Google Stadia is simply not ready for launch. There's the kernel of a good idea here, a good concept for a service, but what Google is launching with simply isn't up to snuff. It's messy, it's missing features, and the Stadia experience across platforms simply isn't uniform enough to justify this full release. Let's dig into why.
The Stadia Hardware
While Stadia is a service, not a console, getting into it at the moment requires that you purchase either the Founder's Edition or the Premiere Edition. Both versions are $129, and in the box you get:
- The Stadia Controller (w/ USB-C power adapter)
- Google Chromecast Ultra (w/ microUSB power adapter and Ethernet port)
- Three months of Stadia Pro (a $9.99/month subscription service that offers a free game each month and access to 4K, HDR, and 5.1 surround sound)
With such a limited physical package, you'd think set up would dead simple, but it's actually rather complicated. First, you have to hook up the Chromecast Ultra, which requires a separate phone and the Google Home application. Then you need to download the Stadia app on that same phone, link that account with the Chromecast, and then pair the controller with the Chromecast itself. It feels like jumping through hoops just to start things up.
The Chromecast is a solid piece of kit, basically a dongle you attach to any HDMI slot on your TV. It connects to your WiFi, or alternatively you can use the ethernet jack on the power adapter. The Chromecast itself works with Google services on your phone, including YouTube, Netflix, or Spotify. You need the phone for Chromecast to work the first time, which is slightly weird if you're used to a standalone device like a Roku or Amazon Fire TV.
The Stadia controller is a pretty standardized console controller. You have the full complement of standard inputs: two analog sticks in DualShock formation, a directional pad, four face buttons, two bumpers, and two triggers. In the center of the controller is the Stadia button, which is used for turning the controller on and bringing up the Stadia menu in games. Above that are two context sensitive buttons mirroring the Xbox One controller's View and Menu buttons, a screenshot button, and a Google Assistant button. On top of the controller is a USB-C slot for charging and connection, and on the bottom is a headphone jack and built-in microphone.
It's a solid controller, but not anything above and beyond. My only issues with it from a hardware perspective are the rigid directional pad—hitting a diagonal feels harder than it needs to be—and the triggers, which feel a little hollow. I would've liked more weight to them. But the controller itself is fine.
The Service is Where Stadia Lives
When it's time to pick up games, Google's service starts to breakdown because it has a different experience depending on where you play Stadia. While you can access games to start them on any Stadia platform—Chromecast (TV), laptop, desktop, or phone—you can only buy or claim games on the mobile app. Yes, there's no store on the Chromecast or PC versions of the Stadia client.
You need the Stadia mobile app to change display and performance settings, like changing your stream from 4K to 1080p (or lower), or turning on High Dynamic Range (HDR) color. There's no way to do so from your TV or PC on a whim. It focuses the Stadia service on the app, which is odd because the entire thing lives in the cloud.
There are other holes in Stadia from platform to platform. The Stadia controller only connects wirelessly to the Chromecast for TV play. On a phone, tablet, or PC, it has be connected with a USB-C cable. The review package came with a Google Pixel 3a XL for testing purposes, an inclusion that initially confused me. I assumed that with the app requirement, most would be using their personal phones and the controller would connect there.
My personal phone is a Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, so the USB connection there is microUSB. I originally assumed the Stadia controller would connect wirelessly through Bluetooth, but no dice. And unless I had a male microUSB to male USB-C cable, I would've been unable to play Stadia on my phone. With the Pixel, at least I'd be searching for a male USB-C to USB-C cable, which is slightly more common. Google also included one in the package, but it was clearly a third-party cable, so if you're going to use Stadia on your phone, be prepared.
Except, the controller doesn't fully function on mobile. All of the buttons work, but if you hit the Stadia button to bring up the system menu, you can't use the controller for any further input. On the TV and PC, you can navigate the system menu with the controller, but on the phone, you have to tap on the screen to do anything. Or there's the PC web client, where you can only scroll downwards in your library with the mousewheel.
Another issue is the handling of screenshots. If you take a shot with the Screenshot button, it's saved to your Stadia Captures menu. There's nothing else you can do with the Captures at this moment. You can look at them or delete them, no sharing or editing functionality at all. And they can only be seen within the mobile app. Oddly enough, you can't actually use the Screenshot button on the mobile app, so all my captures are with the phone's built-in screenshot function. If you're playing Stadia titles on your phone, they're played in landscape mode, but the app interface is only in portrait. This means with the phone/controller harness Google included in the reviewer's kit, you'll be navigating the Stadia Home screen sideways.
It's these odd inconsistencies across the entire service that make Stadia look like it wasn't ready for launch. And that's before you get to key features that are missing this launch, like the Buddy Pass, Family Sharing, and Android compatibility. (Yes, even if I had the cable, Stadia doesn't play on my Samsung Galaxy. It's only used for setup and purchases.)
Streaming The Games
We've already talked about the anemic launch lineup for Google Stadia. There will be a total of 22 games that will be available when Founder's Edition and Premiere Edition owners get their hands on the system. Of those, Google gave us codes for Destiny 2, Mortal Kombat 11, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Just Dance 2020, Kine, and Gylt. So I tested every single game on TV (4K), Windows 10 laptop, and mobile phone (Google Pixel 3a XL) over a wireless Verizon Fios 300 Mbps connection. Much later in the review process, Google also sent over code for Red Dead Redemption 2.
The music-based puzzle game Kine probably came across the best, requiring no specific twitch movements in order to play it. Likewise, adventure game Glyt played well across all platforms. The further away from action you get, the better Stadia comes off. Just Dance 2020's problem is the specifics of its style of play. You need to connect a smartphone to Just Dance 2020 in order to play; there's no options for controller play. On TV and PC, that's fine, but mobile means you're playing with a smartphone connected to the Stadia controller, and another smartphone on top of that. (Stadia games won't run without a controller linked.)
Mortal Kombat 11 came across pretty well on nearly every platform, though the rigid directional pad meant it was a bit difficult to jump forward or backward. It was playing Destiny 2 and Shadow of the Tomb Raider where issues really popped up. When playing both on TV at 4K, there was noticeable latency. During movement, I was able to adjust, but aiming was an absolute chore with the lag. I'd frequently over or under shoot my target and have to micro-correct, which was damned near impossible. High-twitch action games at 4K is not where Google Stadia thrives. 4K only works on TV if you're a Stadia Pro subscriber, so perhaps that won't be a problem for most. (Unfortunately, the Chromecast is HDCP-enabled with no way to turn it off, so I was unable to make TV play captures.)
On mobile and PC, this problem went away almost entirely. In fact, mobile play is probably where Google Stadia performs the best. Rocking Destiny 2 or Tomb Raider on a phone screen is pretty great, and Red Dead Redemption 2 performed admirably during my brief sojourn onto Starbucks WiFi. My guess is this has to do with the drop in resolution, but the games still look sharp and playable even if they're not in 4K. Aiming Stadia at mobile play feels like the way forward here.
Where Stadia Stumbles
The impressions above are all indicative of when Google Stadia is running at its best. When Google Stadia is running smoothly, it keeps the artifacts and other issues to a minimum. You only notice severe color banding when a game is dealing with a large quantity of black onscreen. The problem is Google Stadia isn't always running at its best. Moving mobile and laptop play to my bedroom changed the experience drastically, even though there was only one wall and/or a closet separating me from the wireless router.
When Stadia is suffering, it'll hitch and stutter. This happened while I was playing Glyt for example, to the point that it became impossible to play. Destiny 2 became artifact city at one point, and aiming was a total crapshoot. Just Dance 2020 straight crashed onto the Pixel's homescreen while I was still in the same room as the router. Shadow of the Tomb Raider froze entirely; I could bring up the system menu and take screenshots, but the game itself was stuck on one screen, never to recover. Those issues popped up across 4K or 1080p, and both rooms. On public WiFi, there was still the occasional stutter, though I had no outright crashes or freezes.
You can also jump from platform to platform with Stadia, but only if you're currently playing the game. So if you're playing Mortal Kombat 11 on mobile, and you want to switch to the TV, you just start it up there while the mobile instance is active. But otherwise, Stadia doesn't have a save state. Shut a game down and when you reload it, it's like you reset the system. I'm not sure why I expected save states for Stadia, so you could pick right back up where you stopped, but that's not an option here.
At the end of the day, Stadia can only operate as long as the video signal can stream consistently. If that breaks up, Stadia goes pear-shaped and becomes a poor playing experience. And if you've streamed movies or YouTube in HD or 4K, you'll know that interruptions can and will happen. With Stadia, that means you can't play your game, which turns Google's magical service into an okay but non-functioning controller.
This wouldn't be a problem if Stadia was an add-on to an existing traditional console or set-top box, like PlayStation Now or Project xCloud. But Stadia is the entire play experience, there's no other option. And the barrier to entry at the moment is $129 for a Founder's/Premiere Edition, $9.99 a month for Stadia Pro if you want 4K streaming, and another $20-60 for a game. Maybe that'll get whittled down to the price of the controller, but right now, it's too much for what you get.
Stadia's streaming gameplay needs to be impeccable, and it's not at the moment. And maybe it looks better when compared to $300-400 for a Switch, Xbox One X, or PlayStation 4 Pro, but those systems have cheaper options that just… play the games. Project xCloud might not be making as many promises as Stadia, but it's an add-on to an existing console with a much larger library. But promising streaming 4K games with no issues and delivering what's here is not the way to build a platform. Despite all the claims, Stadia isn't gaming for everyone yet.