Google Stadia Review: An Expensive and Limited Beta

Rating: 3/10 ?
  • 1 - Absolute Hot Garbage
  • 2 - Sorta Lukewarm Garbage
  • 3 - Strongly Flawed Design
  • 4 - Some Pros, Lots Of Cons
  • 5 - Acceptably Imperfect
  • 6 - Good Enough to Buy On Sale
  • 7 - Great, But Not Best-In-Class
  • 8 - Fantastic, with Some Footnotes
  • 9 - Shut Up And Take My Money
  • 10 - Absolute Design Nirvana
Price: $130
The Stadia controller and Chromecast Ultra, plus a Chrome tablet.
Michael Crider

I wish Google had labeled Stadia as a beta product because that’s what it is. If they had, I’d be able to recommend the streaming game platform as a curiosity to interested early adopters.

Here's What We Like

  • Stable, good-looking streaming
  • Available on TVs, PCs, and (some) phones
  • Controller feels nice

And What We Don't

  • Way too expensive to get in
  • Terrible selection at launch
  • Not available everywhere
  • Missing tons of features
  • Poor user interface on phones

But instead, Google is positioning the Stadia Founder’s Edition and the nearly identical Premiere Edition as a retail product. And evaluated on those terms, it’s not ready for prime time and not ready to compete with the established giants of the gaming industry. Whether you look at Stadia in terms of value, of selection, or just on the features that Google demonstrated earlier this year, it’s not a good package. Yet.

That “yet” is a big word crammed into just three letters. Stadia has a lot of room to grow, and do so in ways that more conventional game platforms can’t. But the purpose of this review is to answer the question, “should you buy it?” And right now, the answer is no.

Hardware

If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume that you know at least a bit about Stadia as a streaming game platform. If you’re not, give my copy editor a break and read this article to get caught up.

The Stadia box contents: Chromecast Ultra, controller, and cables.
All the hardware in the Stadia Founder’s Edition. Michael Crider

Eventually, Stadia will be accessible in a free tier, with no purchases necessary. But to get in this year, you’ll need to buy the $130 “Premiere Edition” (which appears to be identical to the “Founder’s Edition,” just with a white controller), which includes a 4K-enabled Chromecast Ultra and Google’s gee-whiz Wi-Fi-powered Stadia controller.

How’s the controller? Very good. That said, it’s not as if it’s something unique, using the same basic layout that PlayStation has had since the original Dual Shock and the curvy, comfy body of Nintendo’s Switch Pro Controller. It feels great. It’s got buttons. I like the little splash of color underneath the analog sticks.

The controller from the front.
The Stadia controller isn’t revolutionary, but it’s quite comfy. Michael Crider

Unfortunately, the controller doesn’t do everything Google said it would at Stadia’s launch. That’s going to be a recurring theme here. The Chromecast included in the package is the standard Ultra with a little extra firmware to enable use with the controller. No, you can’t access Stadia with an older Chromecast, Ultra, or otherwise. Eventually, everyone will get that crucial update, but not yet.

Does it Work?

If you’re wondering whether Stadia works, it does. It works really well! At least under the somewhat limited conditions of the launch. Once you’re all set up with your account, and using the controller and Chromecast on a network that can handle the 25 megabits per second connection, it does indeed deliver 4K, sixty frames per second, with no noticeable delay or drop in framerates.

Destiny 2, by Bungie
Destiny 2, by Bungie

It’s impressive to see in motion, watching Destiny 2 pump out graphics better than my GTX 1080 PC could handle, using nothing more than a cheap streaming stick on my end. After a minute or two of play, it was easy to forget that I wasn’t using any high-powered hardware, just a nebulous, AMD-powered “Stadia Instance” somewhere on a Google data center.

Red Dead Redemption II, by Rockstar
Red Dead Redemption II, by Rockstar

And as Google says, you can use it on more or less any screen. Sort of. At the moment you can access Stadia from a Chrome browser on a Mac, PC, or Chrome OS device, and on Android (if you happen to have a Pixel phone). Naturally, all of those devices have the same need for a wide bandwidth pipe—don’t expect to stream Stadia games on just a couple of LTE bars.

Gylt, by Tequila Works
Gylt, by Tequila Works

There’s only one constant problem I’ve seen with the quality of the gameplay and picture: the contrast. While the picture looks great, it has trouble with subtle gradations between light and dark, especially in dark scenes like the moody Gylt. At times you can pick out big, blocky sections shifting from one tone to another.

But to be fair, this is a problem I’ve also experienced with every other kind of streaming video: NVIDIA GeForce NOW, Shadow streaming, Steam and NVIDIA in-home streaming, even Netflix has trouble with dark scenes. It’s hardly a deal-breaker to see it here.

Stadia running on a Chrome OS tablet.
Stadia, running in a coffee shop. Note that non-Stadia controllers can use Bluetooth. Michael Crider

A more consistent problem for most users will be keeping that required bandwidth. I was able to make Stadia stutter on my 100 mbps home connection just by streaming a football game and a few Chrome tabs on a second machine. I think any crowded household with a few binge-watchers will struggle, and occasionally see Stadia refuse to connect at all for lack of bandwidth. But on the other hand, I was able to play from a crowded coffee shop just fine. Your results may vary.

It is indeed possible to switch from one device to another in a few seconds—about 20, to be exact. You’ll need to be careful to close Stadia and not the game itself. Otherwise, you’ll see the same boot-up sequence you would on a PC or console, but it’s possible.

Browser and phone screenshots for Stadia.
The browser interface versus the phone interface.

Stadia handles different inputs very well. I was able to switch seamlessly from controllers to keyboard and mouse, and back, with correctly-labeled interface changes. The Stadia interface even knows which controller you’re using: it’ll shift the graphics used for the appropriate buttons based on the Stadia controller, Xbox One, and Dual Shock 4.

Missing Features at Launch

Google set up some big expectations when it revealed Stadia to the world back in March at the Game Developers Conference. I think they set them higher than they intended, not realizing that regular gamers like me would see all those fantastic tools and expect at least some of them to manifest at the service’s launch.

Let’s get the pleasantries out of the way. Here’s all the stuff in the Stadia announcement that you can’t do yet:

Use the controller wirelessly: mostly no. The Stadia controller uses Wi-Fi instead of Bluetooth or RF for a faster connection to Stadia’s servers, but at launch, this only works with the Chromecast Ultra. If you want to play with the Stadia controller on your computer or phone, you have to plug it in with a USB cable…which feels particularly strange because you can use an Xbox controller or some other third-party controller over Bluetooth just fine.

The Stadia controller plugged into a tablet.
The Stadia controller has to be plugged in on a PC, Mac, or Chrome OS. Michael Crider

Stream in 4K everywhere: no. At launch, your PC, phone, or tablet can only handle a 1080p stream (under ideal conditions). Only the Chromecast Ultra gets access to 4K gameplay at the moment.

Google presenting Stadia at GDC.
Google

Share gameplay with a simultaneous 4K stream to YouTube: no. Right now, Stadia only supports taking screenshots and 30-second clips, and even then, they’re only available in the app—I had to take screenshots of my screenshots to post them in this review.

Invite friends to jump into your game with save states and levels: no.

Cross-platform multiplayer: no, not in the limited games that I saw.

The front of the controller, with Assistant button indicated.
The controller has a Google Assistant button, but it isn’t doing much right now. Google

Integration with Google Assistant, which gets a dedicated button on the Stadia controller: no. When you press the button on the controller, it just kicks back an error that says, “Assistant isn’t working with Stadia yet.”

Use multiple Stadia instances to enhance play: Nothing so far. Codemasters says GRID will use this for an exclusive 40-player race mode when it reaches Stadia later this year.

That’s just the stuff that Google showed off at the announcement. Stadia is also missing a lot of features you’d come to expect from a modern game platform. There’s minimal support for friend lists and invitations. You can only buy games and access your recordings via the phone app (no buying on your TV or computer). There’s no way to gift games, no mechanism for returning them.

I was also disappointed to see a lack of adjustment in terms of the user interface for Stadia’s different screens. Playing a game meant for huge TVs or gaming monitors is possible on a laptop screen, but it’s downright painful on a tiny phone screen. Trying to read the text prompts and cramped interface in Destiny 2 on a phone screen was almost impossible. The Nintendo Switch has a similar portable problem.

This is the sort of thing that Stadia could—and should—excel at, the kind of things that other streaming platforms piggybacking off of regular PC and console games cannot. But it doesn’t. The closest thing to an accommodation Google makes is this odd “Claw” phone mount for the controller, which physically places the phone closer to your face. It’s goofy-looking but effective…and still not enough to make the tiny text and images actually usable. It’ll be sold separately after launch.

Google's "claw" phone mount for the Stadia controller.
Doesn’t exactly scream “the future of gaming,” does it? Michael Crider

The platform is, in a word, immature. A lot of these complaints are the same ones levied against Nintendo and Epic for the Switch Online system and Epic Game Store, respectively. Google would have done well to take note of those complaints, but it makes sense if you imagine this as a beta. That you have to pay for.

Woeful Game Selection

Nowhere is Stadia more disappointing than in its initial selection of games. With the notable exception of Red Dead Redemption II and the only platform exclusive, Gylt, the first few games available on Stadia are mostly older, and available cheaply on consoles and PCs.

a screenshot of Google's Stadia games site.
Most of the games announced for Stadia so far are old, unavailable at launch, or both. Google

Oh, and you have to pay for them, on top of the $10-a-month subscription service. Here’s the list of games available at launch, with the prices Google supplied to us. (Destiny 2 is already free, and launch subscribers get Samurai Showdown.) The games I was able to play during the review period are in bold.

  • Assassin’s Creed Odyssey  –  $59.99 $30.00
  • Attack on Titan: Final Battle 2  – $69.99
  • Destiny 2 – free to play 
  • Farming Simulator 2019 – $39.99
  • Final Fantasy XV – $39.99 $29.99
  • Football Manager 2020 – $49.99
  • Grid 2019 – $59.99
  • Gylt – $29.99
  • Just Dance 2020 – $49.99
  • Kine – $19.99
  • Metro Exodus  – $39.99 $20
  • Mortal Kombat 11 – $59.99 $41.99
  • NBA 2K20 – $59.99 $30
  • Rage 2 – $59.99
  • Red Dead Redemption 2 – $59.99
  • Rise of the Tomb Raider – $29.99
  • Samurai Showdown – $59.99 (free for subscribers at launch)
  • Shadow of the Tomb Raider – $59.99
  • Thumper – $19.99
  • Tomb Raider 2013 – $19.99 $10.00 
  • Trials Rising – $24.99
  • Wolfenstein: Youngblood – $29.99

Initially, Google only had a dozen games slated for launch day, but at the last minute, they added a few more, bringing the total up to 22 for day one. Also, those who subscribe to Stadia Pro during November get Samurai Showdown for free.

I checked out all of the games we were given access to, including multiplayer sessions of Destiny 2. It seemed identical to Destiny 2 on my PC, though either voice communications weren’t working or none of the other reviewers in the pre-launch period were using them. But I focused much of my play on Gylt, from Tequila Works, because it’s the only game that’s exclusive to Stadia at the moment. The developers also made such indie favorites as Deadlight, Rime, and The Sexy Brutale.

Gylt is a little stealth-horror game about a girl searching for her cousin in a nightmare world. With its detailed 3D environments and impressive use of lighting, it’s a good showcase for Stadia’s 4K capabilities (and its disappointing contrast performance). If you like games about being nearly helpless and avoiding rather than fighting monsters while you solve a few puzzles and work out a mystery, it’s fine. But this short and somewhat barebones indie game is a long way from a “killer app.” Doom Eternal might have been a much better showcase, but it’s been delayed into next year, something beyond Google’s control.

Gylt, by Tequila Works

Google says its lineup will be boosted to a little less than 30 games before the end of the year, including more recent releases like Borderlands 3. But compared to pretty much anywhere else you can play these games—with a console that’s only a little more expensive than the controller-Chromecast bundle and without a $10-a-month charge—it’s a very poor proposition if you want a wide game selection.

Poor Value

Stadia Pro costs $10 a month. That “Pro” gets you access to 4K, 60fps streams, and a few discounts on games. But you still have to buy individual titles; only Destiny 2 (already free everywhere else) is included. This is not the “Netflix for games” that many were hoping for.

And that’s a problem for Stadia. Paying to access something that you have to keep paying for is never a popular idea, especially among gamers. It doesn’t help that “Netflix for games” already exists elsewhere, assuming that you have a PC or console. And if you want to play any of these games, you probably do. PlayStation Now, Xbox Game Pass (also available on PC), EA Origin Access, Humble Monthly, Uplay+—all of these offer unlimited play on dozens or hundreds of current and older games, for about the same amount of money per month. Even Apple Arcade, with its many mobile exclusives, offers a better value.

What if you like Stadia for the streaming? NVIDIA’s been doing it for years, though GeForce Now is, rather tellingly, still in beta. PlayStation Now games can be streamed, though at a maximum of 720p (there’s a download option as well). For $35 a month, Shadow offers basically unlimited PC games, because it’s compatible with all the games you already own, any of which you can install on a remote machine. Looming over all of this is the upcoming Xbox xCloud system, a streaming setup very similar to Stadia, which will have at least 50 games at launch.

an Xbox game controller with a phone attached.
Microsoft’s xCloud will offer a similar service to Stadia, with a much larger selection at launch. Microsoft

And all that ignores the much more simple solution: just buying a console. At $130, getting into Stadia right now is only $70 cheaper than an Xbox One, which offers hundreds and hundreds of titles, including free-to-play favorites like Fortnite. Want to game on the go? The same can be said for the Switch: $300 for the original design and just $200 for the Switch Lite.

Google is aiming to be the gaming platform for anyone and everyone. But at launch, it only has conventional PC and console games. And at this point in the current console generation, basically anyone who wants to play them already has a system on which to do so. The free tier of Stadia, limiting play to 1080p, might be more appealing, if only because it won’t require any initial investment to play freebies like Destiny 2. But it won’t be arriving anytime soon.

At the current price, lineup, and feature set, Stadia is a hard sell to almost anyone who wants to play games, even if they have a home connection that can handle it and a Pixel phone to take advantage of its mobile features. Its impressive visual fidelity just can’t make up for its lack of availability or shallow library.

Looking to the Future

Call me (and quite a few other people) cynical, but at the moment, Stadia looks like a stress test for early adopters and little more. It’s a beta program in everything but name, and asking people to pay for the privilege to access it now seems like a poor decision.

But there’s hope on the horizon. Google isn’t going to abandon Stadia immediately—it will undoubtedly keep things going until the free tier becomes available next year. That will, not coincidentally, be around the same time Microsoft and Sony are asking people to spend a car payment’s worth of money on a shiny new console.

Gylt, by Tequila Works

If Google can deliver the promises it made for Stadia, including integration with YouTube, access on almost any device, unique experiences powered by its cloud hardware, a free service tier, and most importantly, a much, much bigger selection of games, it could be a contender. Until those pieces are in place, gamers should stick to the systems and games they’re already enjoying.

I’ll be continually checking out Stadia as the platform evolves, and very much hoping it improves. Review Geek will keep you informed.

Rating: 3/10
Price: $130

Here’s What We Like

  • Stable, good-looking streaming
  • Available on TVs, PCs, and (some) phones
  • Controller feels nice

And What We Don't

  • Way too expensive to get in
  • Terrible selection at launch
  • Not available everywhere
  • Missing tons of features
  • Poor user interface on phones

Michael Crider Michael Crider
Michael Crider has been writing about computers, phones, video games, and general nerdy things on the internet for ten years. He’s never happier than when he’s tinkering with his home-built desktop or soldering a new keyboard. Read Full Bio »

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