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Google Stadia Review: Mostly Streaming Magic

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.

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