Google Stadia review: A week with Google’s cloud gaming service

Google’s cloud gaming service, Stadia, is finally here and ready to take on the likes of Steam, PlayStation Network, and Xbox Live. Set to go live on November 19, it cost $10 per month and gives players access to games without the need of a console.

Like nearly everything these days, it’s based in the cloud, and promises lag-free, high-definition (up to 4K) gaming up to 60 frames per second. It requires an internet connection of around 25Mbps to get the full, glorious experience, but that’s not much of a problem in 2019.

We’ve been fortunate enough to get our hands on a Stadia Founder’s Edition and spent the last week playing around with Google Stadia. As part of our bundle we received codes to a select number of games as well as a Pixel 3a and Chromecast Ultra to test out the mobile experience.

Our experience with the setup and configuration varies from what users will ultimately see when Stadia goes live. Moreover, the selection of games was much more limited and doesn’t truly represent how the public interacts and uses Stadia. With that said, we were able to get the overall feel and understand what’s in store for gamers as 2019 winds down.

Well, how is it?

How does Stadia fare? In a word, excellent. As someone who only occasionally games on PlayStation and Xbox, the actual experience of playing is no different than when dealing with a console.

It’s remarkably indistinguishable from anything else we’re playing today. Once you’re through all the initial setup stuff, you’d never notice the difference in load times, graphics, response, and feedback.

We had to remind ourselves that we could easily take the controller and Chromecast Ultra to any room in the home. Even better, we could simply cast the gaming experience to other Chromecast Ultras or, later, to devices with built-in casting like an NVIDIA Shield TV. A little more on this later.

The $130 Bundle

Although the Founder’s Edition of the Stadia is no longer available, you can still purchase the Premier Edition. For your money you get a Stadia controller, a Chromecast Ultra, and three months of Stadia Pro service.

At just $130, this is a fraction of the cost of a game console and a small price to pay for a seemingly endless experience. Just as Chromebooks seem to last forever, and even get better with time, so should Stadia. At least in theory.

It’s hard to imagine anything better than 4K resolution and 60fps gaming, but easily we remember thinking that nothing could top the Super Nintendo and its graphics. With that in mind, there’s no PC or game console to grow outdated. The hardware is not in your living room; it’s Google that does all the heavy lifting.

To be sure, there’s not a massive library of content available at launch. And, really, the $10 monthly fee doesn’t give you access to many games just yet. In its initial phase it is more of a place to buy the same games you’d normally purchase, just with universal access to them.

The selection of games available on day one is a short one, but it’s not a weak one. The lineup includes a number of selections from major franchises. In a related note, there a plenty of great bargains to be had, too. If you’ve had your eye on titles like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Mortal Kombat 11, or Final Fantasy XV, you’ll find sizable discounts.

Stadia Launch Games Pricing

  • Assassin’s Creed Odyssey  – $59.99 $30.00 Stadia Pro Deal
  • Gylt – $29.99
  • Just Dance 2020 – $49.99
  • Kine – $19.99
  • Mortal Kombat 11 – $59.99 $41.99 Stadia Pro Deal
  • Red Dead Redemption 2 – Launch Edition – $59.99
  • Samurai Showdown – $59.99
  • Thumper – $19.99
  • Shadow of the Tomb Raider – $59.99
  • Rise of the Tomb Raider – $29.99
  • Tomb Raider 2013 – $19.99 $10.00 Stadia Pro Deal
  • Final Fantasy XV – $39.99 $29.99 Stadia Pro Deal

Special Editions

  • Assassin’s Creed Odyssey Stadia Ultimate Edition – $119.99 – $60.00 Stadia Pro Deal
  • Mortal Kombat 11 Premium Edition – $89.99 $62.99 Stadia Pro Deal
  • Red Dead Redemption 2 Special Edition – $79.99
  • Red Dead Redemption 2 Ultimate Edition – $99.99

Once you’ve redeemed a code, you’ll find your game available in your library. Our review experience was different than what general consumers get, so we can’t speak to how long it takes. We understand that while our games were immediately available upon redemption, this won’t be the case with everyone.

The Stadia experience

Beyond the initial purchase, and any free trials of service, Stadia gives players the following features and options.

  • Cloud-based access to a limited selection of 22 launch games you can mostly already buy everywhere else – there are nearly two dozen more titles expected in the coming months
  • Ability to play on Chromecast Ultra select Pixel phones using the controller, and Chromebooks and PCs using wired gamepad/tethered Stadia controller or mouse and keyboard

The cloud is still the future

One of the things we love about the Nintendo Switch is how we can continue to play games when we leave the house. Or, how we can switch from the TV to handheld on the couch so others can use the television.

According to Google’s support page, if you have a Google Pixel 2, 3, 3a, or 4 phone, you can get the same experience. This might not be the same as what Google shows on the Stadia website, but our review kit indicated a wider selection of devices is in order. Start on the TV via Chromecast and switch to your phone — or vice versa.

There’s something so comforting in being able to pick up where you left off in a game, regardless of where you are. Be in on a different device or at someone else’s house, it’s as simple as logging in and playing. That’s really cool stuff if you’ve never had the chance.

Graphics and game play

To be clear we’re not a gaming site nor did we run benchmarks and perform direct head-to-head comparisons. Keeping that in mind, we were impressed with the graphics and resolution.

Playing games on a couple of 1080p HD televisions was as fun and immerse as we might see with consoles. We’ve yet to put it on a 4K TV but not for a lack of desire or fear. As it turns out, we’re just too busy throughout the week to really unwind.

At any given time there around 20-30 devices connected to our home Wi-Fi with about ten of them smart home speakers or displays and tablets on standby. We routinely stream Netflix and other content and use YouTube TV as our main way of consuming content. Our internet speed is automatically tested daily and averages 118Mbps.

We didn’t optimize the network or prioritize anything ahead of playing. We expected to see some artifacting or pixelation but haven’t yet. If you have the ability to make those sort of adjustment with your router or Wi-Fi connection, you’ll undoubtedly want to put your Chromecast Ultra or Chromebook high on the list, if only to ensure the best speeds.

Playing on a Chromecast Ultra on a TV feels like anything else you’ve ever done, but what about on a laptop or Chromebook? It’s buttery smooth on a good Wi-Fi connection so airports, libraries, and other places should be no problem. Sadly, there’s no LTE support yet for Stadia so playing elsewhere won’t work.

A quick glance at other publications as we finalized our review indicate that head-to-head comparisons don’t favor Google. Again, we don’t spend enough time in this space to observe noticeable differences. Keeping that in mind, casuals will love it and likely not see anything wrong.

How is the controller?

Familiar. If you’ve held a PlayStation controller or a Bluetooth controller from the last few years, you know what to expect. It’s a comfortable controller that feels good in hand; the vibration and haptics are solid, too.

Google hasn’t revealed what sort of battery life to expect in the Stadia controller. With that said, we spent a few hours playing games after taking it out of the box without any sort of notification.

There’s a USB Type-C cable that comes with the controller and we’re accustomed to charging up every game session or two. If only out of habit, we anticipate this will be sufficient for Stadia.

There are two buttons on the controller which don’t come standard on others: Google Assistant and screen capture. While we were able to easily grab screens from games, the Google Assistant feature was not enabled.

Wait and see approach

We can imagine that gamers might tiptoe into Stadia to trial the service before going all-in on purchasing games. While it’s game-changing technology that helps to change the overall conversation for the better, it’s unproven.

We’d love to see more games that are free to play, helping to justify the $10 monthly fee. There are likely tons of people like us who don’t necessarily want or need to buy AAA titles, but like to play casually, cherry-picking a key game every so often.

Stadia’s day one games

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
Attack on Titan: Final Battle 2
Destiny 2: The Collection (available in Stadia Pro)

Farming Simulator 2019
Final Fantasy XV
Football Manager 2020
Grid 2019
Gylt
Just Dance 2020
Kine
Metro Exodus
Mortal Kombat 11
NBA 2K20
Rage 2
Rise of the Tomb Raider
Red Dead Redemption 2
Samurai Shodown (available in Stadia Pro)

Shadow of the Tomb Raider
Thumper
Tomb Raider 2013
Trials Rising
Wolfenstein: Youngblood

It’s not unreasonable to imagine Google courting developers to bring Stadia-exclusive games to its library; it has already done a great job of working with Android and Chrome developers. Factor in major developers with massive cross-platform games with cloud-based content, and it just makes sense.

Exclusivity in games isn’t new as gamers routinely consider purchases. We often see Microsoft and Sony doing their best to court players with in-game features and exclusive content. Could Google become a viable third player in the game?

So many questions

Google Stadia launches one day after this review goes live and that concerns us. Why? About half of the experience has yet to reveal itself in the real world.

Looking back to the initial launch and demonstration of Stadia, we saw features like players clicking on a YouTube ad for a game and then jump directly into said title or sharing a link to an exact moment in a game with friends and followers so they can try it.

Live-streaming games to YouTube in 4K, using Google Assistant for help beating games, and streamers letting followers join games? Not available yet. The coolest, most standout stuff is still on the horizon.

What about other phones with support for Stadia? It’s not as if the Pixel devices have specific hardware that make them unique; it’s just a case of certification from what we understand.

Competition heating up

More interesting to us right now is how others in the gaming space move, both reactive and proactive. Google’s not the only one doing this cloud-based stuff. Sony plans to take its PlayStation Now service to another level later this year and Microsoft’s xCloud is getting off the ground, too.

Then there are game developers like EA whose Project Atlas figures to disrupt things a bit. Hardware manufacturer NVIDIA just last week brought its GeForce Now gaming to Android devices. Also rumored to be getting into the mix are Amazon even Verizon.

Conclusion

What is presented in Stadia is done well. It’s just that we expected to see much more. Not just in game selection, but in overall features. That unique and compelling stuff that caught our attention isn’t available yet.

The concept of a day one Stadia player is an interesting one to us. The heavy gamer and early adopter crowd likely has some, if not all of these games in their library. Are they willing to spend more money on them again? Are they willing to sign up and wait for features to trickle out?

Stadia

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As we see Stadia today we’re reminded of the first days of Android. It’s half-baked but extremely promising. When it comes to its mobile ambitions, Google has far surpassed what it set out to do more than a decade ago — and the ride continues to get smoother.

How long until Stadia hits other countries? How long until we get some of the features first demonstrated earlier this year? How long until Google Stadia ultimately hits its stride? Thankfully, there’s a lot of competition in this space. That should keep Google’s foot on the gas pedal.

Are we willing to be beta testers in Google’s foray into gaming? Assuming it hits its intended marks, Stadia will be incredible stuff. Really, it’s hard to imagine wanting or needing anything beyond.

Additional games expected to be playable on Stadia by the end of the year include Borderlands 3, Ghost Recon: Breakpoint, Dragon Ball: Xenoverse and Darksiders Genesis.

Of course, there are many more titles that have been announced as coming to Stadia in 2020 including Doom: Eternal, WatchDogs: Legion, Gods & Monsters and Cyberpunk 2077.

We love the promise of Google Stadia more today than when it was announced earlier this year. It sounded lofty and aspirational, but we’re already seeing that it can work.

One area of concern that comes to mind is how quickly or effectively Google can scale to handle demand. While we don’t anticipate day one numbers like Disney Plus, Google doesn’t want to be on the receiving end of bad press or ugly social media chatter.

It’s an important time of year for game players and gift buyers alike. Year-end lists, holiday discounts, letters to Santa, and holiday breaks all tend to share gaming in common.

Can we recommend Stadia as a gift to yourself of someone you know for the end of 2019? Yes, but mostly no.

Nobody wants to buy a game two or three times, especially if they’ve already completed much of it. Even with cross-platform sync, it makes sense to ride the horse you’re on instead of switching.

Looking ahead, as new titles roll out and consumers line up for games like Cyberpunk 2077 (April 2020), Stadia will be more interesting. More features will be available by then, but a new wave of games is what will probably be more helpful. Maybe by spring it will be much easier to convince us that it’s the platform to back.

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