Hands on with Google Stadia – stream dream or lag drag?

Google Stadia is equal parts impressive and bafflingly flawed. It manages to be a thoroughly convincing home console experience, an exciting look at an increasingly mobile and flexible gaming future, and on day one lacks so many of the key features that have been promised since its announcement. We got to go hands on for 45 minutes just ahead of this week’s launch and… yeah, it’s as curiously exciting as it is messy.

The Google Stadia controller looks sleek and feels good in the hand, but actually starting to use it I’m reminded of half a dozen different controllers through the years. You’ve got the symmetry of PlayStation’s preferred layout, but the face button labels are from the Xbox/Dreamcast. Those face buttons then have the feel of the Wii U’s Gamepad with a long and slightly mushy travel, while the D-pad on the other side has a clickiness not far removed from th Joy-Con. The shoulder buttons and triggers find themselves somewhere between the current Xbox One controller and the DualShock 4 in size and feel, leaning more to the latter.

The menu and system buttons also have strange and unusual symbols. The so-called hamburger menu lives on the right side, an ellipsis triple dot opposite on the left, there’s a “crazy dots” one for the Google Assistant, and an outlined square for capture. Like the “squares menu” button on the Xbox One, knowing what to call these or what they’ll do will be a mystery the first time you pick the controller up.

That D-pad won’t be quite to the tastes of diehard fighting game fans; too clicky and direct, in my opinion it’s without the eight directional feel needed for sweeping turns through 90º or 180º. That said, the service as a whole puts up a good fight for the genre, with responsiveness more than good enough for my uncultured button mashing. Playing Mortal Kombat 11 looked fantastic and none of my inputs felt like they were going astray – I just suck at fighting games.

Destiny 2 is much more my bag, and it felt almost identical to playing on PS4 Pro at home. I’m sure it’s really running at 4K and 60fps in the background, but the game’s pace and feel was built for 30fps and on gamepad. Without putting the two side-by-side, I’d be hard pressed to tell the difference.

It’s supremely easy to hop back and forth between systems, the demo room letting us switch between playing on Google Pixel smartphone, a Chromebook for web browser play and TV with Chromecast Ultra. For ease with the day one limitations, each had a dedicated controller or two connected, but the effect was impressively instantaneous to take command of an in progress game on a different screen.

Regardless of the system, the games ran and looked fantastic. Playing at one of Google’s London offices, everything was played over Wi-Fi, the connected artificially limited to 35mbps to demonstrate what’s possible. That’s bang on the money for the service’s recommended full 4K stream on TV, and needless to say it was more than enough for the phone and web browser.

Switching between games feels more like a regular home console. You pick the game from the Stadia menu, then sit through splash and loading screens to get to the home menu. This wasn’t quite the dream we were sold, was it? It might take for next gen consoles to launch with super-fast loading times of their own before that can feed through to wider game design mentality.

The problem with all of this is that, on day one, Google Stadia is just a mess with a huge number of features missing and poorly considered quirks to how it works. Achievements? Not yet. Family sharing? Nope. That Google Assistant button good for much? Nowt unless you want to launch a game. Playing on phone? You’ll need to hook the controller up with a USB-C cable. Already have a Chromecast Ultra? Those will be getting a Stadia update down the line.

Oh, and you’ll have to interact with the service as a whole using your phone to start with. You’ll have to buy games using the phone, but in a bizarre quirk if you’ve got the phone attached to the controller using ‘The Claw’ adapter… the app doesn’t have a horizontal mode. It doesn’t even seem to rotate for game trailers.

Ever an adventurous soul, I decided to boot up Just Dance 2020. Yup, I was going to spaff 15 Gigabytes per hour on a dancing game. Then I found the hurdles. Firstly, it wanted a Ubisoft log in, with none provided, so there’s now a Stadia press demo account with my Ubisoft log in attached. Second, the Stadia Controller has no motion sensors built in, meaning I’d have needed to download the Just Dance 2020 app to play along. With our limited time demo in mind, I gave up on my Just Dance streaming dream just short of a full on app-ception.

Outside of Just Dance, a lot of this is going to change quickly, with Google planning to update the service and the infrastructure rapidly after the initial launch, but it leaves you scratching your head as to why it’s launching in this state. It feels rushed.

We shouldn’t be too harsh on Google, considering the similarly unrefined state that other consoles have launched. Both PlayStation 4 and Xbox One went through their own teething problems, both launching without rest functions and dozens of other features promised or available on previous machines. That said, Google are missing some of the fundamentals, and their entire proposition is that you’ll be able to play games on whatever screen you want. It might be a while before we even get to that point.

They might have been sold as Founder’s Editions, but right now it feels like those buying into Google Stadia are entering an Early Access programme.

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3 Comments

  1. As someone who’s not an early adopter, it’s the tech that interests me more than anything. I think I’m increasingly likely to look at a streaming service instead of the next gen consoles, as I just can’t see the consoles being reasonably priced. My only fear is that Google will likely lead the way in networking, Sony especially will need to invest in a lot of infrastructure as MS have Azure.

  2. So in order to play Just Dance you need to download a separate phone app and play with your phone in your hand? Are they serious? Why are they choosing to highlight how non-instant everything is?!

    • Yup! To be fair, there’s similar hurdles in Xbox One. You need something with motion sensors.

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