Google Stadia review | CNN
Google Stadia launched nearly two years ago as a way to play big-name video games on any device via the cloud, and the reception was mixed, to say the least. While Google’s game-streaming technology has worked well since day one, its limited library and functionality left a lot to be desired.
Fast forward to 2021, and a whole lot has changed — and not just for Stadia. The powerful new PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X consoles are in the wild, but they’re still extremely difficult to find, and will cost you upward of $500 if you’re lucky enough to get one. That helps reframe Stadia as a much more accessible means of trying out hot titles like Cyberpunk 2077 and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, since you can buy and play them using the phone, computer or TV you already have.
When you combine that accessibility with some improvements to game selection and hardware pricing over the years, is Google Stadia finally worth it? The short answer is yes — for a very specific gamer, at least.
Accessible cloud gaming
Google Stadia isn’t for everyone, but this cloud-based gaming service can be a strong alternative to console and PC gaming for casual or budget-concious fans.
Who it’s for: Google Stadia is ideal for folks who want to play blockbuster games like Marvel’s Avengers and Red Dead Redemption 2 but don’t want to shell out the cash for a console (or simply can’t find one).
What you need to know: Google Stadia allows you to stream games to pretty much any phone, computer or TV, and retain your progress no matter where you play. It’s free to start, but most big games will cost you $40 to $60 each, and there’s a $10-per-month subscription plan that gets you additional games and extra perks (like 4K and surround sound while streaming). You’ll also need solid internet speeds for the best experience.
How it compares: Google Stadia stands out from other cloud services with some of its bigger titles, as it’s one of the few places you can buy and play the likes of Resident Evil Village or Borderlands 3 without owning a console or PC. But Microsoft’s $15-per-month Xbox Game Pass Ultimate service (which includes cloud streaming) offers far more games for the money, and is better for folks who also play on Xbox or PC. Amazon’s Luna is also a compelling alternative for those who would rather pay a subscription, as you get a solid library of nearly 100 games for $7 per month.
If there’s one area where Google Stadia succeeds with very few caveats, it’s performance — at least on my home internet. Google’s gaming service consistently streamed titles at a high fidelity with minimal latency in my tests, to the point where I often forgot that I was playing these games from the cloud and not directly from a console or PC.
I tried out Stadia on a number of phones and computers, but it really shone when I used it on my TV via a Google Chromecast Ultra. I very quickly got lost in the sci-fi world of Cyberpunk 2077, as everything from the neon-soaked streets of Night City to the grizzled, patterned faces of my shady compatriots rendered in gorgeous detail at 4K. And once I found myself in the middle of a shootout, there was no significant lag to keep me from landing headshots and sneaking up on bad guys with precision.
I had a similar experience with other games and genres — the pastel-colored fantasy worlds of Trine 4 looked especially gorgeous when streaming via Chromecast Ultra, while high-intensity action games like Far Cry 5 and Grime felt fluid and responsive as I shot and sliced enemies. I did notice a bit of pixelation when streaming on other platforms, including a MacBook Pro, a Surface Laptop 4, a Galaxy Note 10 and my Windows PC, but the gameplay experience felt similarly solid across every device I played on. In fact, the frenetic demon-slaying action of Doom felt much smoother and more playable on Stadia than it did on Xbox Cloud Streaming when I played it on both platforms side by side on the same PC.
Whether I was on a phone, a computer or my TV, I could fire up the same library of Stadia games with a few clicks, and my progress synced across platforms. There are a few quirks here, though; folks on an iPhone or iPad will have to stream their games via a web browser and not the Stadia app, due to Apple’s rules around game streaming. This works in Safari (the preinstalled browser) or in third-party options like Chrome.
It’s not a massive inconvenience (and Xbox Game Streaming and Amazon Luna have the same restriction), and Stadia games still performed well on iPhone. Still, it’d be nice to be able to launch games right from the iOS app like you can on Android, rather than use it exclusively for browsing and buying titles. The Stadia experience on Chromecast or TV (many modern sets with Android TV software are supported) has the opposite problem, with a pretty bare-bones interface that lets you launch games and do little else.
Firing up Stadia on a TV simply reveals a long, horizontal list of your games sorted by how recently you played them, with no option to organize or sort your library, view your friends’ screenshots and videos or buy new games (you’ll need to do that on the app or on the web). This doesn’t take away from how easy it is to play games on Stadia on any device, but it’d be nice to take advantage of everything the service has to offer in a single place.
On top of giving you plenty of options for where to play, Stadia is also pretty flexible in terms of how you play. You can connect pretty much any modern controller via Bluetooth or USB, use a mouse and keyboard on PC or even utilize touch controls on mobile on both the Android app and the browser-based iOS experience.
But let’s start with using Google’s own Stadia Controller with a Chromecast, which you’ll get with the $79 Stadia Premiere Edition set. Opting for this bundle will let you replicate the same plug-and-play TV experience you’d get from a console.
The Stadia Controller (which is also sold on its own for $69) is a solid piece of hardware, with an ergonomic and hefty design that feels like a mix between the latest Xbox and PlayStation controllers. It was comfortable to use for hours at a time, but like Sony’s DualSense controller, it feels just a tiny bit wide for my hands. If you’ve used a gaming controller from the last 15 years or so, you’ll feel pretty at home here — the familiar A,B,X,Y and shoulder buttons are all present, in addition to dual thumbsticks and a directional pad for those more precise platformers.
Unique to the Stadia controller is a capture button for snagging screenshots and gameplay clips, as well as a Google Assistant button for asking Google’s AI for help with all sorts of things. Both of these buttons worked reliably, and I was particularly impressed by the Google Assistant functionality. In addition to being able to perform typical Assistant commands, such as asking for the time or weather, I was also able to use it to get tips on the games I was playing.
For example, when I pressed the Assistant button and asked, “What’s the best gun in Cyberpunk 2077?” it read aloud an excerpt from an article outlining some of the game’s top weapons. This isn’t a feature that I expect to use a ton, but it is a pretty neat extra to have.
But what really makes the Stadia Controller shine is that it connects over Wi-Fi rather than Bluetooth, which allows you to use it with a bunch of different devices without having to re-pair it every time you change platforms. Since the controller is connected to the cloud, you can simply enter the four-button code that shows up when you launch Stadia on a browser, app or on your TV in order to get connected. And save for a few slightly annoying moments where I had to enter our code several times to get it registered, this system largely worked pretty smoothly.
But even if you decide to forgo Google’s own hardware, Stadia is a pretty plug-and-play experience that you can use with whatever input devices you happen to have lying around. I really appreciate how flexible Google’s streaming service is here — I was able to use my DualShock 4 and Xbox Wireless Controller on both mobile and PC, as well as my mouse and keyboard anytime I was on a computer. Even dodging obstacles and enemies in Moonlighter using touch controls on my iPhone worked well.
This actually gives Stadia a slight edge over Xbox Cloud Gaming, which currently doesn’t support mouse and keyboard controls on PC and only offers touch-based mobile controls on a select number of titles.
While Google Stadia’s performance and flexibility are really impressive, the service’s game selection and overall value are a mixed bag. If you’re a new or casual gamer, it’s a pretty solid and accessible entry point to big-name titles such as Marvel’s Avengers and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. But if you already game on other platforms or are looking for a robust subscription service, Stadia is a bit harder to fully recommend.
Google’s gaming platform currently offers more than 180 titles, including some pretty big names such as Cyberpunk 2077, Red Dead Redemption 2, Resident Evil Village, NBA 2K21 and a whole bunch of Assassin’s Creed games. The service also features plenty of more niche experiences, from hardcore role-playing games like Baldur’s Gate 3 to creative indie titles such as Enter the Gungeon and Superhot.
I do have some concerns about Stadia’s long-term viability in terms of new releases, especially since Google shut down its own internal studios for making exclusive Stadia games. But there are a decent amount of major third-party titles still to come, including Far Cry 6, Madden NFL 22 and FIFA 22. Certain games such as Destiny 2 even let you carry over your save data from other platforms, though I’d love to see more titles adopt this feature across the board. You won’t get every big blockbuster here — Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto and Battlefield are some notable omissions — but the likes of Hitman, Watch Dogs, Tomb Raider and Mortal Kombat may be enough to sway the gaming-curious.
That’s a solid selection, but Stadia’s overall value and appeal will likely vary based on what type of player you are and how you prefer to pay for games. Stadia is free to use, with a handful of titles you can try out for zero dollars. There’s also a $10-per-month Stadia Pro plan that gets you a rotating library of games as well as exclusive perks such as 4K streaming, HDR support and special Pro-only discounts. And if you want a console-like experience out of the box, there are several bundles that include a Stadia controller and a Chromecast.
- Stadia Free: Stadia’s Free tier lets you jump into Destiny 2: New Light, Super Bomberman R Online, Crayta and the Hitman starter pack without paying a dime. You can also buy any game in the Stadia store a la carte and enjoy up to 1080p gameplay without any additional fees.
- Stadia Pro ($9.99 per month; google.com): The premium tier of Google’s gaming service, Stadia Pro gets you instant access to 20-plus games (with more added each month), 4K gameplay with HDR and surround sound support, along with exclusive discounts and free trial periods for major titles.
- Stadia Premiere Edition: ($79.99; google.com or $99; bestbuy.com): This package includes a Stadia Controller and a Chromecast Ultra, the latter of which allows you to cast all kinds of content to your TV — including Stadia games.
- Play and Watch With Google TV Package ($99.99; google.com): This package gets you a Stadia Controller as well as the new Chromecast With Google TV, which is a more robust streaming player that lets you browse apps via the intuitive Google TV interface.
But no matter how you choose to dive into Stadia, you’ll still need to buy most of its big releases a la carte, usually for $40 to $60 a pop. That’s not very different from what most folks would do on a PS5 or Nintendo Switch, but when you factor in competing subscription services such as Xbox Game Pass and Amazon Luna, it might sound like a tough sell.
Xbox Game Pass Ultimate costs $15 per month and gets you access to more than 400 titles — including pretty much every game in top franchises such as Halo, Gears of War and Forza as well as other heavy hitters like Batman: Arkham Knight and Skyrim. You can play these games across the cloud, Xbox consoles and Windows PCs, making Game Pass a better fit for folks who are already in the Xbox ecosystem — or just anyone who would rather pay a single fee for lots of games.
There’s also Amazon Luna, which works similarly to Google Stadia but offers multiple subscription options instead of a la carte game purchases. The core Luna+ service costs $5.99 per month, which gets you access to a library of roughly 100 games (as of this writing) that includes big names like Control, Resident Evil 7, Sonic Mania, Yakuza 0 and Rez Infinite. The Luna+ library gets you more titles than the current Stadia Pro collection, and includes titles that I personally find more compelling (though your mileage may vary here.)
And then there’s Ubisoft+, which is Ubisoft’s own game subscription service that works with both Google Stadia and Amazon Luna. For $14.99 per month, you get access to 100-plus Ubisoft games (including the latest Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs and Far Cry releases), which you can download directly to your PC or play in the cloud via Stadia or Luna. This is a good option if you really, really love Ubisoft games and want a Game Pass-style library with lots of blockbuster titles that work across multiple platforms.
It’s also worth noting that there are plenty of free options for playing games you already own on PlayStation, Xbox and PC via the cloud. Sony’s Remote Play app lets you stream games from your PS4 or PS5 to your phone or computer, as long as your console is on at home. The Xbox app for iOS and Android works similarly. And if you’re a PC gamer, the Steam Link app will let you stream your Steam library to most phones, TVs and computers.
There’s a lot to like about Google Stadia, especially if you’re a lapsed, new or budget-conscious gamer. Streaming games from Google can feel a lot like playing on a traditional console under the right circumstances, and the ability to play on almost any device (using any controller, mouse or keyboard of your choosing) is a major perk. If you’re someone who just wants to see what Cyberpunk 2077 or Assassin’s Creed Valhalla are all about without throwing down $500 on a PS5 or Xbox Series X (if you can even find one), Stadia is likely a great option for you.
But Stadia isn’t necessarily the best option for me, and as much as I enjoyed my time with it, I don’t see myself returning to it a whole lot. I already play games on every modern console as well as on PC, and given the lack of cross-save functionality in many big titles, I’d rather not start from scratch with games that I already own elsewhere like Marvel’s Avengers and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. And since I subscribe to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, I already have a means of playing games in the cloud — and one that lets me carry over my console and PC progress in games like Halo and Gears of War.
It’s also worth noting that while Stadia performed great in my testing, it’s likely only going to be as reliable as your home internet allows for (same goes for any cloud gaming service). And obviously, if your Wi-Fi ever goes out, so does your ability to play games on any of these services. According to Google, a connection speed of 10 megabits per second is the minimum recommendation for full HD gaming, while you’ll need at least 35 Mbps for reliable 4K gaming.
But if your connection is up to snuff, Google Stadia is a great entry point to big titles like Doom Eternal and Red Dead Redemption 2 that doesn’t require you to buy any expensive or hard-to-find hardware. It’s grown to be a solid service for the right person over the past few years — here’s hoping that Google continues to make it even better.