A promising cloud gaming experience hampered by unreliable setup, a limited launch library, and missing features. With the right games, this could be awesome, but while early adopters might keep faith, it's unlikely there's a subscription market for casual gamers.
Announced to an unsurprised world in mid-2019, Google Stadia is a cloud gaming platform that does away with hardware. Launching in November 2019, both a week earlier and with more problems than planned, it has caused a bit of a storm.
The consensus is that Stadia is far from awesome.
But does it work, should you get one, and will it be worth the time and effort setting it up? To find out, we bought one, plugged it in, and… waited.
A Games Console Experience Without the Console
Stadia lets you play games through your TV, and ships with a game controller. There’s an impressive (if small) selection of premium games available, with 5.1 surround sound, 4K resolution, HDR, and 60FPS. These include (with more on the way):
- Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
- Attack on Titan 2
- Destiny 2
- Farming Simulator 19
- Final Fantasy XV
- Football Manager 2020
- Metro Exodus
- Red Dead Redemption 2
- Samurai Shodown
- Tomb Raider (2013)
- Wolfenstein: Youngblood
Check out our list of the best games to play on Stadia for more on these.
But Stadia isn’t a games console. So, what on earth is it?
In short, it’s a completely new approach to gaming: a game console experience on any device. This is made possible thanks to some impressively powerful cloud game servers, utilizing a specialized graphics chip developed with AMD.
Cloud gaming is streamed over the internet, which means, in theory, you can play Stadia titles on a phone, PC, even an iPad.
The main Stadia gaming experience is via a TV, however, and to get started you’ll need the Stadia app. It’s available on Android and iOS and is needed to provide access to your Stadia account, games library, and to sync the dedicated controllers.
Cloud gaming comes will all manner of shortcomings, not least latency. To deal with this, the controller connects via Wi-Fi directly to the cloud game server.
What’s In the Box: A Chromecast and a Controller
We ordered a Stadia Founder’s Edition box at the $129.99 launch price back in July, in advance of the November 28th launch. Pre-ordering meant getting a few useful bonuses, such as a free game and early username selection.
The next phase is Stadia Premiere Edition, $129.99 with free shipping, which is available to order now. Whatever your edition, Stadia comes with a choice of packages.
A monthly subscription to the Stadia Pro package is $9.99, which gives you improved streaming performance over the non-subscription access. This means the full frame rate and resolution, HDR, and 5.1 surround-sound. You also get to enjoy a free game on a regular release cycle.
Without the subscription, the streaming quality is reduced. However, Stadia Base isn’t available until 2020, delivering 1080p resolution and standard stereo sound. Unsurprisingly, there’s no free game.
Of course, a fast internet connection is required for streamed gaming. The recommended minimum speed is a 10Mbps connection, with the best results at around 35Mbps or more. (We tested the service using a 45Mbps link.)
Games can be bought, and permanently (or for as long as Stadia exists) added to your library. Access to the games is managed via the mobile app.
Unboxing Google Stadia
When the box arrived, it came a week early. It’s a smart piece of packaging, striking futuristic white, metallic print, and hard edges. Inside, there’s more white, along with a 4.13-inch by 6.4-inch Wi-Fi controller, and a Chromecast Ultra.
Along with chargers and USB Type-C cables, and a few quick start guides, that’s all there is. For multiplayer testing purposes, we also grabbed a second controller, which came in its own box. These retail for a further $69.99 which is standard these days for a branded controller.
That’s basically it. As you should have realized, what you get in the box just helps you to access Stadia. It’s not a console, it’s a service.
Hooking Up Stadia
With Chromecast Ultra, game controller, and mobile app to hand, I set about connecting the Stadia. I put aside 15 minutes—after all, how hard could it be?
First, I plugged in the power adaptor for the Chromecast and an Ethernet cable to the router. This caused some problems, due to the placement of the Ethernet port on the Chromecast Ultra’s adaptor. Thankfully, it was easily solved with some rearrangement of plugs.
Next, the Chromecast Ultra is connected to the TV, the power cable connected, and the TV switched on. With the Stadia app running on my smartphone, I commenced setup.
At this point, you’re perhaps thinking: “all those other reviews said Stadia was awful!” But bear in mind, at this point, I don’t know how good or bad it is. I haven’t set it up yet.
And as it happened, I wouldn’t be able to for several hours. Having spent two months checking my emails and spam folder every day, I had not received the Stadia activation code. Without it, there would be no cigar.
It seems that the code arrives after the device is connected to your network and payment is taken. However, it’s not clear what triggers this. Perhaps the receipt of the box triggers payment or syncing the Chromecast Ultra with the Stadia app does. Either way, I had a three-hour wait for the activation code to arrive.
Stadia’s Bad Reputation
Following its public unveiling in June 2019, Stadia’s reputation has slowly, but surely, declined as more facts have been revealed. A narrow game library was bolstered in early November; a Reddit AMA revealed key features would be missing at launch. (This includes Buddy Pass, a way of sharing the subscription with a friend for three months.)
It’s not cheap, either. The Founder’s Edition (reviewed here) affords three free months of Stadia access and two free games. But once the free period is up, other games must be bought—it’s not a free, Netflix-like library.
Since launch, Stadia has been haunted by several issues. There are the missing activation codes; missing “join a game via YouTube” feature; overheating Chromecast Ultras (and dismissive Google responses); streaming issues; an inability to launch games.
Setting up the Stadia controllers requires the mobile app. This is used to sync the controller to your Wi-Fi network and establish a connection with the game server. The Chromecast Ultra then streams the action to you as the game plays.
That is, of course, if you can get Stadia to launch the game…
The Stadia Game Wouldn’t Launch
Another problem encountered setting up Stadia was an inability to get the game to launch via the app or Chromecast. Instead, the user is caught in a cycle of “refresh the app” to fix the issue… which doesn’t fix anything.
Advice on this issue wasn’t easy to find at the time, although a Reddit user had tracked down the relevant support page.
The solution here is to register the Stadia account on the Chromecast using a linking code. With that done, it was finally possible to launch a game…
Finally, We’re Gaming With Stadia
Boom! That bit of technical help launched the first of the free games, the rebooted Samurai Shodown. Having heard horror stories of latency and lag, I was apprehensive to say the least; the issues activating and launching games earlier hadn’t helped.
Yet I was pleasantly surprised. Crisp graphics, good sound quality and responsive actions made for a tip-top gaming experience. The second controller was set up via the app and a two-player game initiated. Another good result.
Two days later, those complaints about the Founders Edition being a glorified beta seem self-indulgent.
Stadia clearly works. It’s not perfect, of course, but then what is?
For example, access to Stadia is also available through other devices, notably a PC with the Chrome browser. Gameplay here is slightly different. The Ethernet connection on the Chromecast Ultra plays a huge part in delivering a stable gaming environment to a TV.
Ethernet is recommended for PC play, as otherwise you’re limited by audio/video lag and latency. Sadly, the Stadia controllers cannot be used wirelessly via a computer. Instead, you’ll need to connect using USB, grab a previously set up game controller, or rely on the keyboard.
PC play is certainly an area where Stadia needs to improve. As there have been murmurs of family/household multiplayer, it makes sense to perfect it.
Secrets of the Stadia Controller
You can do more with the Stadia Wi-Fi controller than simply play games.
The controller uses Wi-Fi to connect to your Stadia account and launch and control games. It features the standard layout of dual thumbpads, a D-pad, a diamond of four buttons, two shoulder buttons, and two triggers. A USB Type-C port is on the rear of the controller for charging and cabled connection.
Facing the player is a headphone port (Bluetooth support is planned), and under this a microphone. The controller also features five other buttons:
- Stadia button to power on, also used in Wi-Fi connections
- An Options button
- Google Assistant (disabled at the time of writing)
- Menu button
- Capture button (quick tap for screenshots, long press for last 30 seconds of video)
Capture syncs directly to your app, but it’s almost impossible to share the footage. No doubt that’s just another feature waiting to be fixed, but the current method is to use Google Takeout to download Stadia data to your Google Drive account and retrieve your captures, which are frustratingly stored in WEBM format. That’s particularly clunky when everyone wants to share gaming footage.
Whatever happens with Stadia long-term, controllers are almost certainly going to be the target of hackers. The question is, will it be someone trying to install Linux, or will the devices turn into security risks.
Stadia Is for Gamers, But Do They Want It?
The Stadia controllers are perhaps the highlight of the entire experience. While getting a Chromecast Ultra into the bargain is a good deal, the 4K is largely wasted without the right display and top-quality broadband speeds.
Stadia is positioned in the market as being a platform-agnostic experience for gamers. But it’s a crowded market and one that’s already divided by platform, which dedicated gamers tend to be loyal to. Although the monthly subscription of $9.99 might seem steep, there is something here. The question is, can Google overcome the lack of expected launch features and gain critical mass?
I’ve enjoyed using Stadia, but overall there is a good chance that Google has just got this whole thing wrong. Gaming isn’t just about the games. It’s also about the hardware, including the controller, and the type of games that are available on it. While physical sales have dropped, AAA titles continue to do well.
And those AAA games are the ones you’ll find on Stadia. The problem is, you’ve probably already got them on Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, Steam, whatever. You almost certainly don’t want to buy the games again, and probably not without a physical copy if you didn’t already have one.
Has Google inadvertently launched a premium gaming service for casual gamers? If it has, Stadia isn’t going to last long without a quick rethink about its subscription model. They might even consider delivering a physical product (a box, limited edition artwork, etc.) for deluxe editions.
Overall though, Stadia works as a gaming service. With a good library of games, it can only get better, although Google might consider something closer to Xbox’s Games with Gold or Game Pass long-term.
If Stadia lasts that long.