Google Stadia review – the console vanishes from video gaming

When it comes to hardware, the Stadia is its controller.

The Stadia is nothing short of revolutionary. Its core technology delivers on a promise decades in the making: console-quality gaming, without the console. But revolutions have unpredictable outcomes, leave a trail of destruction in their wake, and have a tendency to destroy those who start them. Will Google be able to see this through?

The streaming

It works! For some, that’s all that matters. Once Stadia is up and running, the system is nearly indistinguishable from playing a game on a console sitting under your TV, except there’s no fan noise, no downloads or discs, and, well, no console.

The bulk of my time on the Stadia was spent with the system in traditional TV mode. That means the Stadia controller connecting to Google’s servers over wifi, and a Chromecast Ultra plugged into the back of my TV doing the same. For “best performance”, Google recommends wiring the Chromecast up to a LAN, but doing so felt like overkill. Only once did I experience anything that looked like lag (when sending a picture message to my partner); every other time, it was perfect.

That not only goes for the visual quality, but also for input lag. In a bold show of confidence, the reviewers’ kit for the Stadia includes not only Destiny 2, a fairly fast-paced shooter, but also Mortal Kombat 11, a fighting game that represents a genre where fans count individual frames for advantage. Doubtless, in the hands of a pro, the time lag matters. But, for me, with the reflexes of a short-sighted journalist approaching 30, I couldn’t tell the difference.

There are caveats. I have a fairly good internet connection (100Mbps fibre to the home) and a fairly old TV (1080p, non-HDR, and a 5.1 set-up). Google recommends a connection of at least 10Mbps, for Switch-quality visuals – 720p with stereo output – and 35Mbps for full HDR 4K. I also don’t have a bandwidth cap on my internet, which is for the best, since you can plausibly expect to churn through at least 10GB an hour if streaming at the highest quality.

Things are shakier, too, if you move off the Chromecast. Mortal Kombat was stuttering when played in handheld mode.

The controller

Only two pieces of hardware come in the box: a Chromecast Ultra, and the Stadia’s controller. The Ultra’s not new, and is a fairly solid streaming stick in its own right – which is good because you have to use it for the Stadia to stream to your TV. In fact, you have to use the one in the box, since it’s running special firmware. A software update is coming for the rest, Google says.

So, when it comes to hardware, the Stadia is its controller. And it’s fine. It looks a bit like a fake prop knocked up for a BBC TV show that was a bit too strict about the rules for product placement, but the triggers feel nice, the buttons click and don’t stick, and it doesn’t waste resources on gimmicks such as motion sensitivity or a whopping great touchpad. Instead, the notable feature of the controller, alongside the standard gameplay buttons, are a pair offering tight integration to Google’s other services: one that launches Google Assistant, and one that can be configured to instantly share a live stream to YouTube.

Except, not yet. Neither of the features actually existed on the reviewers’ units. Google says a software update that should enable them is coming.

The games

Ooof.

Stadia is launching with one solitary exclusive: the charming but uninspiring Gylt, which looks like Coraline and plays like Metal Gear Solid. The rest of the launch lineup is games that came out in 2013, 2015 and 2016, three from 2018, one from this spring, one from this summer, and four that can probably be described as new: indie puzzler Kine, dancing game Just Dance 2020, rebooted fighter Samurai Shodown, and the complete Destiny 2, including September’s Shadowkeep expansion.

Looking a lot like Coraline … Gylt.
 Looking a lot like Coraline … Gylt. Photograph: Tequila Works

The last two are effectively free with the Stadia, for the time being, since they’re the first games bundled with the console’s Stadia Pro subscription, an £8.99-a-month service that offers free games (well, game), and is required to stream in higher resolutions. Stadia Pro is, in turn, free for three months for every buyer of the Stadia Founders’ Edition, the £119 box set that is currently the only way to buy the Stadia at all.

Google must know the launch lineup is sparse. On Sunday night, just three days before launch, it announced another 10 games would be available on release. More impressively, all but three of those came out this year.

Every other game can be bought for full price, just like a home console. And I do mean full: you may not be buying anything other than time on Google’s servers, but there are no savings to be had here, with Mortal Kombat 11’s Legendary Edition topping the charts at an eye-watering £69.99.

The rest

Where Stadia should make up lost ground is in the flexibility afforded by its revolutionary approach and the new features and abilities it enables. But, in practice, there’s little to see here.

At launch, Stadia supports three ways to play: you can physically plug the controller into a PC or Mac and load the Stadia website; physically plug the controller into a Pixel phone, and play on the app; or wirelessly connect to a Chromecast and play on a TV. But the connectivity requirements are strict enough that it’s hard to see it ever being used outside your own home. You can’t (currently) take it to a friend’s house unless they also have a Stadia, and even then, connecting to a new Chromecast is a faff. The service isn’t recommended for anything other than a home wifi network, to avoid complex setups, so gaming in your lunch break is off limits. And, of course, you need connectivity, so, even if you do mount your Pixel phone (you do have a Pixel phone, yes? Because – currently – that’s all that supports Stadia), it’s not a whole lot of use as a portable console.

Inelegant … the Stadia in handheld mode.
 Inelegant … the Stadia in handheld mode. Photograph: Alex Hern/The Guardian

What about going beyond what we expect from consoles? A bevy of features, branded as Stream Connect, State Share and Crowd Play, allow Stadia owners to leap straight into a game from a YouTube video, to load up the exact moment shared by a friend, or to play a game with the very person you were just watching. Except – there’s that word again – currently they don’t exist. The first games supporting the features should hit next year.

Verdict

The Stadia nailed the impossible, and then failed the possible. The single most important challenge facing Google – getting video game streaming on a par with local play – has been passed with flying colours.

But on everything else, the company’s approach is baffling. Some aspects suggest a rushed launch, with the company overly comfortable in its ability to push software updates down the line, failing to appreciate the importance of giving early adopters – the most engaged, eager fanbase – something for their loyalty. Yes, in six months’ time, many of the problems will be fixed. But the lackadaisical approach to quality is concerning, and we can only review what we’ve already got.

A more fundamental concern is that it doesn’t seem clear who it’s for. Streaming is a technical wonder, but if it doesn’t bring material advantages, what’s the point? It’s slightly cheaper than a home console – £119 for the Founders’ edition, compared to an Xbox One S starting at £200 or a PS4 at £220. But pick up a few backlist games at used prices, and the savings soon disappear. They go a bit faster still if you compare the £6.99 PS+ or Xbox Live Gold to Stadia Pro.

Ultimately, the only real benefit of the system is the absence of that box under the TV. If your impeccable sense of interior design values that above game selection, price, offline play or community size, go for it. Otherwise, stick with a home console if AAA games are where your heart lies, or pick up Apple Arcade to see what a revolution looks like when it focuses on the games and not the technology.

[“source=theguardian”]

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