Google pitched its Stadia cloud gaming platform as an industry disruptor that would change the way we play in the next generation. With the ability to switch seamlessly between the Chromecast Ultra plugged into your TV, your Google Pixel smartphone, and a Chrome browser, Stadia mostly delivers on its promise of letting you play the latest releases on any screen you want. And while cloud gaming technology isn’t a new idea — see: Blade Shadow and Project xCloud — Stadia is the best proof of concept yet.
It’s a shame, then, that its initial lineup of games and lack of launch features holds it back from being a day 1 must-buy. In fact, it’s hard to recommend Stadia to people who already have current-gen consoles or gaming PCs. Barring the ability to stream AAA games like Destiny 2, Red Dead Redemption 2, and Shadow of the Tomb Raider on a smartphone, there’s not much to set Stadia apart as a gaming platform in its current state.
There’s been a lot of talk over the past year about who Stadia is for. At launch, the answer seems clear: consumers who strive to be early adopters of new gaming technology, those players who avoided current-gen games altogether because of the cost of new consoles and high-end gaming rigs, and people who own a Google Pixel phone and want to take their games on the go.
After a week with a Stadia reviewer’s kit — complete with the Stadia controller, a Chromecast Ultra, and the Google Pixel 3a XL — I’m most impressed with the cloud technology itself. Playing on Stadia feels more streamlined and intuitive than competitors like Shadow, which offers the same type of connectivity between different screens and a full Windows 10 experience that sets it apart, but doesn’t have a gaming-specific platform that’s as easy-to-use as Google’s (that’s hopefully changing in 2020, though). In comparison, switching between your TV screen and your smartphone during a session of Destiny 2 or Red Dead Redemption 2 on Stadia with minimal load times is nothing short of a revelation.
My kit included seven games — Destiny 2, Red Dead Redemption 2, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Just Dance 2020, Kine, Mortal Kombat 11, and exclusive launch title Gylt — but I spent the most time with the first three titles, the perfect subjects to test Stadia’s social and multiplayer capabilities, its ability to render massive open worlds, and its advanced HDR option. Red Dead Redemption 2‘s lush forest environments still look beautiful on Stadia’s highest graphics settings, while lighting in Shadow of the Tomb Raider remains impressive. Most importantly, multiplayer on Destiny 2 works well despite the reliance on each player’s internet speed, although I have to note that I spent the least amount of time with multiplayer (only 2 hours of Gambit), as there weren’t enough players to populate a match during most of the reviewer period.
I played each game on three different screens, including on my own Acer Chromebook 15, and found that Stadia worked better on some devices than others. Destiny 2, for example, displayed higher framerates and virtually no lag on the Chromecast Ultra and the Google Pixel 3a XL, which have been optimized with the latest firmware to support the Stadia platform. In fact, the game looks better streaming through Stadia on my TV than it ever has on my Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
Streaming at the highest 4K resolutions comes with a caveat, though: it’s only available to Stadia Pro subscribers with a 4K TV (4K for Web is coming in 2020) and can eat up to 20 GBs per hour of data depending on the game, potentially putting a chokehold on other devices connected on your home network through wi-fi or ethernet. I used the service on a broadband network with a 200 Mbps internet speed — more than enough for the 35 Mbps needed to stream 4K games — but it’s something to consider if you don’t have a beefy broadband connection. Fortunately, you’re able to cap your data usage at 10 Mbps for 720p resolution if need be. Additionally, those users hoping to run Stadia on a mobile connection won’t be able to. You’ll need a steady wi-fi connection for mobile gaming, too.
It’s also important to note that Stadia only streams on the Chromecast Ultras included in the Founder’s bundle, with a firmware update coming to existing Chromecast Ultras at a later date, which means you won’t be able to play Stadia on your TV at launch unless you paid for the $130 kit or are able to connect or cast a PC or mobile device to your TV. Likewise, Stadia mobile streaming is only available on Google Pixel 2, 3, 3a, and 4 phones at launch, meaning you’ll have to wait to play Destiny 2 on your iPad for a bit longer (those looking to play on a tablet screen can do so through the browser on a Chrome OS tablet). These are obviously expensive barriers to entry, but Google will begin to roll out additional device support in the coming months.
Luckily, Stadia Pro subscribers ($9.99 a month) not willing to cough up $130 for the Founder’s edition or a Pixel phone can still use the service on PC. Unfortunately, playing on Stadia on my Chromebook is where the technology started to show its wrinkles. While it’s incredibly impressive to be able to play games as demanding as Destiny 2 and Red Dead Redemption 2 on a modest Chromebook at all (mine only has 4 GB of RAM and no dedicated graphics card), there were a few instances when the stream would stop or stutter or suffer big framerate drops. Even playing right next to my wi-fi router gave me issues at times. I was able to get through sessions experiencing only minor annoyances for the most part, and complaining about framerate drops on an inexpensive Chromebook is admittedly a nitpick, but it’s clear Google still has some work to do to make good on its promise to deliver high-end gaming on any screen at any time.
PC gamers used to being able to customize graphics settings to fit their system — or in this case, internet speed — will find little of that sort of flexibility on Stadia, which only really allows you to choose between three graphics options only through the platform’s UI on mobile (more on this in a minute): “Best visual quality” for the aforementioned 4K resolution; “Balanced,” which allows Stadia to choose the best settings for you based on your connection; and “Limited data usage,” which caps the resolution at 720p. This lack of customization shouldn’t bother the average user, especially if they have the bandwidth to run the 4K option, but more hardcore gamers may miss the ability to DIY the graphics settings.
As I mentioned, I was only able to play around with the data usage and performance settings on the Stadia app on my Pixel phone, while the same options were unavailable on Chromecast and Chrome, which makes the service’s UI feel a little counterintuitive. This wasn’t the only instance of being able to access certain settings on one device and not the other. Capturing screenshots on your Chromecast with the Stadia controller automatically sends the images to your mobile app, with no option to view them on your TV or browser that I could find. It didn’t help that I couldn’t find the images on my Pixel, either. The problem might be that this feature hasn’t fully rolled out yet (image sharing won’t be available at launch), but that doesn’t change the fact that navigating Stadia’s menus can be a little confusing.
Meanwhile, the Stadia controller is about as easy-to-use as it gets. Pairing it to your Chromecast for the first time is a cinch, an easier wireless setup than even console controllers. Since the controller connects to your Stadia games through your home wi-fi, you’ll eventually be able to seamlessly switch between screens and take your controller with you without the hassle of wires. But that’s in 2020. For now, you can use your controller wirelessly on the Chromecast and with a wired connection on PC and mobile. Luckily, you can also pair your DualShock and Xbox One controllers to these devices through Bluetooth. I played Red Dead Redemption 2 on Stadia with my DualShock controller and it worked great.
As for the feel of the Stadia controller itself, the peripheral can perhaps be best described as a hybrid of the Xbox One and Switch Pro controllers. It’s not heavy but feels sturdy and smooth with textured grips. It has a USB-C port at the top and a 3.5mm headphone jack at the bottom — using headphones for Chromecast, mobile, and Chrome play works well, although I had a little trouble with the mobile setup at first. All of the traditional buttons are accounted for, including left and right triggers and shoulder buttons, along with “Options” and “Menu” buttons. There’s also a “Capture” button that lets you snap screenshots as you play and a Google Assistant button that lets you search things like walkthroughs and Let’s Plays while gaming. The controller is designed to make your path to the platform’s plethora of (future) features as direct as possible, and I can’t wait to see all of this working with the click of a few buttons.
Once it rolls out its more revolutionary features and builds up its game library, Stadia could very well become an excellent third option for consumers, and perhaps a driving force in the push towards truly “box-less” gaming. A platform you can use without a console or high-end PC? It can work, but only if Stadia can offer experiences that more traditional machines cannot. One major challenge for the console will be platform exclusives, of which it has only one at launch. Gylt, Tequila Works’ spooky puzzler for Stadia, is indeed fun, but it lacks the profile and flash of its competitor’s biggest first-party titles. Can Google’s very own, recently established game studios create something on par with a Halo or God of War that you can only play on Stadia? That remains to be seen. And with Microsoft already working on a similar cloud gaming service that will be supported by Xbox’s already massive library and the Xbox Game Pass subscription service, it’s no secret that Stadia’s biggest struggle will be on the games side. Why should players buy games on Stadia when they can play the same games on platforms they already own? That’s an answer Google will have to provide if Stadia is to be successful.
While Stadia isn’t without its flaws, there are plenty of things Google will be able to improve over time. There’s a sense that the service isn’t fully formed yet, with many of Stadia’s most highly touted features unavailable at launch. During the review period, I was unable to test out things like voice and party chat and the Google Assistant feature. Both of these features will be available at launch, although joining parties and party chat on mobile won’t be available until 2020.
Other features not coming to Stadia at launch include: the achievement system, the Buddy Pass that lets you gift a three-month subscription to a friend, and multiplayer innovations such as Crowd Play, Stream Connect, and State Share. Most of these features will finally roll out in 2020. That said, without these features that could make Stadia a truly unique service that can seamlessly connect us all through the games we love, and gives players access to high-end gaming no matter the device, it’s really difficult to recommend the platform in 2019.
Google Stadia launches on Nov. 19.