Well Google Stadia is here and I’ve had some time to play with it over the past week and or two. My experience, so far, has been neither great nor terrible.
Before we get into my impressions, let’s talk about what Stadia is and how it works, and why so many people have justifiably raised questions over both its viability and Google’s commitment to the project.
How Stadia Works
Stadia is Google’s foray into game streaming. You purchase the Stadia controller and, if you plan to play on your TV, a Google ChromeCast. The Stadia controller connects to your TV via ChromeCast wirelessly over WiFi. At the moment, in order to play on your phone, tablet or PC, you have to have the controller connected via a USB-C cable.
Once you’ve connected the controller to a screen, you’ll use the Stadia app on your phone to start playing games. Well, you’ll use the app to switch back and forth between your phone and TV and any other non-PC device. To play on PC you go to the Stadia website and login there, and once you’ve plugged in a controller you can start playing.
So, for instance, I was able to start playing Red Dead Redemption 2 on my HP Spectre x360 and then, mid-game, unplug the controller and walk over to my TV where I used my phone to start playing it there instead, and then I was able to switch directly over to my phone after that.
In some ways, Stadia is like the Nintendo Switch in this regard. You can play a game “docked” to your TV or you can take it with you on your phone or laptop.
Unlike the Switch, Stadia games don’t download to any of these devices. They’re all streamed via the cloud. This is also handy, in some respects, since you don’t have to waste precious storage space on all these devices. You don’t need a traditional “console” to hook up to your TV, just the much less expensive ChromeCast which is part of the Stadia Premiere package that costs $129—significantly less expensive than any modern console. We’ll get into the pricing stuff more down below.
Let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly of Google’s new game-streaming service which, despite how that sounds, is decidedly not the Netflix of video games.
I suppose the best thing I can say about Stadia is that it works better than I thought it would, especially after hearing so many negative early reports. That you can play games like Destiny 2 or Mortal Kombat 11 on your TV, PC, mobile phone and tablet fairly seamlessly is undoubtedly pretty cool. And it works surprisingly well.
Games don’t really need to cross-save across these devices, either, since it’s just one save file in the cloud regardless of where you play. This also means you only need to purchase a game once to play it on whichever device you please.
Meanwhile, the Stadia controller will work the same whether you’re playing on your 4K TV or your Pixel phone.
Actually, that’s another thing about Stadia I quite like: The controller is very reminiscent of an Xbox One controller, and it feels great in-hand. It’s a well-designed gamepad—hopefully the rest of the service can catch up to that level of quality.
Gameplay itself is mostly quite good. I haven’t experienced some of the issues other reviewers have with lag and stuttering, outside of the very occasional hiccup. For the most part, combat and platforming and other mechanics across the games I’ve played has worked very well.
Performance, for me at least, has been fairly good, overall. I’m honestly surprised by the relative lack of lag in online games like Destiny 2 and Mortal Kombat 11, though I don’t think any serious competitive gamer would be wise to play either of those titles on Stadia rather than traditional consoles or PC, since any bit of lag is a massive disadvantage.
It’s startling to see something like Red Dead Redemption 2 play this sharp on my phone and my HP non-gaming laptop. There’s no way it could run this game natively and look anywhere near this good.
On the other hand . . .
Stadia becomes much less impressive once you’re not playing on devices that can’t normally handle these kind of graphics. It’s one thing to fire up RDR2 on my little ultra-book and marvel at the quality. It’s another to fire up the Stadia version on my gaming desktop or 4k LG OLED TV.
The fact is, games do not look as good on Stadia as they do on a gaming PC or modern-day console. Even though Red Dead looks much better than I expected, it still doesn’t match the sheer beauty of the game on Xbox One X or PC. Same goes for Destiny 2, which seems to run quite well but is decidedly more aliased.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider also ran fairly well, but it looked surprisingly muddy compared to versions of the game I’ve played on Xbox One X and PC. I haven’t played it on PS4, but I’ve played previous Tomb Raider games on that system and they looked far less muddy than Stadia’s version. And muddy is the best word I can think of to describe it. The game just looks much, much less clear than it ought to.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider I played mostly on Stadia via my gaming desktop. I had an ultra-wide monitor hooked up at the time, which Stadia doesn’t support. Also, you’ll find graphics settings very limited on Stadia, since the one version works the same across all devices. While RDR2 has lots of settings to tweak, none of these have to do with graphical quality. Shadow of the Tomb Raider has only brightness and gamma to adjust.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider also presented me with a unique problem I didn’t have with any other game (so far) in my Stadia testing: Even though the controller was hooked up via USB-C to my very new gaming PC, two times in as many hours it simply stopped registering. Lara Croft would run into a wall or off a nearby ledge and I’d scramble to turn the gamepad off and back on, which seemed to resync it. Notably, this was during wired play, not wireless, which means at the very least it wasn’t a battery issue.
Mostly, the “bad” stuff relating to Stadia so far has been the system’s subpar graphics (which I still find surprisingly good for a streaming service) and the occasional controller hiccup.
I’ll add to this the system’s relatively finicky setup process, which I found confusing even with instructions. You need to setup the ChromeCast on your Google Home app before setting up the Stadia app, and then the app didn’t recognize my gamepad and it was a bit of a process just to figure out how to get the whole thing up and running. I’m a pretty tech savvy person, also, so I can only imagine more novice consumers trying to set it up. Either that or I was having an off day. Regardless, a more simplified, streamlined setup would be nice.
On to the real problems, of which there are a few . . .
The two biggest problems with Stadia at this point in time are it pricing model and its online community—or lack thereof.
We’ll start with the community. The two main games I played online in an attempt to see how this whole thing would work were Destiny 2 and Red Dead Online and, briefly, Mortal Kombat 11.
The issue I had with these games was not how they played or looked—with the right pricing model, I’d happily sacrifice a bit of graphics quality, and imagine that performance would improve over time. No, the real issue was simply finding anyone to play with.
During the pre-release review window, Google had setup specific times to play with other players. But I wanted to test it out in the wild, after launch. Much to my dismay, attempting to start a Strike in Destiny 2 resulted in me . . . just waiting endlessly for matchmaking. The Crucible was no better. After waiting several minutes for a game on more than one occasion, I decided that I probably wasn’t going to be able to play PvP Destiny 2 on Stadia. I saw other players here and there, but there must not have been enough to populate any kind of viable online game. So story missions, patrols and the like were all I could test out.
The very first co-op mission in Red Dead Online tasks you and three other players with stealing horses and getting them back to the stables. This is right before you can free-roam and join PvP matches and other activities. After several minutes of waiting, the mission started with a team of one—yours truly and no online companions. At least I was able to play it solo, which was fine.
When you get past this bit and some story stuff, you can play all the various modes Red Dead Online has to offer. I tried matchmaking into several different PvP modes with no luck. Apparently Red Dead Online on Stadia is as empty as Destiny 2.
Maybe this has to do with the fact that you need to purchase these games as full-price retail titles rather than as part of some kind of monthly subscription service, a la Xbox Game Pass. It’s very puzzling, honestly, since Google is offering a Stadia Pro subscription for ten bucks a month, which apparently lets you play games at a higher quality than non-subscribers. I’m not sure what the difference is since part of my review setup is a year of Pro (since it’s a Founder’s Edition).
I assumed, initially, that this would include a bunch of games, but it only included Destiny 2. Other titles will release for free on a ‘regular basis’ but what those are remains to be seen.
Compare this to Xbox Game Pass which costs $10/month but has dozens and dozens of games included as part of the subscription. If that were the case with Stadia, I think more people would be purchasing it. The fact is, with your Pro subscription for $10/month right now all you get is Destiny 2. You’ll need to purchase every other game at full price. You’ll still save money on the console, but unless you’re really itching to play these games on multiple screens, it’s still a tough sell.
It’s an even tougher sell due to the lack of any kind of online community in games like RDO and Destiny 2. Maybe that will change as more players buy into Stadia, but also maybe not. Already we’re hearing that Stadia is DOA, and whether that remains the case depends largely on Google and how the company handles its post-launch strategy.
I think the promise of Stadia is admirable. To be able to forego expensive hardware and simply focus on the software is a nice thought and one that could save gamers quite a bit of money. And it’s remarkable how well it actually works. Actual combat in RDR2 works just fine. Aim-assist is great. The game plays much like it does elsewhere. You just can’t find anyone to play online with. Same with Destiny 2.
Unless you have some friends with Stadia setups, good luck. Of course, on the other hand, if you did have a group of friends with Stadia you could all play together fairly easily since you don’t have to have the same systems. I could be on my phone and my buddies could be on their TVs and laptops and we’d all be playing the exact same game. That’s a neat idea, and I hope with some tweaks to the model Google can revive this thing.
Then there’s the fact that Stadia only offers a very small number of games—42 in total, compared to hundreds or thousands on other systems—and while that will increase over time, one has to ask whether this is the platform you want to be playing those games on in the first place. Yes, it works better than I expected it would. No, that does not make it a compelling purchase at this stage in the game.
The fact is, Stadia wasn’t ready for prime time quite yet. It needed to bake a little longer. The holidays made Google jump the gun and I think that was a mistake. On top of performance issues and lack of players, there are missing features. No wireless controller support on PC or mobile is baffling.
The capture function is simple—a button to capture screenshots or video clips right there on the controller within easy reach of your right thumb—but the screens and clips are saved to the Stadia app and I can find no clear way of actually sharing them. There’s no share button at all within the app, even to share to social media or email to myself. I took some very pretty screenshots of RDR2 but they are for my eyes only, apparently. This seems like a feature that definitely should have been included at launch given the importance of sharing in today’s social world.
Stadia needed a strong launch with great word-of-mouth and glowing reactions from critics. Instead, it got mixed reviews, and by “mixed” I mean it got relatively lukewarm-to-positive reviews like mine, to downright scornful takes like this review from my colleauge Paul Tassi, whose experience with Stadia appears to have been much worse than mine.
For my part, I plan to continue to test Google’s system and see where it goes. What free games will be released? What will happen with these empty online games like Destiny 2? In a month or two will I be able to play in the Crucible, or will it be even more of a ghost town than before?
We’ll see. For now, Stadia is an intriguing yet deeply flawed system. It was the promise of the future, but perhaps that future is still a lot further off than Google hoped. The PS5 and Xbox Scarlett release next year. For some reason, I doubt that they’ll have the same issues with player-base despite the heftier price-tags.
Do you have a Stadia? What do you make of it so far? What’s your experience with these games been like? Let me know on Twitter or Facebook.