Google Stadia review round-up: promising technology that’s not quite ready for prime-time

We went hands on with both Project xCloud and Google Stadia, here are our first impressions

The first reviews for Google Stadia are up ahead of the service’s public launch tomorrow, November 19, and they’re not exactly great. Truth is, the cloud gaming service already received some bad buzz after Google announced that only 12 games would be available on launch day (Google added just 10 additional games in a hurry,) and that many features such as achievements support and integrations with YouTube and Google Assistant wouldn’t be available at launch.

Granted, it’s very hard for any company to try disrupting the video games industry, even for a juggernaut like Google. More competition is always good, but most reviews are pointing out today that Stadia’s November 19 launch will be a disguised early access. That’s a shame, especially when Microsoft chose to go the public beta route with its Project xCloud alternative.

Google’s streaming technology is mostly solid…

That’s probably the only good news about Stadia, Google’s global cloud infrastructure seem solid enough for Stadia to work well with a solid Internet connection. Several reviewers highlighted that input lag is barely noticeable if your Internet is fast enough. Here’s what IGN’s Kevin Lee wrote:

There’s a bit of a perceptible delay, but it’s far shorter than the second or half-second of lag I’m used to experiencing with GeForce Now and xCloud. With the official Stadia controller, latency is minimized to almost nothing and the most I noticed it was while playing with a gaming mouse and keyboard, and I found myself unable to instantly snap your precision aim as I normally would.

Stadia has made fantastic improvements in reducing latency and it’s the one service that doesn’t make me feel like I’m actually streaming a game.

A large part of this comes thanks to the way Google has set up Stadia for “negative latency” by having the games run at more than 60fps on their end. The system is also designed to predict almost anything you might do next and prepare game animations even before you hit a button.

Polygon’s Chris Plante also had some positive comments about latency, though his experience was inconsistent:

Using a Stadia Controller plugged directly into my laptop or the Pixel 3a, I rarely noticed input lag. At times, I forgot I was streaming a video game, it felt so natural. That said, while the moment-to-moment input felt smooth, a variety of visual issues all but ruined the experience of playing games on the service.

Other reporters didn’t have such a good experience either. Forbes’ Paul Tassi complained about encountering random stuttering issues, even on a more than capable 200-350 Mbps connection

…Though graphics quality can be disappointing

With Stadia, Google promised to have the first next-gen gaming platform on the market with more than 10 teraflops of computing power, allowing consumers to play games in 4K at 60 FPS. Unfortunately, 4K gameplay is only available when playing on the with the included Chromecast Ultra dongle right now. Otherwise, streaming from the Google Chrome browser on a PC or on Google’s Pixel smartphones is limited to 1080p.

As it turns out, Stadia’s 4K quality doesn’t look as good as what you can find on gaming PCs or even the Xbox One X. The Verge’s Sean Hollister also highlighted that Destiny 2, one of Stadia’s launch titles, is also running at 1080p and then upscaled to 4K:

With Destiny 2, it’s even more obvious that the game isn’t running at the highest settings. On a Chromecast Ultra, a “4K” stream looked closer to 1080p, and my colleague Tom Warren and I swore that the 1080p streams we were getting in the Chrome web browser looked more like 720p.

Initially, Google told us that it was using the highest-resolution, highest-fidelity build of Destiny 2 available. But Bungie later confirmed that our eyes weren’t deceiving us. “When streaming at 4K, we render at a native 1080p and then upsample and apply a variety of techniques to increase the overall quality of effect,” a Bungie rep said, adding that D2 runs at the PC equivalent of medium settings. That explains why the Xbox One X build, which runs at a native 4K and with higher-res assets, looks so much better than Stadia.

Many missing features at launch

That will probably be Stadia’s biggest issue at launch: many features that Google promised aren’t ready yet, and even basic gaming features such as achievements won’t be available tomorrow.

Kyle Orland from Ars Technica gave a good explanation of everything Stadia will be missing tomorrow, despite Google teasing many exciting features back in March of this year:

Stadia games don’t have an Achievement UI yet. You can’t share purchased games with a subsidiary family account. The ballyhooed Google Assistant integration, which has its own button on the controller, isn’t working at launch. And while you can capture screenshots and videos using a button on the controller, those captures are currently trapped on the Stadia mobile app, with no way to remove them or share them with the world until next year.

Many Stadia-exclusive features that were supposed to set the platform apart also aren’t ready in time for launch, despite being discussed publicly since March. You can’t share unique game states through an easy Web link. You can’t stream your gameplay to YouTube and let viewers jump into your multiplayer session immediately. And you can’t integrate your gaming viewpoint into another Stadia user’s screen.

The business model is still confusing

If you want to try Stadia tomorrow, you’ll have to purchase the $129 Stadia Premiere Edition which comes with a Chromecast Ultra, a Stadia Controller, as well as 3 months of Stadia Pro subscription. The subscription is required to access Stadia this year, and it will give you one or two free games per month plus the ability to play in 4K 60 FPS.

All Stadia games need to be purchased from the Stadia Store, as Stadia Pro isn’t a true game subscription service like Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass. Next year, though, Stadia will introduce a free tier that will allow all consumers to purchase games and play them at 1080p/60FPS. That’s when Stadia should become really interesting, as the service that’s launching tomorrow will require consumers to pay for the $129 Stadia Premiere Edition and purchase games separately.

Here’s what Jeff Grub, writing for VentureBeat, had to say about Stadia’s business model:

Right now, Google Stadia is a platform for nobody. The company just doesn’t seem to understand any of the audiences it is trying to reach.

It’s going to have 22 games at launch, but almost all of them are available on other platforms. So if you’ve wanted to play Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey or Red Dead Redemption 2, you probably already have. And if you are one of those fabled casual fans who refuses to spend money on hardware, are these really the games that are going to get you on board? Maybe. But the service doesn’t have anything free-to-play like Fortnite or Apex Legends yet.

There’s no real killer app

Grub’s last point is really important: Stadia would be much more interesting if anyone could give it a try tomorrow with some free-to-play games, but Stadia won’t have any at launch. Well, if you purchase the $129 Stadia Premiere Edition, you do get Destiny 2 and Shadow Warrior for free, but that’s still a high price to pay for a service that’s obviously still in beta.

Despite all of its limitations, it’s probably better for Stadia to launch right now, giving Google a year or so to fix all of its shortcomings before Sony and Microsoft fight back with the PlayStation 5 and Project Scarlett. However, Google would probably have dodged a bullet if they launched Stadia in public beta, just like they did last year with the “Project Stream” trial featuring Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.

We’ll continue to pay attention to Google Stadia in the coming weeks and months, and we hope the service will get better to put more pressure on Sony and Microsoft. It’s still early days for game streaming, but Google is one of a few companies with a large enough cloud infrastructure to make it cloud gaming a reality. And again, they still have the time to get it right before Sony and Microsoft bring their own next-gen platforms next year.

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