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Google Stadia Review: Streaming Game Service’s Potential and Problems Collide

November 18, 2019, 5:00 PM UTC

With Tuesday’s debut of video-game streaming service Stadia, Google hopes to change how people play games, moving them away from consoles and toward an online model instead.

While that may happen in the long run, it could take a little longer than the Internet and search giant had hoped. Based on a nearly week-long trial, Stadia showed itself to have significant potential, but with enough shortcomings that early customers are likely to grumble.

First things first: The technology behind Stadia is impressive. To be able to buy a game online and begin playing immediately is incredibly gratifying. There’s no long initial download time to wait through. And you don’t have to worry about downloading updates or patches to games after you’ve purchased them. You pay. You play. It’s that simple.

While Stadia is a streaming service, it doesn’t follow the Netflix model. You buy games individually from Google at their usual retail price (from $20 to $90, depending on the title and add-ons). And the first wave of Stadia users are people who signed up for a paid version that costs $10 monthly (they’ll get access to some additional games for their money). A free version of Stadia will premiere next year.

Stadia’s game controller is comfortable in your hands and intuitive for anyone who has played console games. And using a mouse-keyboard combination to control games when playing on the PC worked wonderfully.

The launch lineup of games was looking disappointing until late Sunday night, when Google expanded it from 12 to 22 titles. That’s a much more respectable number, but even with the last minute bump, only a handful are holiday 2019 releases.

The size of Stadia’s catalog, long term, is unlikely to be a problem, though, as Google has partnered with many major publishers for games. Still, a last minute doubling of the lineup (perhaps accelerated as criticism mounted about the anemic number of initial offerings) is not exactly a show of strength.

As for performance, Stadia has a few significant glitches. It’s hard to say definitively, though, whether those are due to the service itself or its dependency on a solid Internet connection.

In testing, I experienced major, major lag during game cut scenes—so significant that the voice track and character facial animations of one game, Mortal Kombat, were wildly out of sync. It made a dramatic moment in the game seem more like a poorly dubbed film.

That lag occasionally carries over into gameplay, rather than just cut scenes. While playing Destiny 2 and Mortal Kombat, two games that demand fast reflexes, actions seemed slightly sluggish. It certainly wasn’t as bad as the lip-syncing problem, but even a fraction of a second can result in your character dying on screen. In one multiplayer session of Destiny 2, the controller froze up, forcing me to restart the game from the beginning.

For core gamers, who are always the make or break customers for a new gaming system, that’s going to be a big problem.

For review units, I used a Google Chromecast Ultra, which allowed for play on a television screen. (That’s the only Chromecast device compatible with Stadia at launch.)  The company suggested using an ethernet cable to connect the Chromecast directly to a router, to ensure the fastest connection speeds.

Considering how uncommon it is for people to run ethernet cables to their living room televisions, we bypassed that advice to get a more true consumer experience. I did, however, have a solid Wi-Fi connection, with download speeds of 139 Mbps and upload speeds of 23.8 Mbps. Even though Internet speeds fluctuate throughout the day, that should have been more than sufficient to counter any lag.

Some notable Stadia features that Google has touted also weren’t available as part of the test, including State Share, which lets you join the exact moment of a game shared by another player, and Crowd Play, which lets players join games with YouTube streamers.

Stadia executives have said on online message board Reddit that those features will be coming soon.

The other elephant in the room for Stadia subscribers is data caps. If your Internet provider has you on a fixed usage per month (Comcast, for instance, typically assigns a 1024 GB limit), Stadia could chew through that quickly. During the time I tested the service, I noticed a significant rise in my data usage. For families that have one or more dedicated gamers who plan to use the service extensively, the fees associated with data overages could result in sticker shock.

Stadia, at present, still very much feels like a work in progress—a game platform that has loads of potential and a roadmap for how to get there. But it hasn’t quite reached that potential yet.

That will likely result in some less than flattering customer feedback from buyers of the sold out Founders and $129 Premier Editions (which include the controller, Chromecast Ultra and a three month subscription to Stadia Pro), especially since Google has said people who ordered the Premier edition may not have their kits for several days.

Google has the budget and the patience to work past those kinks. It also has the support of many major publishers, which is key. And, starting next year, it will offer a Netflix-like all-you-can-play model via Ubisoft’s UPlay+, an offering that might make Stadia a lot more appealing to gamers.

Right now, for most players, though, Stadia remains a show-me story.

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