I rely on Google for a lot—travel directions, restaurant reviews, and my mobile phone service, just to name a few—but one thing I’ve never looked for under the auspices of that big blue G is console video gaming. This week, Stadia seeks to change all that, hoping to bring the same level of ease and reliability to the home gaming experience that the Google Play Store provides for mobile gaming.
To do this, the Stadia takes a bold step; this dedicated cloud-gaming system lacks both a physical media reader and onboard storage space for downloadable titles. Instead, Google’s Stadia relies on true cloud gaming—streaming each title, each level, each moment of your gameplay directly to you.
Stadia Hardware and Setup
Setup of my Stadia was a breeze. At the moment, you can’t purchase the components individually, meaning early adopters will either receive the now sold-out Founder’s Edition, like the one I was provided, or the currently available $129 Premiere Edition. (For more information on the differences between the two, see my earlier unboxing.)
While the Stadia ecosystem is designed to go everywhere you game—from phone to tablet to laptop to desktop—the bundled hardware is initially used to turn your television into a game-streaming machine. This is done via the one-two hardware punch that is the Google Chromecast Ultra and the Stadia Controller.
The Chromecast Ultra
Anyone who’s ever used the Screen Cast function on their Android smartphone is likely already familiar with Google’s Chromecast. This unassuming puck plugs into your television’s HDMI input, draws power from the standard USB/AC adaptor, and enables quick, painless screen mirroring and app casting.
The Stadia’s 4K-compatible Chromecast Ultra is configured using Google’s Home app. Simply open the app, follow the prompts—which mostly consists of connecting to your home Wi-Fi and typing in the appropriate confirmation code—and within minutes you’ll be ready to cast. (There’s even an easy-to-follow interactive guide, in case you’re interested in a step-by-step breakdown.)
The Stadia Controller
After that, you’ll need to download the dedicated Stadia app. It’s here that you’ll activate your account and connect your controller. This is done by powering on said controller (by long-pressing the Stadia button), selecting the controller icon within the app, and then choosing your controller from the list displayed.
At this point, a Linking Code will be visible on your Chromecast, and once the corresponding code has been input using your controller, it should be paired.
The first thing to really impress me about the Stadia experience is the controller. Its design lies equidistant between two of my current-gen favorites—PlayStation’s DualShock 4 and Nintendo’s Switch Pro Controller. Its analog sticks are snappy and nicely textured, the left and right triggers have a comfortable angle to them, and there’s even a proper d-pad for us old-timers.
The Stadia Controller’s haptic feedback is, in a word, fierce, but its overall weight and wonderful grippy-ness keep it from vibrating right out of your hands. The central Stadia button controls system functions, while the Options button (designated by an ellipsis) and the Menu button (the more traditional hamburger icon) handle in-game functionality. Sadly, the built-in Google Assistant button wasn’t active during my review period.
On the front of the Stadia Controller is its USB-C charging port, with a good, old-fashioned 3.5mm headphone jack placed on the bottom side. No surprises there, but I’ve reviewed enough consumer electronics to appreciate the little things.
Lastly, and my only real knock against the controller itself, are the face buttons. Google has gone with the traditional A, B, X, and Y naming convention. Unfortunately, they’ve laid them out in the complete opposite manner of the Nintendo Switch, my current primary gaming system. This means that I was forced to retrain my fingers. And, truth be told, I’m still sometimes smacking Y when it should be X.
Much has been made about the lineup (or lack thereof) available at the Stadia’s launch. That said, while only a sparse dozen games will be available, they do represent a nice variety of styles and content. Seven of those 12 titles were made available to me during my review, and here’s a breakdown of each.
[UPDATE: Last night, a surprise announcement from Google indicated that the Stadia’s launch lineup had been increased from 12 games to 22. What follows are rough impressions of the seven launch titles provided to me during my review period.]
Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition
While not exactly the latest and greatest—this version is based on the 2014 PS4/Xbox One re-release—this third-person action-adventure title was my first Stadia gameplay experience. Its sweeping camera work and sparse combat function well on the platform, and the award-winning franchise reboot still holds up overall. Visually, this is exactly the kind of game you wouldn’t think could work as streamed content, and yet it does.
Mortal Kombat 11
This was the second game I tried on my Google Stadia, and it’s sort of the polar opposite of Tomb Raider: a brand new title with constant, frenetic combat (kombat?) and deceptively complex visuals. Its performance managed to impress me, but as our family’s worst Mortal Kombat player, I left the final word to my 14-year-old, and he too seemed pleased.
Next, I changed gears yet again with Kine, a quirky 3D puzzle-platformer with a distinctly musical slant. Another recent release, Kine isn’t exactly what you’d call a visual powerhouse; it is, however, fun and striking in its own way. In turn, you lead various anthropomorphized musical instruments through complex, jazz-infused levels by flipping them end over end to bridge gaps and overcome obstacles. This is the kind of game you’d likely think of as perfectly tailored for streaming, and it certainly is.
Just Dance 2020
Having just experienced this on the Nintendo Switch, I can assure you that the gameplay for the world’s most enduring rhythm title is comparable between platforms. With no handy Joy-Cons available for the Stadia, you and your fellow dancers will need to download the Just Dance Controller app to your mobile devices, but the pairing process is perfectly painless. (Alliteration!) With that done, you’ll be cutting a rug in no time to “Old Town Road,” “Baby Shark,” and plenty of other tracks I am entirely too old to recognize.
Destiny 2: The Collection
Where the rubber really hits the road for Stadia gameplay is Destiny 2. This graphics-heavy, high-octane online multiplayer FPS is the trial by fire for streamed gaming content. After playing through the introductory scenario with my Awoken Hunter, I set out on my first three-player strike expecting the worst, but was once again impressed with the game’s performance… if not with my own survival skills.
Platform exclusive GYLT—from Tequila Works, of Deadlight and Rime fame—is more comfortably in my wheelhouse than some of the other selections. (I’m looking at you, Just Dance.) Reminiscent of Alan Wake or the early Silent Hill entries, you’re put in the well-worn sneakers of a young protagonist in search of her missing cousin. Quickly enough, the real-world threats of bullying and isolation are made horrifyingly manifest after a trip back to town finds you trapped in a twisted, surreal mirror universe. This take on adolescent survival horror was a high point, and not just because this was the first I’d heard of the game.
Red Dead Redemption II
A latecomer—my review code for this title only materialized a couple of days ago—this Stadia release finally gave me a chance to experience the Rockstar title all my friends have been raving about. This atmospheric old west adventure proved just as grim as advertised, and its Stadia release date is comparable to its arrival on PC.
As hinted at above, the Stadia has really exceeded all my expectations when it comes to overall performance. Starting out a Lara Croft adventure with no downloading, buffering, or stuttering of any kind was a bit of a shock, but discovering that other load times were comparable (if not a little better) than those of disc-based media on my PS4 Slim was downright astounding.
Destiny 2 only cemented my faith in the platform, as even the slightest hint of lag can literally mean life or death in an FPS. Still, the game played flawlessly, even with both my kids streaming other media on the same network at the same time.
In fact, the only occasion where I encountered even the slightest hint of a performance issue was during the lengthy opening cinematic of Red Dead Redemption II. There was some slight graininess in some of the textures, but that sorted itself out well before I had to take my first step as Arthur Morgan.
This is where I point out that all my comments thus far concern just the core Stadia experience—using the Stadia Controller and the Chromecast Ultra—but that’s only a single component of Stadia gaming. Taking the platform’s promise of “one place for all the ways we play” to heart, I also took the time to give these titles a try on, shall we say, less optimized hardware.
While my 13-inch MacBook Air is hardly a gaming machine, thanks to Stadia it managed to let me enjoy GYLT on the go without, you know, bursting into flames. Joking aside, the Stadia web interface proved snappy and responsive, giving me access to a game library otherwise ill-suited for my meager mobile writing system.
The same can be said for the app on the included Pixel 3a XL. In that case, it was simply a matter of choosing “This Screen” rather than the Chromecast and connecting the Stadia Controller via a dual USB-C cable. Is Red Dead the kind of game I long to play on my phone? Not exactly, but it is now a viable option.
The initial purchase price of Google’s Stadia hits a bit of a sweet spot; $129 for the Stadia Controller and the specially-configured Chromecast Ultra is a solid deal, especially considering the $69 MSRP of the 4K Chromecast alone. Where things get a little hairy is in the game pricing.
Yes, these are streaming games with no downloads or physical discs, and, yes, you’re still going to be paying retail price for them. If that’s a little hard to swallow, you’re certainly not alone.
That said, don’t expect to have to pony up $50-$60 for every offering. Budget releases abound, particularly for older and indie titles, plus there are free games and special discounts available for Stadia Pro subscribers.
At launch, you’ll have to purchase the monthly $9.99 Stadia Pro subscription, as the free Stadia Base level won’t be available until 2020. This nets you Destiny 2 right out of the gate as well some special day one deals as outlined below.
Stadia Launch Games Pricing
- Assassin’s Creed Odyssey –
$59.99$30.00 Stadia Pro Deal
- GYLT – $29.99
- Just Dance 2020 – $49.99
- Kine – $19.99
- Mortal Kombat 11 –
$59.99$41.99 Stadia Pro Deal
- Red Dead Redemption 2 Launch Edition – $59.99
- Samurai Showdown – $59.99
- Thumper – $19.99
- Shadow of the Tomb Raider – $59.99
- Rise of the Tomb Raider – $29.99
- Tomb Raider 2013 –
$19.99$10.00 Stadia Pro Deal
- Final Fantasy XV –
$39.99$29.99 Stadia Pro Deal
- Assassin’s Creed Odyssey Stadia Ultimate Edition –
$119.99– $60.00 Stadia Pro Deal
- Mortal Kombat 11 Premium Edition –
$89.99$62.99 Stadia Pro Deal
- Red Dead Redemption 2 Special Edition – $79.99
- Red Dead Redemption 2 Ultimate Edition – $99.99
Is the Stadia for Me?
This, my friends, is the true question; who, exactly, is the Stadia for? Does it have a specific audience, or is it merely a solution looking for a problem?
Even after spending the last week plumbing the depths of the system and its software, I’m still not quite sure. There’s a compelling argument to be made that the Stadia provides a unique solution for those who want triple-A gaming experiences without the upfront cost or hassle of acquiring a console or gaming PC.
The very nature of Stadia’s multi-screen approach to gaming also means that it travels well. Did I think I’d be playing console-style games on my MacBook or my mobile phone? No, and yet here we are.
Now, how large a segment of the gaming population these two scenarios represent is beyond me, but what I can tell you is that the Stadia works. The user interface is intuitive and welcoming, the controller is practically flawless (not to mention gorgeous, especially in Night Blue), and the Chromecast Ultra performs double duty for gaming and all your other streaming media needs.
Moreover, whatever cloud magic Google is doing on the backend to make my generally sub-par setup perform like a high-end gaming machine also works. Wonderfully. But that’s not to say I don’t have some reservations about the Stadia.
Most of those boil down to what’s currently not available.
For example, you can’t piecemeal a Stadia setup. While extra controllers are available for purchase, those are strictly for player twos on proper Stadia systems, as standard Chromecast Ultras don’t yet support the required Stadia firmware.
Also missing at launch is expanded wireless controller support (the Stadia Controller only works wirelessly for TV/Chromecast play), expanded 4K visuals and 5.1 surround sound support (again, it’s currently TV/Chromecast only), and mobile access for non-Pixel phones and non-ChromeOS tablets. Those are all coming in 2020, which is also when I’ll finally be able to give away that 3-month Buddy Pass that came with my Founder’s Edition.
In summation, right now the Google Stadia is an ambitious project that actually fulfills its promise. However, it does seem like it cut a few unfortunate corners to make it to market by the holiday season. Assuming the projected widening of its functionality comes to fruition in 2020, it’s sure to be a distinctive powerhouse with the potential to change the gaming marketplace as we know it.
For now, though, whether or not you opt to become an early adopter of the Stadia depends on your faith in Google (and its continued interest in this cloud gaming solution) and just how interested you are in being one of the first to cast your lot in on what could well be gaming’s next big evolutionary step.
Review and promotional materials provided by Google via Zebra Partners. All opinions are my own.