RF Generation.  The Classic and Modern Gaming Databases.RF Generation.  The Classic and Modern Gaming Databases.

Posted on Dec 5th 2019 at 08:00:00 AM by (zophar53)
Posted under Stadia, Google, cloud gaming

When Google held their own press conference at E3 this year, they talked a big game, promising experiences equal to, if not better, than anything you could find on a home console. Personally, it was easy to buy into the hype, even if I was skeptical. Media is getting more and more disconnected from the material world every year. It's inevitable that games will some day join the likes of music and movies in some digital streaming landscape. But after their E3 grandstanding Google went all but silent. I'd plunked down money to pre-order their "Founder's Edition" and still knew nothing more than what I'd heard in June. Only a few weeks ago did news break of more games being added to their lineup and shipping confirmations started going out to initial customers. After playing with Stadia for a while, I'd say some skepticism is still warranted.

Upon initial receipt I had no complaints. The Stadia package includes the controller, a Chromecast Ultra, and power cords for them both. Packaged in the clean, minimalist style that has become the norm for most upscale electronics these days, it's not difficult to figure out how it's all supposed to be hooked up for anyone who's bought a new cell phone or tv in the past couple of years. That said, it's worth keeping in mind that the Chromecast has been around for a while now, so much like the PlayStation VR, it's clear that new tech is being mixed with old tech in a way that isn't as clean as it should be (e.g. the power cord for the Chromecast uses micro USB instead of USB-C).

While hooking up the physical bits of Stadia are straight forward, setting the whole thing up is anything but. First you have to set up the Chromecast, which requires the Google Home mobile app. Then you download the Stadia mobile app, create an account (if you haven't done it on your PC yet), and use that to set up the controller with your wifi. Next, you sync the controller up to the tv. Finally, you assign your Stadia account profile to the Chromecast. Once you've done all that, everything talks to each other and syncs up without a problem, but it's quite the process.

I'm pretty tech savvy and have a lot of smart home and cloud-based services already, so it wasn't too big of an issue, but I wasn't able to get my controller and Stadia app to "see" each other when I first went through the set up process. I must've tried a dozen times. Restarting the app, restarting both the phone and the controller, nothing I tried worked. It was only after I plugged the controller in to my PC and played a few games on it that way that I went back to the Chromecast and they all of a sudden synced up without a hitch. It was annoying, and I could definitely see how someone not already familiar with the way modern wireless tech works could get fed up.

The good news is once everything was synched together properly it was a good experience. My PC has a wired internet connection and I have a decent 200 Mbps service, so the games I played in my Chrome browser worked admirably. They didn't match the resolution or framerate a beefy gaming PC can muster, but I didn't notice any major hitches in how they ran. Gylt, Stadia's only exclusive so far, is a narrative-heavy stealth game with a lot of dark shadows and creepy soundscapes. I noticed one or two instances of texture pop-in, but other than that it looked great. Even more demanding games like Destiny 2 and Tomb Raider performed well. Again, they can't hold a candle to a fancy new gaming desktop, but they were more than capable for a viable alternative to spending gaming rig-level money. I even tried playing the games while simultaneously watching an hour-long YouTube video and didn't notice any major problems.

When I moved to playing off the Chromecast, things got a little funky. My living room is about 40-50 feet from my office where the router is, and as nice as it would be to have a wired connection there, I doubt I'll ever go to the hassle of doing that, so wireless it was. On the bright side, load times for all of the games were very quick, and for the most part the games themselves looked good. The Chromecast Ultra was made for 4k streaming content, and while it handles that well, the games are upscaled to that resolution, so it's kind of cheating. And when things got hectic on screen there were pretty obvious hitches and framerate dips. It never got to the point of being unplayable, but it didn't do a good job selling itself as a console replacement. Even Gylt, with it's slower pace, wasn't completely unaffected.

The intro to Tomb Raider is a good test. Lots of steady cam, fire & water effects, and dynamic action

No issues with the fast-paced combat of Destiny 2 on the Chrome browser

The Stadia controller, for its part, is a good controller. Not good enough to equal the Xbox One, Dualshock 4, or Switch Pro controllers, but it's comfortable in my hands. The face buttons, triggers, and sticks feel nice, but the bumpers and D-pad have too little travel for my liking. Playing Samurai Showdown, my biggest thought was that I wouldn't want to use the Stadia D-pad for another fighting game. Thankfully, I couldn't detect any lag in the controller input, even when playing on the Chromecast. As far as mobile gaming goes, Stadia is only available on Pixel phones for now, so I wasn't able to try it there.

Aside from the games, I found Stadia's user experience pretty lackluster. Along with the less-than-promised performance, the gaming press has not been shy about calling Google out on this, and after using it myself I can confirm that it just feels half-baked. I found a way to get to the Stadia store on the Chrome browser through Destiny 2, and it appeared that I could buy DLC, but most other functions in the Chrome menus are either not functioning or simply not an option. On the Chromecast, it's no better. I like the fact that screenshots and gameplay videos are easy to take and stored in Google's cloud, but you can't share them, post them, or do anything other than look at them. And even that's only available on your phone. The only workaround so far is to go to Google Takeout and download your Stadia data like you would everything else Google has on you. Once you've done that, you're free to do with them what you will, but it's a poor solution in this age of social media sharing.

So many grayed out menus

You can only take screenshots while a game is running

The Stadia store mobile app is fine for what it is; it has the things you'd expect from an online game store. There are sections for featured, new, and sale titles, and a section for the games that get discounted for being a Stadia premium member, displayed in a card-like aesthetic that's become common on mobile storefronts. There's a friend list, but with such a limited user base there's not much to do with it at the moment (if you're a fellow Stadia founder, friend me!). Supposedly there's an achievement system running under the hood, but none of the menus I found alluded to such a thing and I didn't see a single achievement notification pop up when I was playing, so either I didn't trigger any, they haven't been implemented yet, or when they do figure out how to surface the info I'll already have a bunch sitting on my profile. Lastly, there appears to be a reward system for buying things within Stadia. The rewards points can be used for microtransaction content in mobile games or added to your Google Play store balance, which should be able to be put towards future game purchases.

All in all, I was left with the impression that this Founders Edition launch is basically just an expanded beta. I'd rather not echo the rants of other games media folk, but Stadia's faults are glaring. The thing is, I can genuinely see the building blocks of something cool here. Fundamentally, Stadia works, and at certain times and under certain conditions, it works well. In a world where I have no doubt all new media will be digitally streamed in the next couple of decades, it's impressive to see this tech start to take shape. But it's not ready yet. There are still a LOT of variables that need to be ironed out before cloud gaming can rival the experience of playing games on physical consoles and PCs, and my suspicion is that Google rushed Stadia out to beat Microsoft to the punch. Stadia hasn't lived up to their promises yet, and it's felt more than a little disingenuous to see them pass the buck.

I'm left wondering what kind of person will want to use Stadia as their primary (only?) gaming platform. On the one hand, if you love games or tech, have a good internet connection, and can't or don't want to shell out the funds for new gaming hardware, Stadia might in fact be a good option for you. On the other hand, I wonder how many people are currently in the middle of that venn diagram? Smart home and cloud-based tech is still new, and the landscape is a bit of a wild west that's only just now starting to coalesce in ways that make everything talk to each other seamlessly. It's hard to see someone who isn't already in that ecosystem wanting to make gaming their first foray into that realm. And for those who are willing to give it a go, they more than likely already have better options.

I'm the kind of person who loves trying dumb new tech simply for the cool factor, and I'm not upset I have a Stadia setup now. I'll probably even check in on things every now and then to see how the service progresses. But there's nothing about the experience that makes me want to ditch my consoles or PC. And that's not even going into the embarrassingly inconsistent broadband coverage/availability we have in the US. We may get there someday; in a world where high speed broadband is plentiful and playing a game via the cloud feels no different than doing so on a physical console, I would very much welcome not having to spend the money on new consoles and PC upgrades every few years. But for now, unless Google makes some major headway in filling out Stadia's feature set in the next three months, I don't plan on continuing my premium subscription.

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Seems like my skepticism was warranted, when I wrote about the announcement a few months back. I do think it's a cool idea, and I would tend to believe that this is probably where things are heading, but, similar to OnLive and Ouya, it's just not ready for prime time, and they can't deliver the kind of experience that discerning gamers are looking for. Casual users might see this as a great solution, because they can have access to a lot of flagship titles without having to spend a lot of money. The trade-off for that convenience, it seems, is a somewhat compromised experience. I'm happy we still have other options, at least for now.

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