Stadia Review: Google's Game Streaming Service Is Impressive (At Times), But Not Revolutionary

Google - Game - Publicity- H 2019
Courtesy of Google

The new game streaming service from the tech giant launched Tuesday.

"This is cool, but…" 

Every configuration and every test I made with Google's new game streaming service Stadia showed potential, but was never short of some kind of hiccup. At times, it was the occasional stutter in the stream. At others, a delay in the input lag or a drop in quality for a few seconds. Stadia always felt like it was so close to achieving the truly remarkable but could never quite grab what it was reaching for. The one time I finally managed to encounter what the marketing campaign dreamed I would experience, I was still left with a single question: Why do I need Google Stadia?

I always want creative ideas and cool concepts to succeed, and, on paper, Google Stadia is just that. A service which lets you stream games on the platform of your choice (TV, computer, mobile) with impressive resolutions and consistent quality used to sound like a pipe dream. Truthfully, it still does, as such an offering is very reliant on the technology of today. Unfortunately, this is not a luxury everyone has access to and a chunk of Stadia's potential audience is thus left by the wayside.

I don't live in a big tech city. I don't get fiber connection and my internet speeds are laughable in the eyes of the tech giants to my east and west. Right now, I'm in Arizona, where essentially two internet providers rule the land and provide moderate-to-good internet service. I attribute a lot of my Stadia problems to having to rely on a just-OK service, but I have to imagine this will be the case for most Stadia users. Personally, as impressive as the tech may be, I don't think the world is quite ready for such a demanding service.

My first test was the main TV setup where I was thankfully able to hook up my Chromecast Ultra to a direct ethernet line. With speeds above 40mpbs, I was able to get a clear picture with a consistent frame rate. The issue, however, was the short stutter that appeared about every five seconds. The technology was exciting but it couldn't cover up the immersion-shattering lag that permeated my playthrough. While it may be minimal, it was enough to cause me to plummet to my death during Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Had someone seen me play, I don't think they would be able to tell right away if I was playing via stream or hardware. That says something about the impressive tech, but even one unfortunate death due to a split-second skip is already too many.

Next, I tried Stadia on my PC setup (where I was hitting a lower 25mbps), also through ethernet. Just like on my TV, the stuttering persisted, but this time it occurred more sporadically, making for a more well-rounded experience. Destiny 2 was the game and the locations were vibrant and sharp, with the gameplay just as you'd expect it to be on a console or PC. However, by the end of my time with Stadia on my computer, I couldn't help but wish I simply played the actual PC version of the game where I wouldn't have to worry about the occasional short pause disrupting a fight. 

A test on mobile was also done, specifically on the Google Pixel 3A. This was by far the best experience, despite hooking up the service through a Wi-Fi connection. I encountered the least amount of lag and loss in stream quality. This portion of the test really showed off Stadia's strengths as a concept. I was able to pick up my playthrough of Gylt (an exclusive title for Stadia from developer Tequila Works) from my TV and jump right back in exactly where I left off on my phone, provided I made the switch within 15 minutes.

Naturally, I gravitated toward the device that produced the least issues, swinging from rope to rope in Shadow of the Tomb Raider and taking down enemies in Destiny 2, all on my phone. While that is certainly impressive (and something I didn't think I'd see for years to come), I don't think the novelty is enough to invest in Google Stadia just yet.

In fact, I don't quite understand why I need Google Stadia. As someone who already owns one or more of the three major consoles, partaking in a service that possibly gets you new games as they release with the added bonus that you don't have to download any updates is simply not worth the jump. A dominating game streaming service seems to be the way of the future, I just don't think we're quite ready to make that switch yet. 

It would be silly to say there aren't things to love in what Stadia does offer. Although the initial setup is a bit much —  with the multiple apps and the Chromecast preparation — playing games from there on out is straightforward and to the point. You just turn it on, pick your game, and you're playing. It's a welcome streamlining as just last week I picked up Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order and popped it into my PlayStation 4 only to be met with an update screen that delayed my start by 40 minutes. That doesn't happen with Stadia.

The controller mount for my phone, which admittedly left me dumbfounded as to how to attach, was a neat way to alleviate the painstaking task of implementing touch controls. That said, and practically speaking, I wouldn't use this mount outside my own bedroom where I can't lay down and relax while playing. Nintendo Switch this is not. Stadia's mobile rig is inconvenient to carry around to an airport or other public space where I would theoretically whip it out and start playing. Stadia is meant to be played anywhere, or so it was sold, but beyond testing at a local Starbucks, I can't imagine myself ever leaving my house with this controller.

Stadia's current list of games doesn't include a ton of the newest releases, but that's not a huge issue. Games like Cyberpunk 2077 and Doom Eternal are set to release on the platform alongside their console counterparts in 2020 and make the service a compelling option when they debut. The problem is Stadia would feel like much more of a worthy investment if the games were part of a paid service where being a member grants you access to a wide range of options, new and old. The current offering makes it seem like it wants to be a competitor to current consoles like the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, not a groundbreaking new option, and it simply does not have the reach to achieve a goal that grand.

Google Stadia has a lot of potential, but I don't quite see why I need it right now. The service is cool, provided you live in an area with exceptional Internet service where playing a game feels natural and not something with occasional bumps you simply are forced to get used to. I don't think this is the end of Stadia's story. The launch may be a bit premature, but the tech is still impressive and Google promises a hopeful 2020. I wouldn't jump on board now, but I would certainly keep an eye on what Stadia brings next year.