My first few hours with Stadia were punctuated by one recurring question: “how the hell does this actually work?” Google’s streaming console boasts the ability to funnel a 4K, 60fps game experience down your internet connection with only a minimal amount of technology at your end, and the immediate takeaway is that, broadly speaking, it works. Access to gaming anywhere you’ve got an internet signal? If you’re willing to let it, your hobby might never be the same again.
Opening up the diminutive Stadia Founders box, it’s hard to believe that this is your new ‘console’. Containing the Stadia controller – in a lovely Midnight Blue with fluorescent orange highlights – a Chromecast Ultra, some bits of paper and a couple of chargers, that’s your lot.
The controller itself is a nice mix between its Xbox One and PS4 equivalents, with symmetrical analogue sticks, A, B, X and Y buttons and wide triggers at the back. The Stadia button sits proudly at the centre of everything, and while the Menu button is a match for the Xbox One, three dots stands for Options, and they’re accompanied by a capture button and a Goggle Assistant one (AKA ‘crazy dots’).
It’s a comfortable, good quality pad, with pleasingly clicky buttons and a solid rumble function that feels close enough to the ones you’re accustomed to that you’ll soon forget that it’s any different. I did keep hitting the Google Assistant button in the dark, which is probably doubly annoying since it currently doesn’t work, but I’m sure I’ll get the hang of it eventually.
The associated set-up is slightly more complicated than the minimal equipment would have you believe, but it’s still only a few minutes work. You’ll need to plug the supplied Chromecast into a spare HDMI socket, and find a spare power socket for it as well. The adaptor also boasts an ethernet socket so that you can forego Wi-Fi and wire it up directly to your router for a stronger, more consistent connection, though I found little advantage over wireless given how close my router is to the TV.
Once you’re there you need the Google Home app to set up your Chromecast Ultra, and the Stadia app to set up the controller. For the time being, you have to pump in your invitation code to get into Stadia, which is sent separately via email, and has proven to be yet another annoying sticking point for some early adopters when the codes didn’t arrive on time. Hopefully it’s something that shouldn’t affect new users after the first few months.
As long as it’s all connected to the same router, everything should together seamlessly at this point, as it did for me. It’s worth remembering that the Google Home app isn’t the most obvious thing to use in the world, but despite that it has got me wondering about ‘Googleising’ everything else in the house. This is how they get you.
While you’re in the Stadia app, don’t forget to pick up the ‘free’ Stadia Pro games to add to your profile, which at the moment are the complete Destiny 2 Collection and Samurai Shodown. If there’s anything else you want from the 22 game launch line up you’ll have to buy them here as well. It’s the first of many oversights that you can’t even browse for new games on the system itself or in a web browser. It is at least exceptionally quick, and your first taste of the Stadia experience is that once you’ve bought something you’re able to jump straight into it. No downloads, no installing from a disc, no patches, just playing.
So, what is that playing experience like? Genuinely, it’s like playing on a normal console. While playing on the TV I experienced no connection issues, nor dramatic loss of image clarity, and for someone who spends a lot of time sat with a controller in their hand, I was impressed with how quickly I forgot I was playing a game over the internet.
The image that Stadia is pumping out is a bone of contention though. With a Stadia Pro subscription your Chromecast Ultra is pumping out a 4K, 60hz, HDR signal, but it turns out that many of the games at Stadia’s launch aren’t running to their best ability at the other end. Digital Foundry have turned out some disappointing results from the Red Dead Redemption 2 port, and it seems to be a similar story for a number of other games, including Destiny 2 which is running at 1080p and being upscaled along the way.
This is a long way from the vision that Google sold us when they announced Stadia, boasting that it had more than the combined processing power of Xbox One X and PS4 Pro. If that is the case there should be no reason it’s not running games at max settings, but Google are placing the responsibility firmly in the hands of the developers themselves. You have to hope that things can be improved fairly swiftly on this front – this is a new system they have to optimise for – but it’s a big blow that it’s not currently achieving a key part of its sales pitch.
My experience with it matches up with those findings, albeit only with the use of my actual eyes. Destiny 2 might be at 60fps, but it is definitely grainier in play here than it is on PS4 Pro, and while Assassin’s Creed Odyssey looks fantastic at times, there are some key moments, particularly when panning the camera around at speed, where there are obvious signs of compression and artefacts around the central character.
Jumping over to playing on my laptop rather than a 58” screen saw a big improvement to the overall image quality, despite being at a lower resolution, and the ability to hop into a tab in Google Chrome and fire up Stadia once again reminds you of why you’re here in the first place.
Playing over public Wi-Fi worked well 90% of the time, though when it went wrong, it really went wrong, grinding to a halt while it picked the connection back up. You probably wouldn’t – or shouldn’t – be playing something like Destiny 2 over a connection like this, but for a single-player game, and one that I couldn’t possibly be running on my laptop itself, it’s remarkably solid.
Stadia’s problem right now is that that’s all there is. Beyond the impressive streaming technology, everything else about Stadia is a barebones experience right now. Hitting the Stadia button brings up the main menu, and here you can see the quality of your connection, whether any of your few Stadia-owning friends are online, some voice chat options, and very little else.
There are no achievements, no access to the free Buddy Pass to gift three months of Stadia Pro to a friend, no storefront, no family sharing, and no Stream Connect (a feature that lets you interact or work within another player’s game in real time). All of these features are due in the next few weeks or months, but that’s of little comfort to the people already playing.
It means that Stadia just doesn’t feel like an actual gaming ecosystem yet. Even the much maligned Onlive, in many ways the precursor to Stadia, felt more complete than Stadia does right now. It’s a tech demo, and a convincing one, but there needs to be more flesh on the bones if they want players to genuinely buy into it.
There are still a multitude of good reasons to pick Stadia, though they might not all be apparent right now. The tiny footprint, both logistically and environmentally, is a great move as we become more aware of what we’re doing to the planet. It is a system that can upgrade and grow without any additional purchases from the player, at the very least consolidating the carbon footprint gamers have into one area.
For anyone that’s sat down to play a game in the free half hour they have to be met by yet another loading bar, this is the system for you. Freeing yourself of downloads and patches feels downright futuristic at this point in time, and while the next gen should improve loading times they’re still going to struggle to match Google’s system for near-instantaneous gratification. The fact that you can extend that play from the living room to your laptop, or from your tablet to your phone, is a brilliant selling point, but then they’re not alone on that front. with PS Now, Project xCloud and others looking to get in on the game streaming action. Stadia might boast better image quality, but few other advantages in the here and now.
So Stadia isn’t really that deserving of your time right now, unless you fall into a very specific user category. Travel a lot, to places with decent internet, but don’t fancy a Switch? Sure. Never wanted a home console taking up space in your living room, but quite fancy playing the odd game of Destiny 2 or big titles like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey? Again, Stadia will probably suit.
For those already embedded in one or more traditional gaming set-ups, Stadia isn’t going to improve your life much at all, unless you’re absolutely raging at another 6Gb update to download. It’s not likely going to become that interesting until sometime next year, once Google have ironed out the current kinks and multiplatform games should be launching on the same day as the other platforms.
It’s also potentially your cheapest shot at next-gen titles, easily undercutting the up front cost of a PS5 and Scarlett (unless something crazy happens), but capable of running the same titles. In theory at least.