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Google Stadia Review: Mostly Streaming Magic

While Stadia works as described, it’s not going to upset the entire console market—yet.

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Stadia Review

At long last, the launch of Google’s new Stadia streaming service means that the highly anticipated future of gaming—cloud streaming—is finally here. As the rest of the market—from Microsoft’s xCloud to Amazon’s unannounced service—scrambles to catch up with the tech giant, Google’s November 19th launch of Stadia gives them the honor of being the leader of a rapidly developing area of the gaming industry

But it hasn’t been all resounding success for Google Stadia. From poor communication to launch day woes, Stadia has been plagued by problems that have fueled the fires for the internet trolls that want the Bay Area powerhouse to “stay in their lane.”

Google has had quite an uphill battle to fight against the media and gaming community. Since it’s pre-E3 announcement, Stadia has seen plenty of comparisons to Ouya and netted lots of criticism that its goal of 4k streaming was a pipe dream.

But with Stadia’s November 19th launch, Google had the opportunity to quell the doubters and show the world that cloud-based gaming was achievable with current technology. And they did—to a certain extent. Overall, Google Stadia is absolutely magical and without-a-doubt the future of gaming—but also incredibly far from perfect.

But first, a little backstory

It would be impossible to fairly review Google Stadia without first setting the scene, because the launch day was certainly a wild ride for early adopters. Promised Day 1 access and first crack at reserving their username on the system, Stadia fans eagerly awaited their Founder’s package that included a controller and Chromecast and an emailed registration code for the service. In fact, they were promised in a Reddit AMA that they could have mobile access as soon as access codes were mailed after the 9 AM, Tuesday launch.

But on release day, Stadia access code emails were nowhere to be seen for many Founders. Internet rampage ensued, pitchforks were raised, torches were lit, and players were ready to storm Google HQ. Even worse, the trolls felt validated and public confidence in Stadia was at an all-time low. Even devoted fanbases like r/Stadia were ready to pull the plug.

Stadia Connect Podcast

Eventually, codes slowly reached the sweaty palms of Founders and the crisis was averted, but it pointed to a larger issue with the Stadia service—that Google seems to lack an understanding of the gaming community. In an industry so heavily dependent on hype, constant communication and fanservice is an important element of launching a new platform. Letting down thousands of the most fervent early adopters of Stadia was not a great start for the service, although getting hands-on was a different story.

But how does it play?

In optimal conditions, Google Stadia is straight-up gaming magic. Like, it works so well that it’s absolute insanity. With a decent wired internet connection, one would never even know that the game is running through a Chromecast from a server in the Bay Area. Every time Stadia is turned on, the service gives off one of those “this sort of technology really should not exist” kind of vibes.

For the most part, launching the program is a relatively seamless experience that feels almost the same as playing on an Xbox One or PlayStation 4. Once a game is queued from your phone and ‘casted to the Chromecast Ultra, the in-game experience is exactly what one would expect from a downloaded title on a top-of-the-line current, almost next-gen, console. The graphics look killer, controls feel neat and snappy, and everything feels, well, pretty close to perfect.

Sure, there can be slight stutters in the inputs and graphics from time to time, but that’s to be expected on a new streaming platform doing what Stadia does. Without looking for these sorts of errors while playing, they’re almost impossible to notice and, with a strong internet connection, seem to happen very infrequently.

Mobile’s a work in progress

But Stadia starts to break down a little bit when things move away from a dedicated hardware connection and onto a mobile device. While it still runs relatively smoothly and looks decent on a bite-sized screen, the controls often feel a little rubbery and less precise. There’s almost a slight resistance that doesn’t have that polished feel like a connected experience.

It may not be a big deal to lose a bit of response time in a game like Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, but a social shooter like Destiny 2 has twitchy movements at the core of its gameplay. Getting absolutely worked by a guy with a hand cannon before getting to really react takes a bit of the fun out of the overall experience. This latency issue on mobile is really noticeable when moving from a wired TV connection to a WiFi network on mobile, although this may not be as big if a player is given time to acclimate to the new control feelings and starts to account for them.

Among some other concerns for Stadia on-the-go is the lack of wireless controller functionality and game design concerns. While Google promises that the function will come in later updates, the Stadia controller must be plugged in via a USB-C cable into the port of a Google phone, adding another slight inconvenience to accessing the platform. Also, the games that are currently on Stadia were not designed with the concept of mobile in mind, making text and certain game elements difficult to see or read when used on a “normal” sized phone. Those with a Pixel 4 XL will probably be fine, but a 3a leaves a bit to be desired in the screen size category.

Still, even with these issues, Stadia is still absolutely mind-blowing on a cell phone. Having Destiny 2 multiplayer—regardless of K/D ratio—just a single touch away is an absolutely incredible feeling. While it may not be perfectly optimized and definitely isn’t the best option, mobile gets the job done in a pitch.

Another controller joins the fray

While it’s definitely a step or two above aftermarket, the Google Stadia controller leaves a bit to be desired in the excitement category. There is nothing inherently wrong with it—the hardware has a PlayStation thumbstick layout and functions as it should— but it lacks the quality feeling that other devices by Microsoft and Sony have out of the box. The weight is a bit on the light side, the rumble features are lacking, and the triggers have zero resistance.

stadia

Whether this was a design choice to reduce “moving parts” for the service, a ploy to keep costs low, or just simple oversight is unclear. Although players do have the option to use a controller from other manufacturers, supposedly using them increases the overall latency very slightly.

Design-wise—however—these things look pretty slick. The Founder’s Midnight Blue has a Google-esque flair with its contrasting highlighter orange stick color, while the Wasabi’s bright orange certainly adds a bit of pop. It’s not necessary, but a great touch.

Room to grow, plenty

More or less, Google Stadia functions just about as well as they promised it, although user mileage depends HEAVILY on the quality of their internet connection. But, of course, there are still plenty of places where Google could up their game and take this service to the next level.

For starters, the service’s library of titles is about as stale as week-old bread. Sure, Google deserves a little slack for launching a revolutionary new piece of software, but they really didn’t go out of their way to offer much in terms of recent releases. Most of these titles are a year old or more. Including something like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare or Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order would have given players something to actually look forward to playing.

Also, the ease of switching between devices is a bit more challenging than one would think. To go from TV to cell phone, one needs to launch the software of the phone, unsync the controller from the TV, grab a cable, plug the controller into the phone, wait for it to sync, and then play. Not the craziest set of hoops to jump through for a patient gamer, but finding ways to make that process more seamless would do wonders.

Lastly, finding more ways to improve latency and launch features would really up the value of Stadia’s service. Saying that mobile works—sort of—is not the best endorsement for the service, and creating a comparable experience between TV and mobile while still adding new features could expand the lifespan of the service.

Should people buy it?

While Stadia works as described, it’s really hard to wholeheartedly recommend it to the average gamer. Google Stadia is such a niche service that really appeals to smaller group of people with very specific needs. Some of them want the freedom that Chromecast offers (projectors, portability) while others need the ability to launch a game on many different devices (school, work, travel), but these aren’t really considerations that affect a majority of video game players. So—needless to say—Google Stadia is not going to upset the entire console market—yet.  

It’s also really important to understand that Google Stadia is still in the very early-adopter, almost beta, phase of its lifespan. The service could—and probably will—continue to grow and develop into an absolutely killer service, provided that Google has the industry chops to sustain it. People love to suggest that it will end up in the catalogue failed Google programs, the so-called Google Graveyard, but Stadia is truly a revolutionary and magical service that could eventually lead the entire industry in a forward direction.

In all honesty, the disastrous launch and marketing leading up to it seem to signal that Stadia’s worst enemy is really its creator, Google. Sure, the service works great, but as long as support and communication are lacking, the general market is really going to be hesitant to jump on board.

Either way, it will be really interesting to watch Stadia as it evolves and grows with time, especially with competitors waiting closely in the wings. Only time will tell if the magic stays alive or fizzles out.

Ready to join the cloud streaming Stadia party? Check out the Stadia Wave Podcast, right here by Goombastomp.

Ty is here to talk gaming and chew bubblegum, but he's all out of gum. Writer and host of the Stadia Wave Podcast, he is an Animal Crossing Fanatic, a Mario Kart legend, and a sore loser at Smash. Add him on Switch @Creepshow101, PSN/Live at Grimelife13, or Stadia at Grimelife and play!

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Most Important Games of the Decade: ‘Dark Souls’

Despite the difficulty and learning curve, gamers are still flocking to the Dark Souls series, and the genre it spawned, in massive numbers.

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Dark Souls Remastered Review Nintendo Switch

Over the course of the last decade a lot of games have made large and influential impacts on the medium of gaming but few have done so as significantly or triumphantly as Dark Souls

The pseudo-sequel to Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls took the framework of the original title and altered it considerably. Gone were the many individual stages and hub area, replaced by a massive open world that continuously unfolded, via shortcuts and environmental changes, like a massive metroidvania style map. 

Dark Souls also doubled down on nearly every aspect of the original. The lore and world-building were elaborated on considerably, making the land of Lordran feel more lived in and expansive. An entire backstory for the game, one that went back thousands of years, was created and unfolded through small environmental details and item descriptions. 

Dark-Souls-Remastered-Darkroot-Garden

The bosses were bigger, meaner and more challenging, with some of them ranking right up there with the best of all time. Even standard enemies seemed to grow more deadly as the game went on, with many of them actually being bosses you’d faced at an earlier time in the game. Tiny details like this didn’t just make the player feel more powerful, they added to the outright scale of the entire game.

Still, if we’re here to talk about the biggest influence Dark Souls had on the gaming world, we have to talk about the online system. While the abilities to write messages and summon help were available in Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls improved on and enhanced these features to the point where they changed the game considerably. 

The wider player base made the online components work more consistently as well. Rarely were players left standing around for 15-20 minutes waiting to summon or be summoned for a boss fight. There were more messages on the ground to lead (or mislead) players, and the animated spirits of dead players warned of the hundreds of ways you might die while playing through the game. 

Dark Souls

The addictive nature of the game and its rewarding gameplay loop would lead to the establishment of the Souls-like genre. Like with metroidvania, there are few compliments a game can receive that are as rewarding as having an entire genre named for them.

Since 2011, the year of Dark Souls’ release, dozens of Souls-likes have emerged from the ether, each with their own little tweaks on the formula. Salt and Sanctuary went 2D,The Surge added a sci-fi angle, and Nioh went for a feudal Japanese aesthetic, to name just a few. 

Either way, Dark Souls’ influence has been long felt in the gaming industry ever since. Despite the hardcore difficulty and intense learning curve, gamers are still flocking to the series, and the genre it spawned, in massive numbers. For this reason alone, Dark Souls will live on forever in the annals of gaming history. 

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Game Reviews

‘Riverbond’ Review: Colorful Hack’n’Slash Chaos

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Sometimes a little bit of mindless smashing is just what people play video games for, and if some light sword-swinging, spear-stabbing, laser-shooting giant hand-slapping action that crumbles a destructible world into tiny blocks sounds like a pleasant way to spend a few hours, then Riverbond might just satisfy that urge. Though its short campaign can get a little repetitive by the end, colorful voxel levels and quirky characters generally make this rampaging romp a button-mashing good time, especially if you bring along a few friends.

Riverbond grass

There really isn’t much of a story here outside something about some mystical leaders being imprisoned by a knight, and Riverbond lets players choose from its eight levels in Mega Man fashion, so don’t go in expecting some sort of narrative thread. Instead, each land has its own mini-situation going on, whether that involves eradicating some hostile pig warriors or reading library books or freeing numerous rabbit villagers scattered about, the narrative motivation is pretty light here. That doesn’t mean that these stages don’t each have their various charms, however, as several punnily named NPCs will blurt out humorous bits of dialogue that work well as breezy pit stops between all the cubic carnage.

Developer Cococucumber has also wisely created plenty of visual variety for their fantastical world, as players will find their polygonal hero traversing the lush greenery of grassy plains, the wooden piers of a ship’s dockyard, the surrounding battlements of a medieval castle, and the craggy outcroppings of a snowy mountain, among other locations, each with a distinct theme. Many of the trees or bridges or crates or whatever else happens to be lying around are completely destructible, able to be razed to the ground with enough brute force. Occasionally the physics involved in these crumbling structures helps gain access to jewels or other loot, but this mechanic mostly just their for the visual appeal one gets from cascading blocks; Riverbond isn’t exactly deep in its design.

Riverbond boss

That shallowness also applies to the basic gameplay, which pretty much involves hacking or shooting enemies and environments to pieces, activating whatever task happens to be the main goal for each sub-stage, then moving on or scouring around a bit for treasure before finally arriving at a boss. Though there are plenty of different weapons to find, they generally fall into only a few categories: small swinging implements that allow for quick slashes, large swinging implements that are slow but deal heavier damage, spears that offer quick jabs, or guns that…shoot stuff. There are some variations among these in speed, power, and possible side effects (a gun that fired electricity is somewhat weak, but sticks to opponents and gives off an extra, devastating burst), but once an agreeable weapon is found, there is little reason to give it up outside experimentation.

Still, there is a rhythmic pleasure to be found in games like this when they are done right, and Riverbond mostly comes through with tight controls, hummable tunes, and twisting levels that do a good job of mixing in some verticality to mask the repetitiveness. It’s easy for up to four players to get in on the dungeon-crawling-like pixelated slaughter, and the amount of blocks exploding onscreen can make for some fun and frenzied fireworks, especially when whomping on one of the game’s giant bosses. A plethora of skins for the hero are also discoverable, with at least one or two tucked away in locations both obvious and less so around each sub-stage. These goofy characters exist purely for aesthetic reasons, but those who prefer wiping out legions of enemies dressed as Shovel Knight or a sentient watermelon slice will be able to fulfill that fantasy.

Riverbond bears

By the end, the repetitive fights and quests can make Rivebond feel a little same-y, but the experience wraps up quickly without dragging things out. This may disappoint players looking for a more involved adventure, but those who sometimes find relaxation by going on autopilot — especially with some buddies on the couch — will appreciate how well the block-smashing basics are done here.

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Game Reviews

‘Earthnight’ Review: Hit the Dragon Running

Between its lush visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, Earthnight never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

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Earthnight

In Earthnight, you do one thing: run. There’s not much more to do in this roguelike auto-runner but to dash across the backs of massive dragons to reach their heads and strike them down. This may be an extremely simple gameplay loop, but Earthnight pulls it off with such elegance and style. Between its lush comic book visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, it creates an experience that never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

Dragons have descended from space and are wreaking havoc upon humanity. No one is powerful enough to take them down – except for the two-player characters, Sydney and Stanley, of course. As the chosen ones to save the human race, they must board a spaceship and drop from the heavens while slaying as many dragons on your way down as they can. For every defeated creature, they’ll be rewarded with water – an extremely precious resource in the wake of the dragon apocalypse. This resource can be exchanged for upgrades that make the next run that much better.

This simple story forms the basis for a similarly basic, yet engaging gameplay loop. Each time you dive from your spaceship, you’ll see an assortment of dragons to land on. Once you make a landing, you’ll dash across its back and avoid the obstacles it throws at you before reaching its head, where you’ll strike the final blow. Earthnight is procedurally generated, so every time you leap down from your home base, there’s a different set of dragons to face, making each run feel unique. There are often special rewards for hunting specific breeds of dragon, so it’s always exciting to see the new set of creatures before you and hunt for the one you need at any given moment.

Earthnight is an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.”

Earthnight

Landing on the dragons is only the first step to slaying them. Entire hordes of monsters live on their backs, and in true auto-runner fashion, they’ll rush at you with reckless abandon from the very start. During the game’s first few runs, the onrush of enemies can feel overwhelming. Massive crowds of them will burst forth at once, and it can feel impossible to survive their onslaughts. However, this is where Earthnight begins to truly shine. The more dragons you slay, the more upgrade items become available, which are either given as rewards for slaying specific dragons or can be purchased with the water you’ve gained in each run. Many of these feel essentially vital for progression – some allow you to kill certain enemies just by touching them, whereas others can grant you an additional jump, both of which are much appreciated in the utter chaos of obstacles found on each dragon.

Procedural generation can often result in bland or repetitive level design, but it’s this item progression system that keeps Earthnight from ever feeling dry. It creates a constant sense of improvement: with more items in your arsenal after each new defeated dragon, you’ll be able to descend even further in the next run. This makes every level that much more exciting: with more power under your belt, there are greater possibilities for defeating enemies, stacking up combos, or climbing high above the dragons. It becomes an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.

Earthnight

At its very best, Earthnight feels like a rhythm game. With the perfect upgrades for each level, it becomes only natural to bounce off of enemies’ heads and soar through the heavens with an almost musical flow. The vibrant chiptune soundtrack certainly helps with this. Packed full of driving beats and memorable melodies with a mixture of chiptune and modern instrumentation, the music makes it easy to charge forward through whatever each level will throw your way.

That is not to say that Earthnight never feels too chaotic for its own good – rather, there are some points where its flood of enemies and obstacles can feel too random or overwhelming, to the point where it can be hard to keep track of your character or feel as if it’s impossible to avoid enemies. Sometimes the game can’t even keep up with itself, with the performance beginning to chug once enemies crowd the screen too much, at least in the Switch version. However, this is the exception, rather than the rule, and for the most part, simply making good use of its upgrades and reacting quickly to the challenges before you will serve you well in your dragon-slaying quest.

Earthnight

Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.”

It certainly helps that Earthnight is a visual treat as well. It adopts a striking comic book style, in which nearly every frame of animation is lovingly hand-drawn and loaded with detail. Sometimes these details feel a bit excessive – some characters are almost grotesquely detailed, with the faces of the bobble-headed protagonists sometimes seeming too elaborate for comfort. However, in general, it’s a gorgeous game, with its luscious backdrops of deep space and high sky, along with creative monsters and dragon designs that only get more outlandish and spectacular the farther down you soar.

Earthnight is a competent auto-runner that might not revolutionize its genre, but it makes up for this simplicity by elegantly executing its core gameplay loop so that it constantly changes yet remains endlessly addictive. Its excellent visual and audio presentation helps to make it all the more engrossing, while it strikes the perfect balance between randomized level design and permanent progression thanks to its items and upgrades system. At times it may get too chaotic for its own good, but all told, Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.

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