Stadia Review: Google Gaming Mostly Works, but Fails to Justify a Switch to Streaming

On Tuesday, Google will launch its gaming platform Stadia: an opening gambit in a seemingly inevitable streaming future, with video games adopting the service model (with all its attendant advantages and disadvantages), that has already redefined how we listen to music and watch movies. Stadia has two major hurdles at launch: first proving its technology, then justifying its advantages over console competition.

Stadia performs well, but far from flawlessly, with game streaming performance that was mostly satisfactory, but very occasionally abysmal.

Google Stadia Performance

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Google Stadia games can be played across screens, but not all features are available on every platform. Google

My play test was conducted on my home Wi-Fi network, on which I averaged 129 Mbps download and 36 Mbps upload across multiple speed tests conducted when not using Stadia. I have in my apartment Optimum 200, so while far from gigabit, my service easily clears the Stadia threshold. According to Google's own Stadia speed test, my connection is "great" and capable of a "high-performance gaming experience."

That's not what I got while demoing Stadia. In Destiny 2, three-person Raids performed well, on both TV and Pixel phone, with only a handful of minor frame rate stutters. It was impressive, with online gaming performance that was, at first, more consistent than online play on my PlayStation 4, with its direct ethernet connection. But hopping into the European Dead Zone (one of Destiny 2's large, open maps) and participating in some spontaneous public events tanked Stadia performance: graphical resolution plummeted and frame rates dropped. The entire image would blur and then recohere over several seconds, similar to when streaming video over a poor connection.

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"Destiny 2" played mostly acceptably on Google Stadia, but was marred by several major performance issues. Google

Returning to the EDZ later, performance was once again nearly flawless. The difference this time: it was outside of the public event hours setup for those previewing Stadia, so there was no one else online on the map.

Overall, Stadia performance in online games was approximately within the parameters I already anticipate with online gaming on my home Wi-Fi. I'm inclined to believe the worst performance issues, temporarily suffered, are likely to be ironed out, same as with any launch.

Performance issues in single-players games are a separate issue. While online play across consoles inevitably involves compromises and hiccups, Stadia introduces that same anxiety to gameplay experiences that work flawlessly, or nearly so, on other consoles. It was genuinely alienating, for example, to start a Red Dead Redemption 2 campaign and find the initial horse ride through the snow nearly unplayable, with poor frame rate performance and blurring graphical effects. Play time with Shadow of the Tomb Raider wasn't as troubled, but still experienced occasional stutters.

Later, returning to Red Dead Redemption 2, the campaign played flawlessly, even on Stadia's best visual quality setting. Whether suffering problems or playing without any compromise, according to the menu accessible via the Stadia controller, my connection was rated "Good," with the system stating "your current internet connection is solid. Go play!"

There are several options which could potentially improve performance. Within the Stadia app, settings can be changed from "best visual quality" (up to 4K and 20 GB/hour data usage) to "balanced," which lets Stadia "determine the best experience based on your internet speed." A graphical setting for limited data usage is also available, which caps resolution at 720p. I also found Stadia consistently performed better on a phone than a TV. But ultimately, there were too many possible variables to determine the exact cause of Stadia's performance issues, or to be certain that they are resolvable.

While empirical tests of Stadia performance are surely coming, my play experience was purely anecdotal, conducted on home internet I already complain about often. Other reviews describe Stadia performing more consistently with the Chromecast Ultra hooked up to an ethernet cable, suggesting variable Wi-Fi signals are likely to be a bigger obstacle to a seamless Stadia experience than available bandwidth.

Altogether, it's hard to feel confident that Stadia, at least at launch, will be able to rise to even a consistent console standard of performance on home Wi-Fi. Stadia play was mostly smooth—anyone worried the technology is simply incapable of handling inputs without lag, or otherwise imagining permanent limitations, would be overstating the case—but "mostly" isn't good enough, particularly for single-player games.

Google Stadia as Gaming System

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Google

Even if Stadia trips over its most basic criteria, it's still worth asking what it may provide that other console experiences can't, particularly if performance kinks are worked out in the near future. Here again, it's hard to say exactly what advantage Stadia is meant to provide over console gaming. But there are some clear benefits to Stadia, primarily presentational and aesthetic.

While video streaming has become as simple as using a TV remote, even the friendliest gaming system is still tethered to some fusty computer habits. Constant system updates delay play, while every new game purchase requires managing my PS4's hard drive space like Sam Porter Bridges balancing his backpack before heading out on a delivery. Online video game storefronts are more confusing, forbidding places than their video streaming equivalents.

Google Stadia's greatest asset is streamlining both the user interface and gaming hardware. There's definite aesthetic pleasure to be had in conceptualizing the Stadia controller itself as the game system. Speaking of which, the Stadia controller is top-notch, with clicky buttons and an ergonomic form that feels great to hold. The Stadia app and TV interface are both straightforward and highly usable, making it easy to switch between screen and mobile play. Taking screenshots and gameplay capture was also smooth and intuitive, occurring instantly and without interruption—a contrast with my PS4's stuttering delay as it struggles to do the same. After buying games, they are playable instantly. Similarly, Stadia also has a clear advantage when it comes to loading times, effortlessly avoiding the long waits that plague Red Dead Redemption 2's console versions.

One of the primary justifications for game streaming is the capacity to switch between screens, but in practical play, the use case is fairly narrow. Mounting a Pixel phone above the controller makes it possible to play Destiny 2 in bed, sure, but the awkward assemblage ensures a portable Stadia is unlikely to replace Switch as my default mobile gaming option, particularly since you're tethered to a robust Wi-Fi connection.

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Portable gaming with Google Stadia is possible, but makes for a bit of an awkward rig. Google

But even if Stadia performed flawlessly, all those benefits combined would still struggle to outweigh the streaming platform's caveats. Many of the touted Stadia features won't be available from launch, including both gameplay interactions meant to be unique to the system, like the Crowd Play and State Share features, and gaming basics, like in-game achievements (expected to become available shortly after launch). Bizarre hardware limitations, like a wireless controller that requires a USB-C cable to connect to a laptop or compatible phone, are indicative of a soft launch mentality that makes it hard to recommend early adoption.

Google Stadia Games

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Google Stadia exclusive "Gylt" combines exploration and stealth gameplay. Tequila Works

A look at the Stadia games lineup at launch is even bleaker. Stadia's one console exclusive, Gylt, is far from a killer app or system seller, while most of its big titles are multiconsole releases that have been out for over a year:

  1. Assassin's Creed Odyssey
  2. Attack on Titan 2: Final Battle 2
  3. Destiny 2: The Collection
  4. Farming Simulator 2019
  5. Final Fantasy XV
  6. Football Manager 2020
  7. Grid 2019
  8. Gylt
  9. Just Dance 2020
  10. Kine
  11. Metro Exodus
  12. Mortal Kombat 11
  13. NBA 2K20
  14. Rage 2
  15. Rise of the Tomb Raider
  16. Red Dead Redemption 2
  17. Samurai Shodown
  18. Shadow of the Tomb Raider
  19. Thumper
  20. Tomb Raider (2013)
  21. Trials Rising
  22. Wolfenstein: Youngblood

So who is Google Stadia for, other than the chronic early adopter?

Should Stadia performance prove stable over the next few months, there might be an argument to be made that the Google games streamer is perfect for gaming beginners, who don't already have a home console, haven't already played Stadia's big titles and have no inclination toward the more complicated world of PC gaming. At $129 for the Stadia Founder's Edition, and $9.99 a month for Stadia service (first three months are covered in the initial price), you could pay for more than two years of Stadia before reaching the price of a new PlayStation 4 Pro. Factor in $9.99 a month for a PlayStation Plus online subscription and the Stadia is a better deal indefinitely. Still, it's hard not to feel a little squicked out paying full retail for games that you can lose access to without monthly payments.

Stadia might also appeal to digital minimalists, who would prefer a controller and HDMI dongle to a large, hot box occupying space in their entertainment centers. But everyone else would be wiser to adopt a wait-and-see attitude toward Google Stadia. In its efforts to transform gaming into a cloud service, Google has focused too much on proving out the technology—even that with only qualified success—and not enough on justifying its break from traditional console gaming. Compelling and unique strengths simply aren't there yet.

Stadia Review: Google Gaming Mostly Works, but Fails to Justify a Switch to Streaming | Gaming