One company or another has been trying to sell consumers on cloud gaming for the last few years, but no one has made it stick. Not only do you need the clout to get game publishers on board, but you also need the network infrastructure to make the experience reliable for people all over the world. Google might have all the pieces in place to make Stadia work, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should start buying your games on Stadia right now. You need a lot of bandwidth for the best Stadia experience, and hardware support will be skimpy at launch. Stadia has potential, but that’s what we’ve been saying about game streaming for nigh on a decade at this point.
Eventually, Stadia will work on a variety of devices including most smartphones and Chromecasts. However, the launch support is limited to just Google’s Pixel phones, Chrome browsers, and the Chromecast Ultra — specifically, the Chromecast Ultra that comes with Stadia. Google won’t roll out the Stadia update to other Chromecast units until a later date. Additional phone support is also coming on some vague future date.
You need the Stadia app on your phone to get started, even if you don’t plan to play games on the phone. From there, you configure the controller, which connects directly to the internet rather than going through your streaming device. You can also “pair” the controller with the Chromecast Ultra so it can launch Stadia with a button press. This is a clunky experience, though. It took me about five tries to get the devices linked. You should be able to link a controller simply by inputting a series of button presses shown on your Chromecast’s ambient screen.
Stadia is tied to your Google account, and you can’t move your library to another login. So, make sure you choose your preferred account before you purchase anything. Google has connected Stadia to the same back-end as Google Play, so you earn Play Points when you buy games. Once you’re set up and buy some games (Destiny 2 and Samurai Showdown come with the Founder’s bundle), you can launch them from the mobile app or the TV by selecting a screen. Your controller should automatically connect to the service over Wi-Fi, so you don’t need to fumble with Bluetooth or additional wireless dongles.
I’ve tried most of the major game streaming services that have popped up over the years, and Stadia is the first one that sufficiently replicates a local gaming experience. Destiny 2 runs smoothly at 4k60 on Stadia with HDR enabled, which is truly impressive — my gaming desktop PC would probably struggle to do that. It’s easy to forget the game is being rendered on a distant server and streamed to your screen. I haven’t noticed any lag at all.
There are a few clear advantages to having games render in the cloud. For example, Stadia keeps your game instances running for several minutes after you close the app. So, you can start a game on your TV or phone, and then switch seamlessly to the other and continue playing where you left off. The games are, of course, vastly more advanced than anything you could play on a low-power device like a phone or Chromebook, and the experience is almost identical to what you’d get on a powerful gaming PC.
You need a USB-C cable to play Stadia games on a phone right now, which is very silly.
In its prettiest form, Stadia will absolutely devour your bandwidth. Google recommends 35Mbps down for 4k60 HDR gameplay, and that’s very close to what I’m seeing on my end. If you’ve got a monthly data cap, Stadia could blow right through it. After all, you are streaming 4K video every second you spend in a game even if it’s paused, but you can turn down the quality in the Stadia settings.
Mortal Kombat 11 on Stadia.
The Stadia controller is easily the equal of the Xbox One or PS4 versions. The thumbsticks have good resistance and smoothness, and the buttons are tactile but not too loud. I also enjoy the convenient screen capture button next to the main button cluster. I personally prefer the staggered thumbstick layout of the Xbox controller, but PS4 gamers will adapt to the symmetrical sticks on the Stadia controller easily. One strange foible: the controller doesn’t work wirelessly with a phone yet. You have to plug in a USB-C cable.
Is Stadia Right for You?
If you’re reading this, the odds are you won’t want Stadia — at least not yet. The selection of games is limited, and the prices are usually higher than what you’d get buying from Steam or Amazon. It also requires a fast internet connection. The highest-quality streaming requires a Stadia Pro subscription, as well.
Stadia performed extremely well for me during testing. The experience I’ve had with Stadia might not match what everyone gets after launch — there were very few people on the servers during the review period, so performance might degrade when the floodgates open. That said, Google is one of the few companies with the infrastructure to support thousands of cloud gaming connections.
Kine is a quirky puzzle game available on Stadia at launch.
If Stadia can avoid growing pains as more players come online, I can safely say it will provide the best cloud gaming experience available. Once additional device support rolls out, Stadia could be an ideal way to play your games wherever you happen to be. Playing Mortal Kombat 11 on your phone is pretty undeniably cool. I could see Stadia being great for frequent travelers and those who don’t want to deal with maintaining a gaming PC. However, it won’t make you want to dump your console or gaming PC if you’ve already invested in the hardware.