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Google Stadia review: the best of cloud gaming is still just a beta

Google Stadia works.

That’s what you came here to find out, and I won’t bury the lede: on Tuesday, November 19th, Google will launch a cloud service that truly lets you play big-budget games without discs or downloads, consoles or gaming PCs. That’s because Stadia lets you stream the games you buy on servers in the cloud, and it’s more reliable than any service I’ve tested in a decade covering the technology.

If you’re expecting it to look or work as well as a high-end gaming PC or even a high-end game console, or if you’re hoping for a killer app, you may come away disappointed. But the overarching reaction I had while playing Stadia was the same I have with half-decent headphones: I’d happily keep playing if I wasn’t already spoiled.

All you need is a decent internet connection, a good Wi-Fi router, and your pick of Google’s Chromecast Ultra dongle, Pixel phone, or the Chrome web browser on a laptop or desktop. Oh, and a lot of patience. Despite the charm and an improved slate of games, Google’s cloud gaming service isn’t anywhere near what the company initially promised in March. It’s effectively a beta that Google is charging real money for, and you should wait until 2020 for that to change.

I‘m not going to restate my entire editorial about Google’s incredibly awkward launch, but I think it’d be helpful to tell you what Stadia is and isn’t so we can review it fairly.

Today, Stadia is a $130 one-time purchase, plus $10 a month (after a three-month trial), plus $20 to $60 per premium game;

*In fact, Stadia reviewers weren’t able to try these things on any platform, though Google claims they’ll work on day one.

Sometime in 2020, Stadia will be a free service, plus the cost of games;

Someday, Google has promised or suggested:

How cloud gaming works

Whether we’re talking about Google Stadia, PlayStation Now, GeForce Now, or Microsoft’s xCloud, the core concept behind cloud gaming is the same: instead of a having a powerful gaming PC or game console in your house, you’re remotely accessing a gaming computer that lives in a server rack far away. Those servers stream the game to you just like a YouTube video. (In fact, Google’s Stadia uses the same VP9 codec to do so.)

Every time you press a button, move a mouse, or flick a joystick, that command has to travel over the internet to a server. That server then has to update the game and transmit a compressed video frame of that reaction all the way back to your TV, laptop, or phone. And it has to do it all so incredibly fast that you don’t notice a delay. 

That’s why simply having a fast internet connection (in Mbps) isn’t enough: it also needs to be stable, decongested, and you need to be physically close enough to those servers (think hundreds, not thousands, of miles away) so the round trip doesn’t take too long.  

One other downside of cloud gaming is that, because you’re constantly downloading video frames, it can eat up far more data than downloading game files themselves. Your average big-budget game is 50GB, but Google says Stadia can consume up to 20GB per hour. I didn’t see quite that much usage per hour, but between Stadia and a few game downloads for comparison, I’ve nearly hit my 1TB Comcast data cap only halfway through November. (Typically, I only hit 900GB per month.)

That’s practically half the Stadia review right there, because a lot of the features Google promised in March simply don’t exist yet. So let’s focus on what does exist: a service that lets you play entire games over the internet on TVs, phones, and web browsers, which is still fairly impressive all by itself.

Stadia is a service where, if your Destiny 2 buddies might need you for a raid, you might legitimately be able to contribute no matter where you are or what you’re doing — as long as there’s good Wi-Fi on tap. I fired up a session on the TV with the Stadia Controller while we were just blasting tiny minions, swapped to a desktop with a mouse and keyboard when I needed better aim for a boss fight, and seamlessly resumed the game on a smartphone before walking down the hall to grab a snack all while playing with a colleague 5,000-plus miles away in London — without any major hitches.

Now, there’s next to no chance I’d actually be able to do that with friends because Destiny 2 has no cross-platform multiplayer (or adjustable FOV, in case you’re wondering). They’re probably going to play it on the consoles and PCs they already own. Bungie does let you sync your progress between Stadia, PlayStation, Xbox, and Steam — which is a huge point in its favor — but I doubt I’d convince anyone to switch when Destiny 2 looks so much worse on Stadia than other platforms.

Did you notice that I wrote “4K” and “1080p” in scare quotes earlier? For days, I’ve been trying and failing to get Google to admit that its servers aren’t actually rendering intensive games at what I would consider 4K. For instance, here’s a picture I carefully took with my iPhone 11 Pro when playing Shadow of the Tomb Raider at the highest settings Stadia seems to deliver today:

And here’s a similar picture from my gaming PC with a GeForce GTX 1080, a video card that, theoretically, has slightly less oomph (9 teraflops versus 10.7 teraflops) than Stadia’s servers should offer. Tap to enlarge (or download) these pics to compare for yourself:

What you’re looking at here isn’t bad streaming; the stream is 4K. Not only that, but it’s also some of the best streaming image quality I’ve seen, without loads of the nasty compression artifacts that make other cloud gaming services look like there’s an ugly haze between you and much of the game. But where’s the sharp detail in Lara Croft’s character model? And where are the high-resolution textures? Google told me that Stadia is designed to run games at the highest resolution with all of the settings turned up, but clearly, that isn’t happening here.

With Destiny 2, it’s even more obvious that the game isn’t running at the highest settings. On a Chromecast Ultra, a “4K” stream looked closer to 1080p, and my colleague Tom Warren and I swore that the 1080p streams we were getting in the Chrome web browser looked more like 720p.

Initially, Google told us that it was using the highest-resolution, highest-fidelity build of Destiny 2 available. But Bungie later confirmed that our eyes weren’t deceiving us. “When streaming at 4K, we render at a native 1080p and then upsample and apply a variety of techniques to increase the overall quality of effect,” a Bungie rep said, adding that D2 runs at the PC equivalent of medium settings. That explains why the Xbox One X build, which runs at a native 4K and with higher-res assets, looks so much better than Stadia.

Frankly, those two games are the only graphically intensive ones we had time to test since Stadia’s launch lineup was a little bit lacking until Sunday evening and reviewers only got to try seven of the 12 original games. Stadia early adopters will point out that the new list of 22 games is more than most next-gen consoles come with, but there’s nothing next-gen about any of these games. It’s just a list of solid titles you can sink your teeth into for many hours if you haven’t played them already.

I can’t truly tell you whether Google Stadia will work for you with as much fidelity as you see above because I live in Silicon Valley, a mere 45-minute drive from Google’s headquarters, with a fairly good 150 Mbps Comcast internet connection and an excellent Wi-Fi router at my disposal. I’m likely close enough to the company’s West Coast data centers that I’m probably akin to a best-case Stadia user.

But I have to give Google some benefit of the doubt because we’ve never seen a cloud gaming launch on this scale: 14 different territories at once, including the continental US, UK, and Canada, with Google’s extensive cloud infrastructure and ISP partnerships backing it up. Stadia also seems remarkably good at maintaining image quality and latency in the face of bandwidth constraints.

I artificially forced my Wi-Fi down to 35 Mbps, 30 Mbps, 25 Mbps, 20 Mbps, 15 Mbps, 10 Mbps, and 5 Mbps speeds, and I found that games stayed playable down to 15 Mbps, even 10 Mbps if they weren’t fast-paced. Over a wired Ethernet cable, I was surprised by how accurate I could be with a mouse and keyboard after very little practice.

Nvidia’s invite-only GeForce Now beta has been my benchmark for cloud gaming, but I still view it as a major handicap for games like the brutally hard Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice because Nvidia’s service seems to handle bandwidth dips comparatively poorly. (I did beat Genichiro over the internet, but I view it as one of my finest accomplishments.)

That said, Stadia doesn’t seem to know what to do with a truly volatile network: over my local Starbucks’ speedy but congested Google Wi-Fi connection, Stadia tried to maintain visual quality and wound up stuttering to death, while GeForce Now looked like soup but let me keep playing. I also tricked Stadia into playing over a 90 Mbps LTE cellular connection where it ranged from totally playable to annoyingly stuttery, which is probably why Google doesn’t officially support cellular connections at all.

Everywhere, there are signs that Stadia is unfinished, half-baked, and not fully thought-out, but that’s clear nowhere more than the Stadia Controller. Physically, it’s a pleasingly familiar, comfortable blend of Sony’s DualShock 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One gamepads. It borrows Sony’s stippled texture and oblong grips, but its analog sticks look and feel far more like Microsoft’s superior ones. Plus, there are Switch Pro-like face buttons for good measure. It has smoother triggers than Sony, too.

Functionally, it arrives with two practically useless buttons (Google Assistant and screen capture, both of which are barely functional at launch), a currently disabled Bluetooth radio, and it can’t control PC or phone sessions using its Wi-Fi-based direct-to-server connection, even though its internal Wi-Fi radio was pitched as the way you could seamlessly switch from one Stadia platform to another.

When I noticed that latency seems worse on a Chromecast with a wireless gamepad than on a phone with the pad plugged in over USB-C, I wondered if that small part of the Stadia idea might be flawed. When I plugged in wired headphones into its 3.5mm jack, the volume was far too low, and there’s static that shouldn’t be there. When I came back to my Pixel hours later, which was still plugged into the gamepad, I realized it drained a huge chunk of the phone’s battery. Apparently, it never shut itself off. When I hit the Stadia button, I was impressed by how it reaches over the network to fire up the Chromecast and my TV simultaneously — until I realized that Google doesn’t have any way to turn my TV off.

The truly impressive gamepad experiences I had while testing Stadia didn’t use the Stadia Controller at all, but Google does deserve credit for one: I loved how Stadia natively supported my 8BitDo SF30 Pro, right down to its rarely used rumble motor. I also loved just how good it felt to pick up an Xbox 360 gamepad and play Destiny 2 at 4K 60 fps on a Windows PC again, after days of training myself to adapt to a lesser experience.

Every smart device now requires you to agree to a series of terms and conditions before you can use it — contracts that no one actually reads. It’s impossible for us to read and analyze every single one of these agreements. But we started counting exactly how many times you have to hit “agree” to use devices when we review them since these are agreements most people don’t read and definitely can’t negotiate.

To use Google Stadia, you must have a Google account and agree to:

– The Stadia Code of Conduct
Google Play Terms of Service if you want to purchase any games
Google Payment Terms of Service if you want to pay for any games

That’s a total of five mandatory agreements.

There’s no reason anyone should buy into Stadia right now. Google has made sure of that, partly by underdelivering at launch and partly with a pricing scheme that sees you paying three times (for hardware, for the service, for games) just to be an early adopter.

But the nice thing is that no one’s forcing you to, either. Early adopters know who they are, and they’ll hopefully be subsidizing a better experience for the rest of us while helping Google work out the kinks. The technology works reasonably well, and Google’s gadgets can all be automatically updated over the air.

I can’t imagine many gamers paying three ways for Stadia today, but I could definitely see them paying once. They’ll want to know whether to buy a new console or upgrade their PC for Cyberpunk 2077 next April… and maybe decide to instead spend $60 on a Stadia copy they’ll only play in their Chrome web browser, using what will then be a free Google PC in the cloud. Maybe they see an ad on YouTube, press a button, instantly start playing, and get hooked. Maybe a streamer shares an epic gameplay moment they relive for themselves. Maybe the immediate gratification of a single game becomes the gateway for more.

Maybe Stadia isn’t another Daydream but part of a much bigger play. That’d be clever.

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