Google Stadia Impressions: A Stunning Piece Of Kit Too Early To Succeed
I'm not going to lie to you, I was sceptical.
I was sceptical that Google's ambitious cloud-based gaming platform Stadia wouldn't amount to anything more than dodgy gimmicks and lofty promises. AAA games beamed directly into your home at 4k 60fps, playing new releases direct from YouTube adverts, and a wide array of top-class titles at your fingertips within five seconds of booting up? Sounds too good to be true, I thought.
I'm here to tell you now that the streaming, at least, is no gimmick. No smoke-and-mirrors marketing tactics. The technology is real, and it works. But the lack of anything tangibly new (like, most of Google's jaw-dropping features for Stadia) mean that it's a long, long way from its potential. In fact, I'm not sure I could recommend it to you as the bonafide home console replacement it should be, and certainly not in the state it will be at launch.
Since being announced at GDC 2019, Stadia has flown somewhat under the radar. It's been overshadowed in the gaming market by Microsoft's Project xCloud (currently in beta) and its 50 first-party exclusives and third-party blockbusters available to stream through the exquisite Game Pass offering. Nevertheless, Google has set out to prove that we, the consumers, have another choice. A choice that launches with just 22 games. Yikes.
Although this offering is set to rise to at least 40 and be continually expanded upon with new releases by the end of the year and into next, this is undoubtedly a problem for Stadia out of the gates. The lack of a system seller, too, is going to be a real sticking point for people hoping for a groundbreaking new experience. The fact that a lot of the promised features like Crowd Play (the ability to jump into somebody else's' live-streamed game) and State Share (cloud-based save points accessible to all) won't be available at launch will undoubtedly keep people from becoming early adopters, and rightly so. Why would you stump up the £119 to get a Premiere Edition on release when it has nothing new to offer you, minus eliminating a clunky box sat under your TV?
Stadia Pro will set players back £8.99 a month and offer access to that library of promised free games, discounts on new titles and the ability to stream at 4k 60fps. But with similar services already being offered by competitors, what exactly is the draw? Where are the killer apps?
The one exclusive so far on Stadia, Gylt, is a charming little horror-cum-adventure tale from Spanish developers Tequila Works (Rime, The Sexy Brutale). It's enjoyable stuff, certainly, but isn't going to convince gamers to pony up the dough for a Stadia, just to get a taste of what's to come. Google tells us that more is to come in the vein of first-party games, but they, along with those other commitments from Stadia, won't be around until 2019 and 2020.
But that isn't to say that Stadia has nothing to offer. Far from it. Let's talk about that streaming capability. The first thing I jumped into after getting set up was Destiny 2, and I need to prefix this by saying I was incredibly suspicious that streaming over my decidedly average home internet connection (and the resulting potential latency) would make gaming almost impossible, especially with an online shooter like D2.
What I found actually blew my mind. Aside from some slightly sluggish controls, there was negligible latency in playing. The graphics too, are what you'd expect from today's high-end consoles. If you'd have told me that I was playing on a PlayStation 4 Pro or an Xbox One X, I'd have believed you without a second thought.
The setup of the Stadia kit, provided to us by Google, was remarkably straightforward and took no more than 15-20 minutes in total to get going. Alongside your Stadia controller, and Chromecast device, you'll need a compatible smartphone with both the Stadia and Google Home apps installed. From there, it's a simple case of following the on-screen instructions to pair your Chromecast to your TV and Controller, and your Controller to the Chromecast and your phone. I was ready for this to be a convoluted mess (I'm not exactly the most fluent in techno-babble) but even I sifted through the instructions with ease.
One of the other key selling points is that you can play across multiple devices at your leisure. This also works fluently on launch, with swapping between TV, laptop and our provided Google Pixel 3a phone an absolute doddle. The only extra piece of kit you'll need is a USB-C adaptor and you're away. All the saves are stored within your Stadia profile so it's no problem picking up where you left off.
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The Stadia controller itself is a neat little piece of kit. Similar in design to a Nintendo Switch Pro Controller, it sits comfortably in the hand and has a decent amount of heft to assure you of its quality. The triggers are robust yet sensitive to the touch - key in FPS games and anything requiring cat-like reflexes in a pinch - though the face buttons and d-pad have just-too-high a profile and unnerving clickity-clack when pressed for my liking. Overall, you can tell Google are trying to make a statement with the kit they can produce. Other wireless controllers will be useable with the Stadia come launch, so there's really no overwhelming pressure to get one, unless you're looking to be one of those early adopters.
Adding games to your account, too, is as easy as browsing for them on your mobile device and buying them up. They're added to your catalogue immediately and can be played without lengthy installs and downloads. This is obviously a huge, huge advantage over modern consoles and their sometimes laughably long installs and updates.
Despite some great first gameplay impressions, there are still a lot of unanswered questions for Stadia. Yes, it runs great when a select few people are playing a select few games, but how will Google's servers hold up if the stars align and hundreds of thousands of people pour in all at once? Will all games run with the same graphical prowess of the selected titles we were given access to? For example, Red Dead Redemption 2 is one of the 22 launch titles for Stadia and arguably one of the most technically and graphically demanding, but we simply won't know how it holds up until launch.
I'm torn because the games I played looked great (that's Destiny 2, Gylt, Mortal Kombat 11, Just Dance 2020, Shadow of the Tomb Raider and Kine) and the technology is clearly leaps and bounds ahead of everybody else. At GDC, Google said that Stadia is more powerful than the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X combined with its custom AMD 10.7 teraflop GPU data centre, and promised streaming in 8k, fluidly, in the future. If those numbers hold true and developers are allowed to be unleashed into Google's technological playground as promised, we could be looking at a revolution of the gaming industry. But right now, it's just too early to tell.
Let's also address the elephant in the room. Google don't exactly have a great track record of supporting their projects through to the end. Anybody remember Google Glass or Google Plus? Both unloaded into the Google graveyard with epitaphs reading "great idea, didn't work out". So when assurances of more content in the coming months are made, you'd be forgiven for taking them with a pinch of salt.
The real test of Stadia's mettle comes with online play, of course, especially in fighting games like Mortal Kombat 11. Graphically it looks great, much like Destiny 2 and Gylt. But it's here where input lag might have a serious effect on the experience. After all, nothing would suck more than getting down to it in a 1v1 tussle, only to have your character lagging way behind what you're telling them to do. This, after all, was the true fear of cloud-based gaming. So, the big question is does it work? In a word, yes.
A few technical hiccups aside (you've got to account for growing pains) the online experience was as smooth and seamless as it would be with any console. This, at least, could be a huge win for Stadia. It delivers reliable online streaming out of the box. Once it catches up with the other cool features on its horizon, it will probably be a powerhouse that hits the casual gaming market hard.
I say casual market, because realistically that's who Stadia will be for. Pick-up-and-play gamers who want to experience something alongside their favourite streamers and YouTubers. There's nothing wrong with that, mind you, Microsoft and Sony have the hardcore console market locked down. PC owners aren't going to part with their beloved rigs to go streaming only, regardless of how many teraflops, pixels and microseconds of latency you plop in front of them.
So, Stadia then. As you may have picked up, it's left me with conflicting thoughts. On the one hand, it's clearly an impressive piece of kit that Google are hoping will gain them some leverage in the gaming market. The stream quality is next-level and graphically it can more than hold its own with today's high-end consoles and PCs, and into the coming generation. On the other hand, it's barren of unique features at launch, and runs the risk of being buried by seasoned veterans of the industry that already have catalogues tumescent with quality games and thousands of dedicated subscribers.
The real proof in Stadia's pudding will not be now, but in a year's time. Sticking to their guns on developer partnerships, price points, incoming games, industry innovations and perhaps most importantly for Google, continual future support, is going to be the key to Stadia's success, or lack thereof.
Featured Image Credit: Google