Google Stadia full review

With Stadia, there are no easy answers. Every compliment I want to pay Google’s game streaming service - and there are quite a few actually - is shackled to a caveat, a complication, or a complaint. Sometimes all three.

That’s a problem. The biggest problem, really. Google intended Stadia to simplify the way people consume games. No hardware! Play your games anywhere, at any time! And yet the reality, at least for now, is a labyrinth of potential pitfalls. Does Google Stadia work?

Sure, under the right circumstances and with the right game. Will it work for you, though? That’s a harder question, or rather a hundred questions, any one of which could prove fatal to Stadia’s chances.

Let’s dig in.

The best case scenario

Come November 19, those who anted up £119/$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 £8.99/$9.99-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.

Consider the Chromecast Ultra the “Best Case Scenario” for testing, then. Specifically, a Chromecast Ultra wired directly into your router, with solid download speeds (500Mbps in my case) in a home near one of Google’s Edge Nodes. I’ve conducted most of my Google Stadia review in this manner, and you know what?

It works.

Google Stadia review servers

That’s a loose term, of course—and therein lies the problem. Google Stadia is bound to be divisive because the definition of what’s “Good Enough” varies person to person. Are we comparing Stadia to the streaming services that came before, to OnLive and to PlayStation Now? Or are we comparing it to consoles and PCs? Hell, I find myself torn between these different lines of thought.

If we’re comparing against the standards of other for-pay game streaming services, Stadia is a rousing success. I’m particularly shocked how responsive it feels. Even the games I was most skeptical of at first proved surprisingly playable in an ideal network environment. Google provided access to Destiny 2 and Mortal Kombat 11 during our review period, and I found I could consistently (with a slight muscle memory adjustment) line up headshots and tap in combos, respectively. It looks good, too! Not great. Not on par with a high-end PC. But only the occasional compression artifact gives away the gambit, provided your connection’s good enough to stream at 4K.

So much of Google’s messaging is aimed at holding Stadia to an impossible standard though. The way Google’s pitched it, Stadia is The Future, and The Future can’t just be “pretty good for a streaming service.” The Future can’t be “playable.” It has to be indistinguishable from running a game locally. Better, even.

Google Stadia review controller

It’s not, and might never be. But if that’s Google’s end-goal, then every stutter is a letdown. Every blurry background or compression artifact becomes an indictment of the entire platform. The thrill of “Wow, I’m running Destiny 2 off a server 40 miles away and it works surprisingly well!” is no longer enough.

And I’d be perplexed how to handle this duality in a review, except it’s the least of Stadia’s issues.

Scaffolding

A baffling amount of the Stadia experience is still a work-in-progress. So much, in fact, I’m hard-pressed to explain why Google didn’t simply lock off the rest until a later date.

A PC is probably the best setup after the Chromecast, and if you participated in Google’s tests last year then it will feel familiar. Games are accessed through Chrome, popping a full-screen window over your browser. It’s slick, basically indistinguishable from running a game natively in borderless windowed mode.

Trouble is, 4K streaming is locked to the Chromecast at launch, as I said. The PC is limited to 1080p, and it’s an ugly 1080p. The compression artifacts, already noticeable on a Chromecast at the maximum streaming quality, are omnipresent on PC. It’s a definite issue in dark environments, and can even be spotted on Destiny 2’s “Destination” menu.

Google Stadia review haunted forest

Still, there’s a novelty to running these games on devices that shouldn’t be able to run them. Got a cheap laptop at home? Hook it up to an ethernet cable, pop open Chrome, plug in a mouse or the Stadia controller (or an Xbox controller for that matter) and you could be running a pretty good facsimile of Destiny 2 or Red Dead Redemption II or Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. That’s the real promise of Stadia, and when 4K support is added to the Chrome version in 2020 it could prove pretty interesting.

Phones are a disaster though. Even if you’ve purchased the Founder’s Edition, at launch Stadia only supports Pixel 2, 3/3a, and 4 devices. That’s it, so...I hope you own one. Given how many phones run Android, I cannot believe Google didn’t even prep the 2019 flagships for release day.

The phone is also the weakest Stadia environment, which is a shame because it has the most promise. Who doesn’t want to play Red Dead Redemption II on a phone, right? Or take Destiny 2 with them on vacation by packing just a controller in their bag? Performance is inconsistent though, even on Wi-Fi. Half a second latency was the norm, and while I didn’t have any serious connection issues with a laptop, the phone dropped frames, stuttered, even displayed a “Lost Connection” symbol at times.

To make matters worse, many games are unplayable at phone size. People complain about Nintendo Switch games and unreadable text, but just try and play Red Dead Redemption II on a 5in screen. I dare you. It’s not just text either. Interactive items, button displays, it’s all microscopic.

Google Stadia review interface

And the controller barely works as advertised. That’s probably the weirdest part of this whole mess. When Google announced Stadia, a highlight was that you could switch between devices on-the-fly. Say you’re playing on your Chromecast, you could seamlessly transition to your phone at the push of a button.

In theory, this can still occur. The Stadia app lets you change which screen the game is displayed on, and I’ve pushed Mortal Kombat 11 from my TV to my phone mid-fight before. Neat.

The controller doesn’t go with it though. It’s supposed to connect not to any single device but to your WiFi, then relay commands directly to Google’s servers to cut latency. That happens when you’re connected to the Chromecast, but phones and PCs need to be connected to the controller directly with a USB-C cable.

The PC, whatever. I’m just sitting at my desk anyway. The phone situation is absurd though, requiring you first attach a mount to the Stadia controller, then put your phone in the mount, then wire the two together. It’s an unwieldy hydra, and made more confusing because - again - Google intentionally limited the hardware pool to its own line of phones.

Google Stadia review phone holder

It’s a shame because the controller itself is great. The design is a hybrid of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One controllers, marrying horizontal sticks to sculpted grips and the A/B/X/Y buttons. Battery life is better than a DualShock 4, the battery charges fast over USB-C, and I’ve generally enjoyed using it. For a first attempt? Great.

But why is it only half functional?

Game selection

Google initially announced that Stadia would launch alongside a dozen games. A week later, the number was upped to 22. Neither list is all that impressive, with only a single exclusive: Gylt, developed by Tequila Works. Given we’re at the end of the release season, that means most of Stadia’s lineup is old - either a few months, or in some cases a few years. I don’t have much to say about that situation, but it’s not making me want to rush out and buy anything for Stadia.

And you have to. I think that’s worth reiterating, because there is a Stadia Pro subscription and I get the feeling most people still expect some sort of Netflix-for-Games. That’s not Stadia. Stadia Pro does get you copies of Destiny 2 and Samurai Shodown at launch, with more free games teased for the future. It also gets you the occasional discount, like $30 off Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.

Google Stadia review controller and box

It does not get you an Xbox Game Pass-style lineup though. Many games, like Red Dead Redemption II, are the same price (or more) on Stadia as they are elsewhere. You are buying a version that is locked to Google’s servers, and could conceivably disappear entirely if Stadia shuts down.

I remain incredulous that Google took this approach. Microsoft’s already said its competing streaming service, Project xCloud, is coming to Xbox Game Pass (which includes PCs) next year. That’s 100-plus games available for $15 a month. Stadia’s subscription is paltry by comparison - required at launch, but only because there is no free version yet, and then at some point it’ll be the only way to get 4K streaming and 5.1 surround sound. Those are worthwhile, but $10 a month worthwhile? Meh.

Anyway, we had access to about a half-dozen games during our test period and I have a few thoughts that haven’t already been covered elsewhere.

Destiny 2: As I mentioned, Destiny 2 is surprisingly playable - at least in theory. What I haven’t gotten around to discussing yet is that it’s cross-save compatible, but not cross-play. In other words, you can bring your existing Destiny 2 characters over to Google Stadia but it’s a sandboxed version of the game that only exists for Stadia players.

It’s no wonder Google’s giving away free copies of Destiny 2 to everyone who preordered the Founder’s and Premiere Editions, because if they didn’t there would be nobody playing. And indeed, that’s how our review period has gone. I’ve spent the past week running around empty planets and visiting an empty Tower and trying to complete the Haunted Forest on my own and it has been very weird.

I’ll be curious whether the population picks up after Stadia’s released, but it’s hard to imagine it ever being as vibrant as the existing console or PC versions.

Red Dead Redemption II: I was particularly curious to try out Red Dead Redemption II given that we struggled to run it at 1080p on an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti. Unshackled by local hardware constraints, could Google Stadia run Red Dead better than a high-end PC? And the answer is, not really. It’s hard to do an A/B comparison given the variables at play, but the Stadia version’s lighting seemed flatter, and the otherworldly fog effects that left me slack-jawed on PC were undercut by omnipresent compression artifacts.

Load times were faster though! And besides, it was Red Dead Redemption II streamed to a £69/$69 Chromecast. That’s pretty impressive in its own right.

I also think games like Red Dead are a better proof-of-concept for Stadia because they’re not as reliant on tight timing windows as shooters, fighting games, and the other genres Google seems hellbent on proving it can conquer. Red Dead’s shooting suffers still, but its movement is so heavy and momentum-based that a delay of a few milliseconds barely registers. It’s the same reason Assassin’s Creed Odyssey worked so well for those early Stadia tests.

Kine: Another genre that fares great in streaming: puzzles games. Kine isn’t a great puzzle game, but I spent a lot of time playing it this week because it didn’t matter how well Stadia performed.

It’s basically a block-moving puzzler, locked to a grid, with a catchy soundtrack. Playing it local on my PC or on my phone via Stadia provided precisely the same experience. More of this, please.

Gylt: Lastly, the lone Stadia exclusive. I like Tequila Works. I like Gylt. From what I played, it seemed like a brave attempt to tackle bullying and other weighty themes within the confines of a stealth game.

Google Stadia review Gylt

But I cannot imagine who decided to make the lone Google Stadia exclusive a game that takes place almost exclusively in the dark. Blotchy shadows almost completely ruin the experience, even on the Chromecast where I had the most luck avoiding compression artifacts. I want to play it, but not like this.

Data caps

Before we end, a word on data caps. That’s the other part that gives me pause about Stadia. Many people in America, myself included, have a 1TB cap on our monthly internet. Go over that twice in a year, you get a warning. Go over it again, and Comcast at least forces you to pay an extra $50 a month on top of your standard internet bill.

It’s a problem even for standard game downloads nowadays. Red Dead Redemption II came in around 150GB, I think. That’s huge, and publishers should absolutely be lobbying against these punitive measures by Internet providers.

Google Stadia review streaming

But Google should be even more worried. By Google’s own math, 4K streaming requires up to 20GB of data per hour. If we take the average Red Dead Redemption II playthrough of 75 hours, Stadia would burn through up to 1.5TB of data before the end.

Stadia simply isn’t a good choice for most people with metered internet, especially those with multiple players under one roof. 10 hours here, 10 hours there, it adds up incredibly fast—and that’s before you factor in Netflix, HBO, Spotify, or any other streaming services you might use.

Bottom line

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.

Whether or not Google turns Stadia into a long-term success, it’s hard not to feel they botched the launch. The underlying tech is great, but everything else half-works, or works only in specific situations, or it’s “coming soon.”

I can’t imagine this is what Google had in mind when it put on that splashy unveiling event at GDC. If it is, then that raises even more questions.