Google Stadia Review: A Future of Uncertainty

Posted on November 26, 2019 by Brad Sams in Games, Google Stadia with 22 Comments

Google is trying to break into a market that is made up of gamers who are fiercely loyal to their platform. You have Sony fans and Xbox fans who are in a perpetual cold war about trying to prove which device is better while Nintendo hangs out on the sidelines gobbling up sales thanks to a lucrative IP catalog.

Enter Stadia, a new way to play games without the need for purchasing an expensive console and Google is making big claims about 4K gaming anywhere. On paper, Stadia looks fantastic and there are parts of the service that truly are, ahem, ‘game-changing’, but it’s a future that’s almost here and it feels like Google rushed this one out of the gate to be able to yell, “FIRST”.

Last week, my Stadia Founders edition arrived which nets you a controller, Chromecast Ultra, two charging cables, and three months of Stadia Pro, for about $130. There are two tiers of Staida, Free and Pro, with Pro allowing for higher quality streaming and a few other perks. If you stick with the free option, you will be limited to 1080P.

The idea of Stadia sounds simple, you buy your game on Stadia and then you can play it on any device at any time. But there are a couple major hurdles that underline this claim that make it feel like Google rushed this service out the door.

First, you need a solid Internet connection, at least 10 Mbps, which will deliver 720p video with stereo sound and that scales up to at least 35Mbps for 4k streaming. And then there are data issues, an hour gaming at 4k can absorb around 4GB of data; game wisely here folks. And then there is the hardware issue, right now Stadia only works with the included Chromecast Ultra or a Pixel phone, no other iOS/Android devices are supported yet; you can also play in the browser.

The hardware limitations, while a bit odd for a service that is not launching in beta, will eventually be relaxed but it does diminish some of the magic of the service. As of right now, Stadia is more restricted on where you can’t play than where you can play.

And then there is the purchasing of games. Right now, you can only play titles in the Stadia library which is about 20 titles – none of which are AAA exclusives which means if you are playing Stadia, you are actively choosing the experience over that of a console or on your PC. And if you bought a bunch of games on Steam/Xbox/PS4, you are forced to re-buy them on Stadia; walled-gardens are a serious problem in the gaming world.

There is also an issue with the resolution of games, Stadia promises 4k but as we have learned, it’s not really 4k. Sometimes it might be 4k, other times it’s the Chromecast doubling the pixels to make it look like 4k. Whatever the reason, just know that the streaming quality is not ‘true’ 4k gaming, despite Google making huge claims that their data centers are more powerful than an Xbox One X or PS4 Pro.

I know it feels like I am harping on all the downsides for Stadia, and it’s true, there are a lot of barriers to making this service a success for Google. It’s a huge bet on a highly competitive market but there are some glimmers of light shining through all of the issues.

Stadia in the browser is a unique experience. It’s somewhat like driving an electric car for the first time. What I mean is that you login to Stadia, pick your game, hit play and it…works. The game goes fullscreen and the latency on the PC is much less than that with the Chromecast configuration, and the process is seamless. This is where Stadia shines right now, in the browser and on a PC.

I played Destiny single-player for a couple of hours and it’s more than playable, it’s enjoyable. The input lag was not an issue and I could run around and have fun without really thinking about how I was playing the game. In short, Stadia on the PC for a single player is more than acceptable and this may be Google’s future (for now).

Online play, on the PC, was another story. Trying to get into a multiplayer match takes around 10 minutes and if you hit that 10-minute barrier, an error message pops up and says you have been timed out. It’s clear that Destiny on Stadia has a small userbase and playing multiplayer games is not a viable option yet; this is a chicken and egg problem.

Google needs people to sign up for Stadia and play Destiny but why would you play Destiny on Stadia when no one else is playing Destiny on Stadia?

One thing that is worth pointing out on the PC is that the graphics are noticeably sub-par compared to native play. Google has already been called out for lying about the specs of the streams and it’s quite obvious that the graphics are being scaled down to make this service possible. If you are looking for the best possible Destiny experience, local play will be the preferred option for now and likely many years into the future.

The other thing to know is that playing with the controller and Chromecast Ultra has a lot, and I mean a lot more latency than playing in a browser. Playing in the browser almost feels like the game is running locally, with the controller and Chromecast, it’s clear that the game is streaming and latency does become an issue.

Stadia is great for someone who doesn’t own a console or doesn’t have a modestly-powerful PC to play games. The flexibility in playing on some devices is great but the experience can vary widely depending on the setup. There is something magical about clicking play in a browser and having the game fire up without much overhead but the number of restrictions, at this time, with Stadia makes the process more limited than one might expect.

The thing is, I want Stadia to succeed. More competition in the gaming space is better for everyone, but Stadia was promised to open up gaming to everyone but right now, it’s restricted heavily. This feels more like a beta release than a public offering.

While gaming with the Chromecast and controller, the latency is nearly identical to Microsoft’s xCloud, which is not a good sign for Google. Microsoft has a back-catalog that spans decades and with similar technology, xCloud is a feature of Gamepass, whereas Stadia streaming is the product. Why would you buy Stadia when GamePass nets you hundreds of games, the same streaming capabilities, and the same portability? Google needs a magic sauce for Stadia but so far, I have yet to see anything that puts it miles ahead of xCloud which is still in preview.

At this time, it’s hard to recommend Stadia to anyone. Google has a lot of work to do, primarily on the front of the titles as I can’t quite yet justify buying a game on Stadia over Steam/Xbox/PlayStation. But, Google does have the start of something here and if they have the ability to ride this out and invest the dollars needed to make the platform a success, this could be a huge win down the road.

But, the biggest unknown is Google’s commitment. Yes, they launched this month but will the company ride this service out for a few years to find success? Unfortunately for Google, they have a long uphill battle ahead of them and they don’t have a solid past of sticking with services that aren’t a success on day one.

 

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