Google Stadia Review
The much-touted Stadia, Google's cloud gaming service, shows a lot of promise, but as of now falls behind competitors. Read our full Google Stadia review to see why this is the future of gaming, but not yet.
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Google’s disruptive gaming platform, Stadia, aims to dethrone even the best cloud gaming services. Rather than approaching the cloud gaming problem with a handful of servers and a Steam installation, Google has opted to create an entire ecosystem for Stadia that can go toe-to-toe with consoles from Sony and Microsoft.
At least, that’s the goal. In this Google Stadia review, we’re going to take a look at the Premiere Edition to see where the service delivers and where it falls behind.
We put Stadia — the self-proclaimed future of gaming — under rigorous testing, comparing everything from the controller to the interface to the input lag so we can see how it stacks up against a traditional gaming experience.
Stadia may very well be the future, but only in the future. The current release feels like a beta test more than anything else, severely lacking in features and coming with some lag issues, to boot. Google’s glimpse into the future of gaming isn’t without value, but it’s not worth the $130 asking price right now.
- True 4K gaming with Chromecast
- Hefty controller
- Easy-to-use application
- Very little input lag
- Play games within seconds
- Expensive hardware
- Lacking features
- Limited game support
- Licensing issues when traveling
- Audio lag
- Subpar PC experience
Stadia was announced with a long list of features, including family sharing, an in-depth achievement system and 4K/HDR gaming on PC. However, upon launch, most of those features are missing, making Stadia feel like it’s in beta rather than fully released.
As for the previously announced features, well, the achievements, family sharing, 4K/HDR gaming on PC and backwards compatibility with older Chromecast Ultras are off the table. Only the Chromecast Ultras shipped with Premiere Editions of Stadia will work, as they have the latest firmware.
You can still game in 4K with HDR, but only on Chromecast Ultra. The other previously announced features will come some time in 2020. For example, Google says that achievements are actively being tracked, though you can’t see your progress in-game.
The only feature that seems to have stuck around is the capture button. The Stadia controller has a dedicated capture button that allows you to easily capture screenshots and video clips, though they’re only available in the Stadia app.
You can’t easily share or download your screenshots, though, which makes them kind of pointless. A Reddit user found that you can download your clips using Google Takeout, but that’s a pain, to say the least.
Comparing the Stadia Controller to Xbox One and DualShock 4
Although Stadia supports the Xbox One and the wired DualShock 4 when playing through your browser, the Stadia controller is an essential part of the experience. Instead of using Bluetooth or something like a standard controller, the Stadia controller actually communicates over WiFi. That should mean less input lag, which our testing backs up.
The controller itself costs $69.99, which is more expensive than the DualShock 4 and Xbox One controllers. We compared it to a standard Xbox One controller, a Dualshock 4, a Nintendo Switch Pro Controller and the Xbox Elite Controller Series 2. Although all of those look better than the Stadia controller, it can still hold its own.
It feels larger than other leading controllers, as the top doesn’t taper in like the Xbox One controller. Because of that, the controller actually rests on your middle fingers, which makes it feel like a gamepad, similar to the Super Nintendo. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but something to note.
The weight is what stood out most to us. Stadia has a heavy controller, which is a nice change of pace compared to the DualShock 4. Despite that, the controller still feels cheap. The spongy buttons and overly clicky D-pad contrast with the hefty weight, making for a controller that simultaneously feels premium and junky.
The bones of the controller are solid, but the skin is not. When holding the controller, the plastic has a strange texture to it, and the button presses give off a hollow response. It’s not a bad controller, inherently, but it’s bad at the asking price. If Google sold it closer to $40 to $50, we’d be content.
Gaming on Any Screen, or at Least a Few
One of the tenets of Stadia is the ability to play your games on any screen, no matter where you are. Although excellent as a marketing bullet point, it’s not the whole story. At launch, Stadia has restricted functionality that’s limited to the Google ecosystem. Although the app is available on all Android devices, you can only play games on recent Pixel phones.
You’ll need a Chromecast Ultra to play on your TV. Other Android-based smart TVs and casting devices are not compatible, even though they may allow you to download the Stadia app. Likewise, you can play with a keyboard and mouse on your PC, but only through Google Chrome, not other Chromium-based browsers, such as Opera (read our Opera review).
The Google Store listing says that Stadia will support wireless play on laptops, desktops and select phones and tablets in 2020. That’d make sense if Stadia was in a beta period, but it’s not. As a fully launched product, Stadia has less support than some apps still in beta, such as GeForce Now and Project xCloud.
Google Stadia Features Overview
Update 12/18/2019: Borderlands 3, Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2 and Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Breakpoint have been added.
Stadia is not like other cloud gaming platforms in that it doesn’t integrate with DRMs like Steam or Origin. Rather than bringing an existing library of games, as you would with Shadow (read our Shadow review), Stadia is much more akin to a service like PlayStation Now, where the library of games is curated for you (read our PlayStation Now review).
That’s where comparisons end, though. It’s best to think of Stadia like a new console, where you have to purchase games as you would for your Xbox One or PS4. Those games work on Stadia and Stadia alone, and there isn’t a large selection at launch. Just over 40 games have been announced, and a good chunk of them haven’t been released yet.
Most titles are large, AAA games, including Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Red Dead Redemption 2 and Final Fantasy XV. Many anticipated releases are slated to launch on Stadia, too, including Watch Dogs: Legion, Doom Eternal and Cyberpunk 2077.
Still, there’s a lack of diversity. There are only a handful of indie titles available, including Windjammers 2 (yet to be released) and Thumper, but that’s about it.
Although the limited lineup makes sense for a console launch, Stadia isn’t a console. It’s at a disadvantage compared to cloud gaming services that integrate with other platforms, such as GeForce Now (read our GeForce Now review).
In its current form, Stadia is an expensive service that requires a lot of upfront costs to get started. Although Google says that’ll change in 2020, the digital storefront model that Stadia is gunning after remains to be seen. At the time of writing, you’ll need to invest around $200 to get set up with a couple of games.
Google has made it clear that Stadia is not meant to be a subscription service, though there is a Stadia Pro subscription available. Rather, it’s meant to sit alongside physical consoles like the Xbox One. Stadia is instead a digital storefront where you can purchase games like you would on Steam or the PlayStation Network.
At the time of writing, though, that’s not the case. Although Google has plans to increase support for Stadia in the future, it’s only available on Android devices. The Stadia controller is the only controller that you can use wirelessly, too. Your Xbox One controller or DualShock 4 will work on a Mac, Chrome or PC, but only if you hardwire the controller.
What’s the Difference Between Stadia Founder’s, Premiere, Pro and Base?
Before getting to the hardware, let’s talk about Stadia as a service. There are two hardware bundles: Founder’s Edition and Premier Edition.
The Founder’s Edition is sold out, though it came with an exclusive blue controller and a buddy pass for Stadia Pro. You can buy the Premiere Edition right now for $130, which includes everything from the Founder’s Edition, but with a white controller. We’ll talk more about that in a minute.
Regardless, both packages include three months of Stadia Pro. This $10-per-month subscription is similar to Xbox Live or PlayStation Plus. Pro members will get a couple of free games to play each month, as well as discounts on select titles in the store. For example, Metro Exodus is $20 with a Pro membership, as opposed to $40.
You don’t need that Pro membership to play games, though. Stadia Base, which will launch in 2020, is free to use, though you’ll need to purchase games. Google is asking the full retail price of most games for its Base members, so expect to pay $59.99 for any AAA titles released in the previous year.
Purchasing Stadia Hardware
Right now, the Stadia hardware is a factor when purchasing a subscription. There’s a pack available that includes three months of Stadia Pro, a white controller and a Chromecast Ultra for $130. You’ll need the controller and Chromecast to play wirelessly on your TV for the foreseeable future. Right now, though, that’s the only way to play Stadia.
Technically, Stadia is launched, but it hasn’t launched fully. You need an invite code to access the platform, which are only given to those who’ve purchased the $130 Premiere Edition bundle. The three months of premium service come with a handful of free games, including Destiny 2, but you’ll still need to purchase additional games.
Those games are really expensive, too. For example, if you wanted Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Red Dead Redemption 2 with your Stadia Premiere Edition, you’d be $230 in the hole. Odyssey was recently marked down to only $15 for holiday deals on Xbox One and PS4, and that’s for a physical copy that you can resell once you’re done.
Stadia starts on your phone, but as long as you have a Chromecast — which you’ll need in order to use it right now, anyway — it can stay on your TV. After setting up the service — we’ll get into that in a minute — all you need to do is turn on your TV and the controller. Your Chromecast will show a button combination, which you’ll need to input to turn on Stadia.
Unboxing the Stadia Premiere Edition
Before getting to that, though, let’s talk about what comes in the Premiere Edition. Google includes a white Stadia controller, a Chromecast Ultra with the latest firmware and charging cables for both. The cable for the Chromecast also has an ethernet jack, so you can wire it to your router.
Google is also supposed to email you an invite code, though as we’ll get into in a minute, we didn’t receive ours. It would make more sense to include the code on a card in the box to avoid any email mishaps but, alas, that’s how Google has decided to handle things.
As for what’s in the box, that’s it. Google includes a short setup manual but no other documentation. Seeing how Stadia is a new-ish concept and likely the first introduction for most people to cloud gaming, some additional documentation on what’s supported and what isn’t would be nice.
Setting Up Stadia
The setup process for Stadia should be simple, but we hit a lot of roadblocks along the way. Hardware connections don’t require much: attach a power source and ethernet to the Chromecast, then plug it into your TV. Our Chromecast took around five minutes to update, but after that, it detected Stadia right away.
We couldn’t actually use the platform, though. Google is supposed to send an invite code whenever your Stadia package ships, which you’ll use to unlock the software. We never got an invite code.
Instead, we had to spend an hour chatting with support, where we reiterated the order number and controller serial number four times, and an additional six hours for a callback.
What should have been a 15-minute process took all day. Of course, we can only speak to our experience with Stadia. However, going through the process as a standard, paying customer, it’s inexcusable that someone should have to wait all day to use a $130 kit.
After that fiasco, Stadia ran smoothly. The initial setup is handled on your phone, where you’ll add games to your library and cast them to your TV through Chromecast. You can put your phone away after that, though. Stadia starts by inputting a button combination on your controller, and after that, you can handle everything using the controller and your TV.
Adding games to your library is the best part of Stadia. If you see something, you can play it within seconds. Claiming the free titles with Stadia Pro, the app immediately asked where we wanted to start playing and, sure enough, after a couple seconds of loading, the games started.
You’ll add games through the Android app (or your Pixel phone if you want to go the whole Google hog), where you can also manage your library and view recent articles about the platform. However, after they’re added through your app, you can play them on your TV. As long as you have your Stadia controller, you can unlock your Chromecast Ultra and start playing, no phone required.
This system is where Stadia shows the most promise. The ability to immediately choose a game and play it within seconds is something Google has down, making lengthy install times on the Xbox One and PS4 look like a joke. Destiny 2, for example, is nearly 100GB and usually takes hours to fully download. With Stadia, all you have to do is load it up.
Our experience with Stadia was unlike most other outlets. We didn’t encounter much input lag, or, at the very least, not as much as some other cloud gaming services (read our Vortex review for an example of that). Input lag wasn’t an issue, but audio lag was.
We tested four games, the ones currently available with Stadia Pro: Tomb Raider, Destiny 2, Samurai Shodown and Farming Simulator. Each game was tested with a wired and wireless connection. We’re basing our overall score on the wired connection, but we wanted to see Stadia perform on a wireless network, too.
Playing Tomb Raider and Destiny 2 with Stadia
Starting with Tomb Raider, everything went off without a hitch. Stadia loaded the game immediately, no download required. There was a slight amount of in-menu lag, but once we were in-game, everything was fine.
Destiny 2 was rough, which is strange, given that it looked better than Tomb Raider. Although the movement felt responsive, the moment we fired a gun, everything fell apart. There are three factors when firing a gun in Destiny 2 with Stadia: the vibration of the controller, the on-screen animation and the sound.
None of those things were in sync. Right after the input, the animation started, which is good. If you turn the sound off, it’d feel like you were playing on a local console. However, shortly after the animation comes the vibration, and a while after that comes the sound. It’s a disorienting experience that clearly demonstrates the holes in a cloud-only gaming system.
Likely, the desyncing of all of these elements comes from the fact that the controller is paired through WiFi. The input is registering right away, but the sound comes later. In short, there is input lag, but only on certain games and in some strange aspects of those games.
Playing Stadia with a Keyboard and Mouse
Our wired testing was done using the Chromecast that came in the Premiere Edition. However, we also tested on WiFi using a keyboard and mouse with Stadia loaded inside of Google Chrome. Strangely, the performance was better in Destiny 2 when playing this way, though the visuals took a significant hit.
It seems that, with Stadia, you have to have it one way or the other. Either you use a wired internet connection and are at the mercy of some significant lag, depending on the game you’re playing, or you go wireless and have a fluid experience, though with decreased visual fidelity.
Despite being a new service, Stadia is available in a lot of countries. Service is available in Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, the UK and the U.S. It’s not as cut-and-dry as simply living in one of those countries, though.
Google determines your eligibility based on a variety of factors, including previous billing addresses in Google Payments and your current location. As mentioned, we hit a snag when trying to sign up, with Google never sending an invite code. The money was still deducted from our virtual credit card, and the package still arrived, but we had to speak with support for a code.
Presumably, this is because we paid with a virtual credit card that’s registered to a country Stadia isn’t supported in, despite shipping the package to a U.S. address. There’s no way to confirm this, though.
Although the coverage is solid, there are a number of hurdles that come with Stadia’s model, namely when it comes to licensing. Based on your location, you may not be able to play the games you’ve purchased. For example, if you’re traveling and want to play your Stadia games, you’ll have to ensure you’re licensed to play the game in whatever country you’re traveling to.
Since the games are licensed to Stadia and not a platform like Steam or Origin, the location you’re in matters. That’s not true for other platforms where you can still access, say, your U.S. Steam account through the cloud gaming server.
Stadia is a step in the right direction for cloud gaming, but it’s not the magnum opus that Google has made it out to be. It’s still riddled with issues, including laggy audio, disjointed platform support and a limited game library. However, if Google sticks with Stadia, it’ll be an impressive platform for years to come.
What do you think of Stadia? Are you going to buy the Premiere Edition or wait until Base launches? Let us know in the comments below and, as always, thanks for reading.
What Is Stadia?
Stadia is Google’s cloud gaming service and digital gaming storefront. It allows users to play games on virtually any screen with little to no additional hardware. Similar to platforms like Steam, you’ll need to purchase games on Stadia to play on the platform.
How Much Is Stadia?
There are two versions of Stadia: Pro and Base. Pro is $9.99 per month and includes a handful of free games, plus discounts in the Stadia store. Base is free to use, though players will need to pay full price for games.
Are Stadia Games Free?
No, Stadia games are not free. However, Stadia Pro members receive some free games each month, much like Xbox’s Games with Gold and Sony’s PlayStation Plus.