investing $129 in an unproven service, you're not alone. The Premiere Edition is basically for true believers who don't mind dropping serious money on what amounts to a pay-to-play beta test. When February rolls around and those free trials are offered, you should give it a shot. You might be surprised.