Game Reviews

Google Stadia review: The revolution isn’t now

google stadia review rs 3

Google Stadia Premiere Edition

“Google Stadia has immense potential, but a confusing interface and small library sells it short.”
  • Excellent image quality
  • Plays great on TV and phone
  • 1080p tier is free
  • Poor performance on PC
  • Latency can be an issue
  • Too few games at launch
  • Subscription isn't a good value
MSRP $129.99

I picked up Death Stranding at release. Not a download but a real, physical disc I took home and placed in my PlayStation 4 Pro.

You’d think that’d be the end of it, but it wasn’t. An installation bar crept across my screen at an agonizing pace. When it finished, I checked the time on my phone. An hour and a half had passed since I first touched the game; 40 minutes since I put it in the console.

That’s what Google wants to fix with Stadia.

What is Stadia?

Stadia, if you haven’t heard, is Google’s cloud gaming service. You do need an internet connection and a Google account, but if you have that, starting a game is simple. There’s no need for an expensive console or gaming rig. There’s no need to install from a disc or cartridge. There’s nothing to download. Just buy, hit play, and you’re in.

That’s the dream, anyway. It’s a big one, and that means big obstacles. Bugs, a slim library, and limited bandwidth bring Stadia’s cloud gaming future down to earth.

Stadia basics

Google is banking on Stadia’s simplicity, but it’s not straightforward. Misconceptions about the service have snowballed since its announcement. It’s been called “Netflix for games.” It’s been called a console replacement. It’s been called a Switch competitor.

Here’s the summary: Stadia is a cloud service that runs games on Google’s servers, then beams them to your device. You can play on a TV, on a phone, or on a PC.

Stadia isn’t an all-in-one game library like Xbox Game Pass, so the ‘Netflix for games’ comparison falls apart.

Stadia has two tiers of service. The basic tier serves up 1080p quality; stereo sound is free to use and won’t be available until next year. The Stadia Pro tier is priced at $10 a month, nets you 4K HDR quality, brings 5.1 surround sound, and has perks like free games and game discounts (the details of the latter two are still sketchy).

This isn’t an all-in-one game library like Xbox Game Pass, so the “Netflix for games” comparison falls apart. Aside from the “free” games included with Stadia Pro, you’ll have to buy the Stadia version of each game you want to play from Stadia’s store.

Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

Confusion comes in the fine print. You can play on your TV, but at launch, you’ll need a Google Chromecast Ultra. You can play on a phone, but at launch, you’ll need a Google Pixel 2, 3, 3a, or 4. You can play on your PC, but only in the Chrome browser.

There’s more. PC users can play at launch, but they can’t play at 4K with HDR. That’s not coming until 2020. The Google Stadia controller works wirelessly with the Chromecast Ultra, but the phone and PC require a wired connection to the controller. You can’t buy games on the TV. You can only do that on your phone’s Stadia app.

Stadia has a caveat for every situation.

Even access is confusing. Stadia is launching today, but only if you ordered either the $129 Founder’s Edition, or purchase the similarly priced Premiere Edition. That comes with a Chromecast Ultra, a controller, and three months of Stadia Pro. Don’t want the hardware? Then you can’t play until next year, even if you’re willing to pay for Stadia Pro.

On and on and on it goes. Stadia has a caveat for every situation, which undercuts the simplicity Google promised.

No, I don’t have to wait for a game to install, as I did when I brought home Death Stranding. But Stadia still gives me plenty to worry about.

The controller is overpriced

The Founder’s Edition, which I received for this review, includes the Chromecast Ultra and the Stadia Controller. We’ve reviewed the Chromecast Ultra in the past, and it’s a simple streaming puck, so I won’t spend time describing it. The Stadia Controller, new and unique to Stadia, is more intriguing.

OK, I lied. It’s not. It’s a generic controller. The design has a lot in common with the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller, while the thumbstick layout is similar to PlayStation’s DualShock4.

The Stadia Controller feels nice in-hand and works well, but it’s not on par with the controllers from Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony. The triggers feel a little loose and the D-Pad is vague compared to the DualShock 4 or Nintendo Switch Pro Controller.

Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

The only unique features are a pair of buttons found above the Stadia button (which summons the Stadia menu) and below the select and start buttons. One summons Google Assistant, the other snaps screenshots.

Well, that’s what they’re supposed to do. The Google Assistant button wasn’t ready for the review program, while the screenshot button only functions on TV and PC. Even the controller’s buttons aren’t ready for launch.

The Stadia Controller can be purchased on its own for $69. That’s Nintendo pricing, and the Stadia Controller doesn’t earn it. An Xbox Wireless controller is $60 at MSRP and is often available for far less.

You don’t have to buy the Stadia Controller if you wait until the service is widely available next year. Alternative controllers, including the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One controllers, can be used to play Stadia on a phone or PC. However, they don’t work with a TV.

Stadia delivers the dream…

It’s not looking good for Stadia, is it? Google’s launch is half-baked. Many features are missing or confusing.

Here’s the good news: Stadia works. The dream of seamless, patch-free, download-free, high-quality gaming is real.

I spent most of my time playing Stadia on a television. My home has the luxury of gigabit Internet, so I wasn’t surprised to see smooth gameplay on my TV. Still, it’s an impressive technical achievement. Image quality was excellent. Fuzziness, banding, and stuttering were rarely visible, but image quality was on par with a console most of the time.

To confirm, I switched between Destiny 2 on Stadia and Destiny 2 on my PlayStation 4 Pro and barely perceived a difference. Details appeared the same on each. Stadia lacked contrast in dark scenes, but otherwise flaws were few.

Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

The mobile experience (over Wi-Fi) was just even more stunning. Destiny 2 looked fantastic on the Pixel 3a’s small, sharp display. Stutters and lag were rare annoyances that didn’t take me away from the gameplay.

I’m still taken aback by how smooth it felt. Stadia sets a new bar for graphics quality on mobile. This is the full experience, running at console-quality, on a smartphone. The phone doesn’t even heat up, and battery life is reasonable because games run in the cloud. I used less than half the Pixel 3a’s battery during a two-hour session of Destiny 2.

Google promised to deliver a console-quality gaming experience over the Internet. On that point, Stadia delivers the goods. I couldn’t tell the difference between Stadia and my PlayStation 4 Pro, and unlike my PlayStation, Stadia never asked to install, patch, or update a game.

As an added bonus, Stadia’s load times are fantastic. Levels tend to load in just seconds. It’s a big leap over the PlayStation 4 Pro, where load times over 30 seconds are the norm.

…but you’ll have to wake up, eventually

At its best, Stadia delivers what was promised. That’s a technical achievement that deserves recognition. But I think you know what’s coming next. It’s time to talk about the flaws.

Stadia never worked well on PC. I tried a Lenovo ThinkPad E495, an Asus Zenbook 13, a Microsoft Surface Book 2, and one of Digital Trends’ custom desktop test rigs. Stadia refused to play at all on the Asus and Microsoft laptops (over Wi-Fi or Ethernet), claiming the connection was poor. It did play on the ThinkPad and the desktop (over Wi-Fi), but poorly. Stutters and latency were constant companions that cut my play sessions short.

Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

Latency was a companion on all devices, in fact. Google tried to play down latency in its marketing but make no mistake. It’s there.

The problem was worst in Mortal Kombat 11 which, like all fighting games, demands precise timing. I quit playing out of frustration after less than half an hour. I constantly fell victim to hits just after I hit the D-pad to dodge, while my attacks swung the space my opponent stood in just a moment before. I’ll be first to admit I’m bad at fighting games, but I’ve played Mortal Kombat 11 on both PC and console. The game felt responsive on both.

Latency was tolerable in Destiny 2, thanks to the leisurely pace of its action, but I found myself over-correcting often and missing melee attacks I should’ve hit. It didn’t make the game more difficult, but it lacked the crisp, snappy feel I’m used to from playing Destiny 2 on a PC.

The issue was intermittent, coming and going like the tides. At its worst, it caused me to do a full 360-degree spin in Destiny 2, as if I’d suddenly teleported into a session of Tony Hawk. In other cases, latency felt non-existent, making even Mortal Kombat 11 feel smooth — for a few minutes. Latency often correlated with reduced image quality and stuttering, but not always.

Audio sync issues also appeared, though only in cutscenes. This happened in both Mortal Kombat 11 and Shadow of the Tomb Raider. The problem was small at first, but as cutscenes went on, the visuals ran further and further behind the audio. This was listed as a known issue in Google’s review guide. It’s good that they know, but that doesn’t make it less of a problem.

About that game library

Stadia’s technical achievements, and flaws, are worth discussion. It’s a revolutionary platform with immense potential and serious problems. All that may not matter, however, because there’s not much to play.

The platform is launching with 22 titles and only one exclusive, Gylt, which provided for this review. There’s several popular stand-outs in the list including Destiny 2, Red Dead Redemption 2, Metro Exodus, NBA 2K20, and the recent Tomb Raider trilogy.

Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

These are fine games, but with only one exclusive, there’s nothing here that will lure gamers over to Stadia from other platforms. Even Apple Arcade launched with a strong line-up of exclusive games.

Google’s pricing doesn’t look great, either. Many games sell at their original MSRP. Mortal Kombat 11 for PlayStation 4 is $32 on Amazon, it’s $59.99 on Stadia (on sale at launch for $41.99). That pattern repeats across the entire line-up.

The limited library makes a Stadia Pro subscription difficult to stomach. Why would you pay $60 for Mortal Kombat 11 on Stadia and cap it off with a $10 monthly subscription? It only makes sense if you don’t own a current-generation console, don’t own a gaming-capable PC, but do want to play modern games at 4K resolution with HDR turned on.

This is the most serious problem facing Stadia. It’s quicker and more convenient than my PlayStation 4 Pro, but I can’t play Death Stranding on Stadia. I also can’t play Control, Civilization VI, or The Witcher 3, a trio of titles I’m currently enjoying. Patches and system updates are annoying, but I’d rather deal with on occasional patch or install than play only the handful of titles on Stadia.

Use all the data

Streaming can use a lot of data, and Stadia is no exception. In fact, it’s among the most data-hungry services you can use today.

I tested data use while playing Destiny 2 on the Pixel 3a over Wi-Fi. After three test runs, each five minutes long, data use averaged out at about 830 megabytes per test. Do the math, and Stadia consumes an incredible 10 gigabytes every hour.

Stadia consumes an incredible 10 gigabytes every hour.

At that rate, gaming on the go won’t be possible even if you have a data connection reliable enough to allow it. You’ll use up your data cap quickly. Remember, even unlimited plans aren’t truly unlimited. Heavy gamers could run into their data limits on a home Internet connection, though I expect that will be rare.

Our Take

Google’s Stadia is an astounding technical achievement. I’m honestly awestruck by its quality and performance. I went in skeptical, but I came out a convert. Cloud gaming works. Home consoles will last at least another generation, but Stadia proves that the cloud can truly replace a console – if you have an excellent Internet connection, at least.

That makes it even more of a shame Google’s execution has turned Stadia into a maze with no exit and plenty of dead ends. Features don’t work the same on all devices. PC performance is a disaster. And the limited library of games won’t win Stadia any fans.

Maybe I’ll one day abandon my consoles to the cloud, but I’ll keep them for now. Stadia isn’t worth the price of the $129 Premium Edition, or the $10 monthly subscription.

Is there a better alternative?

The alternatives include Nvidia’s GeForce Now, Shadow, PlayStation Now, and Microsoft’s still-in-testing Project xCloud. Shadow is arguably the most mature of these and, because it mimics a PC, it can play just about anything a PC can play. The downside is pricing; you’ll pay $25 a month, even on an annual plan.

Stadia’s in bad company, at least. None of the cloud gaming services offered today are ready for most gamers.

Should you buy it?

No. Stadia has potential. But you can’t play games on potential.

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