Stream, stream, stream Señora
We’ve been down the streaming road before. No, OnLive’s early attempts are not what most would consider modern streaming. As folks have “pulled the plug” and moved on to ubiquitous streaming platforms, the mere mention of digital media has a softer touch.
You also have more monolithic, too-big-to-immediately fail entities entering the game, like Sony with its PlayStation Now service and Microsoft with Project xCloud; and now, Google with Stadia. Although Stadia is still really early (so early that several of its features aren’t ready for the November Pro launch), it’s one of the most promising experiments so far in this rollercoaster of a ride.
Stadia Founders Edition
Released: November 19, 2019 (Founder’s Edition) / TBA 2020 (Stadia Base)
MSRP: $130 for three months plus hardware (Chromecast Ultra, controller), $10 a month after, or free with à la carte purchases
Because Google wanted us to be able to really dive into the multiple facets of Stadia streaming out of the gate, my situation is a bit different. For the purposes of this review, we had access to the same $130 Founder’s Edition everyone else is getting tomorrow (full breakdown here), as well as temporary access to a SIM card-less Pixel 3a phone for Stadia testing. To hammer it home, I tested Stadia on my PC (you need the Chrome browser), on a Google Chromecast Ultra (you need the Founder’s Edition Ultra “until shortly after launch” to use Stadia), and the Pixel3a.
Signing up for Stadia is probably the simplest experience I’ve ever had with a new platform. You sign up using a Google account that 99% of the population already has, choose an avatar, then pick a screen name. Once you buy a game you’re done; you can start playing it without firmware updates or downloads. My average boot time for all three platforms is around five seconds. Given that you can play on Google Chrome without the need for yet another marketplace running, it’s not a bad setup.
If a game supports it, you can use keyboard controls on a PC as normal (I did this with Destiny 2 with literally zero setup time). The controller is a bit more finicky. The remote will work wirelessly with the Chromecast Ultra, but requires a cable at this time for the Pixel and PC streaming options. This was already revealed openly by Google and I have confirmed as much during my review session (meaning, you basically need a phone/controller attachment since you need to hook the remote up to your phone). Google expects this to change by “early 2020.” Google also says that Xbox One and PS4 remotes (with Bluetooth support) will be supported on launch day. Parties, sharing captures, and voice chat on mobile are also coming in 2020. That’s kind of a theme for a few Stadia features as you’ll see. Put on your early adopter’s cap!
Concessions aside, setup time is the best part of Stadia. Whether you’re in as a Founder or pick up Stadia at some point next year, Google is onto something when it comes to convenience. I can even see myself buying future games on Stadia when I know I have some travel dates coming up, with the bonus that I have PC and TV access with that same SKU when I return. Pricing and sales will dictate how far Stadia goes for a lot of people.
Here’s the full day one launch lineup (updated this past weekend to 22 games from 12):
- Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
- Attack on Titan: Final Battle 2
- Destiny 2: The Collection
- Farming Simulator 2019
- Final Fantasy XV
- Football Manager 2020
- Grid 2019
- Just Dance 2020
- Metro Exodus
- Mortal Kombat 11
- NBA 2K20
- Rage 2
- Red Dead Redemption 2
- Rise of the Tomb Raider
- Samurai Shodown
- Shadow of the Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition
- Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition
- Trials Rising
- Wolfenstein: Young Blood
If you have an active Pro subscription (you get three months free with the Founder’s Edition and it’s $9.99 a month after), here’s what you have access to for free (think PS Plus or Xbox Live Games with Gold):
- Destiny 2: The Collection
- Samurai Shodown
Normally I don’t post the whole enchilada list in these reviews, opting to link an article instead, but this is a semi-lean one, which is going to be a problem for many. For the purposes of this review I had access to: Gylt, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Mortal Kombat 11 (just FYI, my SKU didn’t include any DLC, which is a bummer), Just Dance 2020, Destiny (this is the full, complete version of the game with Shadowkeep), and Kine. I reviewed Gylt! So you can read about that one there, and all of the above outside of a few with the aforementioned links. We were given access to Red Dead Redemption 2 late in the review process, but did not have enough time to test it exhaustively.
Now, that’s quite a small selection. Three of those are Tomb Raider games, one of which dates back to 2013. Outside of Gylt, which is the (seemingly timed) new sole Stadia exclusive, the newest games are Destiny 2 (including the October Shadowkeep expansion) and indie puzzler Kine, with July’s Young Blood and June’s Samurai Shodown/Mortal Kombat 11 also joining the 2019 list. There’s also a distinct lack of genre representation like puzzle games beyond Kine: though two new hot fighters is a decent enough showing on that front.
There’s more on the way, as Borderlands 3, Darksiders Genesis, Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2, and Ghost Recon Breakpoint are all supposed to hit Stadia before the end of 2019. 10 games were moved up already. Heavy-hitters like Doom Eternal and Baldur’s Gate 3 are scheduled for 2020.
How much value you think Stadia adds at this time is completely subjective. You can always opt to just pick up Stadia for free when that option hits, then buy games à la carte. For users who don’t have access to a gaming PC or a high-end console, the ability to actually play Red Dead Redemption 2 can be alluring. You literally have all the power to choose: Stadia is just another platform of many. If you do have a PC, you’re also giving up modding and finer tooth visual tweaking.
During the Stadia initial launch this year, 4K/HDR is available on ChromeCast Ultra, but 4K/HDR for web browser use will come in early 2020. It’ll be less noticeable depending on your setup, as non-4K monitor users won’t care. As one, I do care a little bit, but none of the games I had access to looked poor in quality. ChromeCast, with full visual capabilities however, is the way to go right now.
For reference, my internet speed is 102 Megabits per second on average with no data cap: hardly breaking any records here. Most estimates put 4K streaming in the neighborhood of 30 Mb/s requirements for 4K, but even in 4K, I had no consistent instances of stuttering or lag. Now I know this is a pre-release situation, not launch day. On the other end of the spectrum, it’s also not perfect Google tradeshow settings, which is how Stadia has been showcased so far.
Occasionally I’ll get a small amount of micro-stuttering, which a competitive fighting game player will tell you is “never okay.” But as someone who’s dealt with worse stuttering on consoles, or with shoddy PC ports, or with bad netcode nearly every month, Stadia is not consistently any worse than the norm. I did have a few instances where, even at 60 Mb/s, Google said my connection was “unstable,” but the games still ran as it course corrected (this was likely an issue on Stadia’s end). I can foresee a potential doomsday launch situation, but so far, I’ve avoided Armageddon on the eve of the nuclear launch. If you’re, say, hardcore raiding in Destiny 2 on Stadia, “occasional micro-stuttering” isn’t going to cut it.
But that benefit of having multiple platforms at your fingertips? I felt it even at home. Swapping screens (between PC at my desk and mobile in bed is my main swap of choice) takes around five seconds total: the original screen gets booted out and the new screen immediately takes over, even mid-game/pause. It actually does work. I tried it around 50 times for good measure with every game, and had no issues. Say what you will about streaming as a whole, but I dig the “put game to sleep, pick it up whenever you want” vibe that the Switch does so well. The ultimate benefit of Stadia, streaming concerns and soft launch impact aside, is playing something in bed on a phone, on my TV like a console, then on the go with my laptop.
As far as Destiny 2 goes, the transition to Stadia was seamless. It took around 30 seconds to initiate cross-save on the official site, and once I logged into Destiny 2 on Stadia my characters were right there. Loading from zone to zone in Destiny 2 takes roughly 30 seconds (or less) on Stadia from menu selection to fully loading in, and on Steam that number is, on average, close to a minute when the game is installed on a solid state drive. One big bad thing (and this is more on Bungie): like other versions, there is no cross-play, despite support for cross-progression. Without it, you’re at the mercy of the Stadia user base for games that are dependent on large amounts of players.
So you probably want to know a little bit about the controller right? Well it’s more than adequate and has a real heft to it like a quality Xbox remote. Charging is done by way of USB-C, it has a 3.5mm mic jack (you can also use wireless headphones on your PC), and the “options/menu” buttons serve as select and start respectively. It has vibration a “press to take a screenshot/hold to take video button,” and near 1:1 parity with a Bluetooth enabled Xbox One S era remote. Important to note: that capture button is dedicated like the DualShock 4’s share button, but thankfully doesn’t move “select” to the touchpad.
The “Google Assistant” feature was not live yet. This gambit is the wackiest functionality of all: allowing “in-game features” programmed by the developer or the chance to pull up YouTube hint clips. The most annoying part of the remote is that we’re forced to tether it to a PC or mobile device until Google allows wireless functionality. On the Chromecast, you’re good.
Is it the future?
You know, I would be okay if it was part of the future.
Right now we have so many streaming options for other forms of media, but when a film’s rights get completely entangled (or worse, “vaulted” by Disney), it can be nuked from streaming for a time, or forever. While most studios do follow the good faith concept of letting you access your content on a backend server after you purchased it, there is precedent for removing something entirely, even banning re-downloads.
That’s the problem with streaming: it’s at the complete beck and call of overlords and messy rights holders. If every game was streaming you’d be effectively renting everything, and could potentially miss out on experiencing something years or decades down the line, with no chance of historical preservation. As of right now, Stadia is not threatening to do that because traditional gaming still exists. If you can’t stand the idea of it maybe helping that notion along one day, you can safely ignore it. Then there’s the whole idea of every game on Stadia being “online-only,” which is its own beast and something I don’t want for the industry as a whole.
For me, Stadia is a convenient option to play select games on top of all the ways I already am, but the service as a whole is still pretty early yet to call a home. Getting into the public view before Christmas is a smart move, but a few features aren’t quite here yet that really give Stadia that “wow factor” it might need to tip some over the edge. As usual, it’ll come down to the games. With Project xCloud really kicking into high gear with a huge list of killer apps, Stadia needs to ramp up now, not later. “It works” isn’t a competitive edge.
[Hardware was provided for this review by the manufacturer. The review kit includes the Stadia Founder’s Edition, a Night Blue controller, a Chromecast Ultra and a temporary Pixel3a. Games provided mentioned in the review.]