When you think of Google, you probably don’t think of a gaming company. You probably think of the search company or the creator of Android. But a gaming company? That’s (mostly) new territory.
Enter Google Stadia, the tech giant’s ambitious cloud gaming project that’s set to go toe-to-toe with Microsoft’s Project xCloud and Nvidia’s GeForce Now. Stadia is a new way for people to play games using Google’s powerful server centers — you don’t need a PC or a console to play, just a stable internet connection and a controller.
Does it live up to the hype at launch? Find out in our Google Stadia review.
Google Stadia works by relaying inputs from a controller over the internet, then streaming the result back to the device of your choosing via cloud computing power. You can stream to a Chrome browser (I used my Pixelbook for this), a TV using a Chromecast Ultra, or a select number of Android phones.
At launch, Stadia supports the Pixel 2 series, Pixel 3 series, Pixel 3a series and Pixel 4 series devices, but Google says it is looking to expand the list of compatible phones in the future. It should also be noted you can’t use an existing Chromecast Ultra with Stadia just yet. Google says an update will be rolling out soon to update all models, but for now you have to use the one bundled with the controller in either the Founder’s Edition or Premiere Edition.
Stadia can stream up to 4K resolution at 60fps, depending on the quality of your internet connection and membership tier. Google recommends at least 10Mbps for a stable 720p stream, but the service will dynamically change resolution based on the speed and stability of your internet connection.
Google sells a dedicated Stadia controller that uses Wi-Fi to relay your inputs to Google servers. The controller technically has Bluetooth, but currently, it is only used to connect to your Chromecast and to Wi-Fi. At launch, the Stadia controller will need to be connected with a physical cable to play on your phone or PC. The Stadia controller only comes with a USB-A to USB-C cable, so you’ll have to find a USB-C to USB-C cable if you want to play on your phone. Google says you won’t need a cable in the future, though.
Read more: What is cloud gaming?
If you would rather use your own controller or a mouse and keyboard, you can use them on a laptop or desktop. Currently, the Stadia controller won’t work as a standalone Bluetooth controller for your other gaming needs, but Google has not ruled out the possibility of adding that feature through a firmware update.
Is the Google Stadia controller good?
The Stadia controller is fairly basic but feels good in the hand. There are two joysticks, a D-pad, and an ABXY button array. You’ll also find L1 and R1 bumpers and L2 and R2 triggers. In the center, there is a Stadia button used for turning on the device, a Google Assistant button, a screenshot button, start, and select buttons.
The Google Assistant button will be used to help users traverse areas of a game they can’t figure out by pulling up a YouTube video at a timecode relevant to their point in the game. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to test this feature because the Google Assistant is not yet active on Stadia. We’ll have to test this feature more after it becomes available.
On the bottom, you’ll find a dual headphone-microphone jack. This means you can plug in a gaming headset directly into the controller for voice chat. There’s voice chat built into the Stadia platform, so you can chat with your friends directly through the interface.
Overall, the controller feels well designed. I prefer concave joysticks like the ones seen on the Stadia controller, and the buttons don’t feel overly cheap. The buttons and D-pad don’t actuate as nicely as the Xbox One controller, but they’re better than most third-party options you’d buy. The triggers feel snappy, and the controller is a good weight, meaning light but with a reassuring heft. At $69 this is a bit expensive, but it’s a similar case for most first-party, official controllers.
Battery life seemed great while I used the Stadia controller. I only had to charge the gamepad once over multiple multi-hour gaming sessions, but I found myself plugging it in out of habit after it died the first time, since it has a USB-C port for charging. I’ve got plenty of USB-C cables plugged in around my house, so this charging method is very nice to see.
Something nice about Google Stadia is the cohesiveness of the interface. It’s effectively the same across all platforms, whether you’re accessing it on your TV, an app on your phone, or the Google Chrome web browser.
On boot, you’ll see a list of the games you own, and you can easily access a store page to see what’s available for purchase. You can also connect a controller, start a party, and view your screenshots, straight from the interface. It’s a simplistic approach to the standard gaming UI, which is often bloated with extra settings and menus.
Because all the games are based on Google’s servers, they’ll never need to be updated like they are on game consoles and computers. As soon as you boot up Stadia, you can play right away.
The Stadia store is simple to use. Click on a game and Google will give you the option to purchase it, and you’ll even have the option to use Google Play credits to purchase games. Have some extra opinion rewards dollars sitting around? That can be turned into money off a Stadia title.
The Friends tab allows you to see a list of your friends you might want to game with, but it will also show a list of players you recently crossed paths with. If you liked playing with someone during a run of Destiny 2, it’s easy to add them to your Stadia friends list after the game is over.
One of Stadia’s marquee features during its announcement back at GDC 2019 was Stream Connect. This effectively allows outside players to directly interact with the main player’s stream in different ways, guiding them through games or viewing multiple aspects of the stream all at once. Unfortunately, this feature is missing at launch as well, so it’s difficult for us to evaluate all the key innovations the feature is meant to bring to the table.
What is Stadia Pro?
There has been a lot of confusion about Stadia Pro versus a standard Stadia experience, but the basics are this:
Stadia as a platform will be free to use, but not until sometime in 2020. The free tier called Stadia Base lets you stream games at up to 1080p 60fps with standard stereo audio. You’ll still have to pay full price for games, but the service itself will be free to use on any compatible device, from your Chromecast Ultra to your phone to your PC.
Stadia Pro is not the Netflix of games
Stadia Pro costs $9.99 per month and gives you access to 4K 60fps streaming with 5.1 surround sound audio on Chromecast Ultra, and 1080p at 60fps on other devices. This paid tier will also give you free games on an intermittent basis that stay in your library as long as your Pro account is active. At launch, the Pro benefit is all the paid expansions for Destiny 2, which you’ll get alongside the base game which recently became free, as well as Samurai Showdown as a freebie.
Pro also gives you discounts on several titles that would normally be full price on Stadia Base. The Stadia Pro discounts at launch are as follows:
- Assassin’s Creed Odyssey — $30, down from $59.99
- Assassin’s Creed Odyssey Stadia Ultimate Edition — $60, down from $119.00
- Mortal Kombat 11 — $41.99, down from $59.99
- Mortal Kombat 11 Premium Edition — $62.99, down from $89.99
- Tomb Raider 2013 — $10, down from $19.99
- Final Fantasy XV — $29.99, down from $39.99
The biggest takeaway is that Stadia Pro is not the “Netflix of games” so many have hoped for. You’re still going to have to pay upfront to play most of the games on Stadia and the discounts aren’t all that drastic compared to similar sales on the PlayStation Store or Microsoft Store for PS4 and Xbox One, respectively.
What are the benefits of Google Stadia?
There are multiple benefits to having your game streamed from the cloud. The obvious bonus is not needing to own high-end hardware. Because Google is running the games on its high-end servers, pretty much any game can be played at 4k 60fps, depending on the strength of your internet connection and if you have a required Stadia Pro subscription. The free tier coming in 2020 will stream games at up to 60fps at 1080p.
For games like Red Dead Redemption 2 or Cyberpunk 2077, that need super-powerful hardware to play at this resolution and frame rate, this is a huge benefit. And if you’re okay with 1080p at 60fps, you only need to buy the game through Stadia once with no monthly fee.
Another huge benefit of Stadia is the ability to pick up and play on multiple devices. If you’re playing on your Chromecast Ultra and head to a friend’s house, you can pick up exactly where you left off on your phone or laptop. The game is being run on Google’s servers, so the end-location of the stream doesn’t matter. Of course, online games like Destiny 2 will kick you after 10 minutes of inactivity, but single-player games like Kine or Red Dead Redemption 2 can be paused for as long as you like.
Another big benefit to cloud gaming on a platform like Stadia is the lack of updates. Because Stadia handles all its updates on the server, you can boot the game immediately from the Stadia interface.
Unfortunately, loading times didn’t seem significantly better than they are on a home console. It still took a bit of time to actually get into a game, especially in something like Red Dead Redemption and moving between maps on games like Destiny felt the same pace as they would on a regular console. This makes sense since Google’s servers still have to load the game’s assets, but we were hoping Google may be using ultra-fast storage. That doesn’t seem to be the case, for now.
Does Google Stadia have latency issues?
One of the biggest questions about Google Stadia is how much latency games have. The controller directly connects to Google’s servers through Wi-Fi, which then relay the resulting image back to your screen. Because Stadia Pro can stream 4K gameplay up to 60fps, a lot of people have been worried about how much lag games will have.
Google recommends connections of at least 10Mbps to stream games smoothly at 720p, and I can confirm that was true during my time playing Stadia. When playing with an internet connection of 3Mbps down and 4Mbps up, the game played pretty choppily. There were times where the game felt smooth for a couple of minutes, but I would get instances of stuttering pretty frequently on a connection of that speed. At higher speeds of around 30Mbps streaming in 4K things improved but lag was still noticeable in random jolts.
I mostly played Destiny 2 and Mortal Kombat to test latency, as shooters and fighting games require very fast reaction times. For general play, the game felt good on a solid internet connection, but there was definitely a very slight amount of input delay if you’re looking for it. I’m not sure professional players would want to use Stadia as their platform of choice. At least not yet, since input delay and latency will clearly vary over time and connection stability.
Google says it may be able to reduce input delay significantly in the future through a technique called “Negative Latency.” While there have been a lot of memes around this phrase, Google is trying to undercut latency by predicting latency between the server and player. Through machine learning and a lot of data, Google thinks it can reduce latency to less than it currently exists between a console and a Bluetooth controller. While that seems exciting, we’ll have to wait until they start implementing the technique to see if it actually works.
The biggest issue I noticed on Stadia was audio delay. On Destiny 2 in particular, there was a noticeable delay between the gun firing and the sound signal coming out of my TV. For me, it wasn’t enough to pull me out of the experience, but more hardcore players may be more bothered by this. It was less noticeable on stronger connections, but if you’ve got slow internet, be prepared for some audio lag.
How much data does Stadia use?
When playing Stadia on my Windows PC through the Chrome browser at 720p, Stadia used between 12 and 20Mbps. In contrast, a Netflix stream used about the same amount, but Netflix can buffer content to stop streaming constantly. Because Stadia is always pulling data and can’t buffer, it will use a lot more data.
You could technically use Stadia connected to a mobile hotspot, but I’d strongly advise against it if you have a limited data plan. Playing Stadia at 720p used about 7GB per hour. My Google Fi plan costs $10/GB up to 6GB, so I would eat up my entire month’s plan in less than an hour.
In California, Comcast has a data cap of 1,000GB per month. If you played three hours per day for 30 days, you would use almost two-thirds of your data cap playing Stadia at 720p.
What games are available on Google Stadia?
There are a total of 22 titles available for Stadia at launch, with a number of other games coming in the coming months, and many more in 2020. If you want the full list, make sure you check out our dedicated article here.
Overall, the launch titles for Stadia seem pretty decent, with a lot of major titles coming to the platform before the end of the year. Rockstar’s western opus Red Dead Redemption 2 is a huge get for Google, especially since the game is so hard to run at anything close to high settings on PC. Having GYLT from the studio behind indie-favorite Rime as an exclusive is an encouraging early sign Google is invested in Stadia-only games too. That said, it’ll likely be a long wait before we start to see any games from Stadia studios.
As Android Authority editor Oliver Craig points out, the launch lineup for Stadia is comparable to that of other consoles launched in the last generation. In fact, after the recent bump from 12 to 22 games, Stadia has more launch titles than the Xbox One and Nintendo Switch had at launch, and the overall quality and variety is far more impressive.
Google Stadia review: The verdict
If you’ve got a strong internet connection and a big data cap, there’s no doubt Google Stadia has a ton of benefits. You can play it on almost any screen, and the ability to switch devices on the fly is fantastic, especially since you don’t need to own any high-end hardware. Does your doctor’s office have a strong internet connection? You could play Red Dead Redemption 2 on your Pixel 2 in the waiting room.
Something that may turn a lot of people off is the cost of games. Many PC and console gamers are used to huge sales that make AAA titles extremely cheap after an amount of time. For example, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is still priced at $60 for Stadia Base users and $30 for Stadia Pro users. That title has gone on sale over and over for the last year, and it was even free during Google’s Project Stream beta. That being said, we still don’t know how Google will handle sales in the future.
Google is promising a big game with Stadia.
Because Stadia is currently only available in the Pro tier and many of its marquee features aren’t available at launch, it’s hard to recommend you give it a go just yet. Most of these games are available on other platforms with much larger user bases, and the commitment for those platforms is much lower if you already own a gaming-capable PC or a console. Google is promising a big game with Stadia’s extensive list of features, but it’s disheartening that so many of them aren’t available to try when the platform launches.
If you’re looking to try out the first game streaming service that can actually deliver on the promise of cloud gaming, there’s no doubt Stadia can offer some serious value. But there are so many caveats to the service right now, you’ll have to really love the concept to pony-up for the Premiere Edition and an extra $9.99 per month for Stadia Pro.
That’s it for our Google Stadia review. Is it the future of gaming or is Google’s head stuck in the clouds? Let us know in the comments below!
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