As the Game Developers Conference unfolded back in March I watched in a mixture of awe, excitement, and trepidation as Google formally unveiled Stadia to the world. Their cloud-based gaming platform promised to deliver high-end calibur PC graphics and performance to basically any screen. That’s an enticing proposition until you think about it for longer than 2 minutes. Who is Stadia really supposed to be for? Could I, someone who owns every platform under the sun, find any lasting value with it? Curiosity got the better of me back in August when I plunked down for a Founders Edition. I’ve had a few days to mess around with Stadia, and I’m ready to share some impressions.
As a disclaimer, I’m in no way a techie. I wouldn’t consider this a super deep technical evaluation on the service outside of detailing my internet setup for context. Instead, think of this piece as more as an experienced layman’s take on Stadia.
Stadia officially launched Monday, November 19. However, if you’ve been privy to the platform’s distribution issues, you’ll be unsurprised to learn that I didn’t receive my unlock code and Founder’s Edition bundle (which packages the Stadia controller and Chromecast Ultra) until Thursday, the 21st. That didn’t irk me nearly as much as many other adopters except for one issue. Stadia’s largely tepid critical reception didn’t exactly have me clamoring for it on Day One. However, getting first dibs on a screen name was one of Google’s major selling points for shelling out $130 bucks months beforehand. Now, I’ve never been much for screen names. I tend to use the same moniker across multiple platforms for ease of memory. But I did like the idea of scoring handle without a numerical differentiation at the end. I could be the SundanceKid as opposed to SundanceKid1987, a mere copy. Feel free to follow me, by the way.
Alas, because Google made sure I was late to the party, SundanceKid proper had already been taken. I’d love to know who else out there appreciates Butch Cassidy enough to spring for that name, let alone so early. I am SundanceKid1987 once again on Stadia. I suppose it was always meant to be.
Feeling around a new controller is always my most anticipated part of any console release. It’s like wrapping your hands around the steering wheel of a new car; this vehicle just exists within the ether of the cloud. To my mild surprise, I’m happy to report that the Stadia gamepad feels quite nice. It has a solid weight and build quality. The buttons have a satisfying clickiness to them, and their layout feels warm and familiar. Outside of adding two extra buttons in the middle, one of which is the currently useless Google Assistant, Stadia doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. If anything, its ergonomics make it feel like the lovechild of the DualShock 4 and the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller. I even dig the navy blue/orange color scheme. I took a photo for comparison to the other three major controllers:
Before I get to the experience itself, let me lay out what I’m working with internet-wise. Bear with me as I rarely dig into the nitty gritty with this stuff so if I’m overlooking crucial information, I apologize. My home has both 2.4 ghz and 5 ghz connections; Stadia requires the latter speed to work. My download speed averages about 65 Mbps. Google’s speed test deems this as a “Great” connection that should yield a “high performance” gaming experience. My entertainment system also sits about four feet away from the router. I have an ethernet cable, which I plugged into my Chromecast Ultra. I also played over traditional wi-fi to look for differences.
The Founders Edition throws in copies of Destiny 2: The Collection and Samurai Shodown. I fired up the latter first. I hadn’t yet played the latest entry in the long-running series but a fighting game offered a great first test of Stadia’s latency. Though I hesitate to say it appeared in 4K (my eyes aren’t as discerning barring some glaring discrepancies), the game performed remarkably well. I felt like there was a thin layer of sluggishness but since I’ve never played Samurai Shodown outside of Stadia, I can’t say if this is a Stadia problem or if its just how the game performs in general.
I have, however, poured countless hours into Destiny 2, making it ripe for scrutiny. As reported by multiple outlets, this version does not output in native 4K has Google had repeatedly claimed all of its titles would. The game still looks good, but as someone who primarily plays Destiny 2 on an Xbox One X with a 4K display, even my largely oblivious eyes noticed the graphical downgrade. Where Stadia does deliver on its promise, though, is the framerate. Destiny 2 consistently ran at a smooth 60 frames per second–a significant upgrade over the locked 30 fps on the console versions. Plus, the framerate never took any major nosedives regardless if I played over ethernet or wifi. I pulled off headshots as effortlessly as I had on PS4 and Xbox.
The improved performance is great, but I’m still not convinced I’ll stick with Destiny 2 for the long haul on Stadia. One big drawback is that none of my Destiny-playing friends own Stadia, and there’s no cross-play either. But since it’s the only copy I have Shadowkeep on–I haven’t sprung for the latest expansion on consoles yet–I’ll likely dive in for purely for that. Overall, Destiny 2 on Stadia works 2/3 as advertised but it won’t usurp the console versions once Shadowkeep is wrapped up.
Unfortunately, I can’t as of yet play Stadia on my laptop. For whatever reason my computer only recognizes and connects to the weaker 2.4 ghz connection. Thankfully, I have a new computer arriving soon so I should be able to test Stadia on it sometime this week.
Stadia can also be played on phones and tablets, but this is currently limited to Google’s own line of Pixel devices. That meant my Samsung Galaxy whatever-it-is was out of luck. Stadia will likely support a broader range Android devices but when that will happen is up in the air. I did, however, use my phone to purchase a game through the Stadia app: Gylt by Tequila Works, the lone original Stadia exclusive at launch. While I plan to post a full review of the game once I’m finished, I will say that in my hours of play, it performs smoothly to the point that I often forget I’m streaming it. Being a slow-paced, less graphically intense game certainly helps but that’s pretty cool nonetheless.
For those unaware, you can buy games through Stadia’s phone app. The store isn’t accessible on the TV or PC interfaces yet which is baffling, to say the least. A range of other previously advertised features like the aforementioned Google Assistant functionality and the seamless YouTube integration don’t exist yet and there’s no concrete timetable on when all of that stuff will arrive. I won’t even have my promised buddy pass for another week or so at least.
So is Stadia worth it? At present, that’s a big “nope”. I bought in because I’m a stupid enthusiast who was curious enough to want to get in on the ground floor despite the early red flags. Everyone else is better off waiting until the free subscriptions go live sometime in 2020. Hopefully by then the platform will be feature complete (God help them if not). Every time I fire it up I keep asking myself who Stadia is supposed to be for. I guess it’s geared towards a person that likes video games enough to want to play them on something but neither owns nor wants to purchase one of the 3 consoles or a gaming PC. This person also possesses exceptional internet service. That feels like a narrow audience to target.
What hurts Stadia more is that every title must be purchased. Contrary to some popular belief, Stadia is NOT an Xbox Game Pass-esque library of free games via a subscription. If it were, it would be a FAR more attractive proposition. But you still pay $60 bucks to “own” them as you would everywhere else. Since Stadia is entirely cloud-based platform, users are at the mercy of Google’s attention span. The company is notorious for cutting and running from its services if they don’t perform up to snuff. Who’s to say they won’t do the same to Stadia after a couple of years? If so, your library could simply vanish one day. Though society has increasingly proven its willingness to sacrifice ownership in the name of convenience–lord knows I’m guilty as charged–it’s a very real Sword of Damocles that feels uncomfortably plausible.
Even after just a couple of days I feel like I’ve already hit my ceiling when it comes to engaging with Stadia. Gylt was the only game I was genuinely interested in because, well, it’s the only new title in the launch line-up. The initial offerings of 22 games only feels “okay” despite boasting my 2018 Game of the Year, Red Dead Redemption 2. But they can all be purchased elsewhere and, again, don’t run at the promised premium specs or, in some cases, even match current top tier specs. If you’re an Xbox Game Pass subscriber like myself, you already have free access to a few of them, like Rage 2 and Metro Exodus. I personally either already own or have played many of the games available. I can’t see myself buying anything I don’t have over literally any other platform. I’m also in a relative minority of owning every console plus a capable PC.
I just wish Stadia had at least 2 or 3 more original games alongside Gylt to truly make it unique. Unfortunately, exclusive games that truly utilize the platform’s substantial horse-er-cloud power appear to be a LONG way out. Worse, Microsoft’s own game streaming service, Project X Cloud, is on the horizon. I’ve sampled the service during E3 this year and during the recent private beta. I’ve been impressed both times with the ease and quality of the tech. Plus it has the benefit of being able to stream my existing Xbox library over any capable mobile device. If Project X Cloud takes off and becomes a big success, that would further pull me away from Stadia. It already kind of is.
As of one week after launch I see Stadia as something I’ll whip out once in a blue moon, perhaps to show to friends, but that’s about it. Barring the release of a high-profile exclusive I can’t honestly say I’d buy a multiplatform game for the platform over my other platforms. I’ll never stream to my laptop at home as it sits right in front of my TV. Playing triple-A games on my phone sounds cool but I literally can’t for the foreseeable future. If Stadia does sound up your alley, do yourself a favor and just wait for the free subscription tier to go live next year. You’re not missing anything, and right now Google Stadia is missing too much.