Review: Google's game-streaming service Stadia has potential despite some kinks

TORONTO — Google is betting big that its new Stadia system will change the way gamers access their favourite titles, offering a cloud-based streaming model in favour of the tried-and-true console.

Whether Google can carve out some of the market share in an entertainment sector dominated by Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo remains to be seen. But in Stadia, the tech giant has proven that a streaming service can provide a high-quality gaming experience, at least under optimal conditions.

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Stadia launched Tuesday with a roster of 22 games, including some heavyweights like "Red Dead Redemption II," "Assassin's Creed Odyssey" and "Shadow of the Tomb Raider."

Once purchased or claimed, games can be streamed from any device that can run the Google Chrome browser, as well as on televisions by using a Google Chromecast device. Under the best setup, including a powerful modem and a well-positioned 4K enabled TV, the quality of the streaming is remarkably good. A test by The Canadian Press found Stadia delivered high-quality graphics and no noticeable lag over WiFi, when using a Chromecast Ultra on a 4K TV within close proximity of a modem offering a download speed one gigabyte per second.

However, the service suffered from noticeable lag when run through a Google Chrome browser on a gaming laptop about 30 feet away from the modem. Games were still playable, though titles that require a high level of precision like "Mortal Kombat 11" were impacted to a much greater degree.

Getting Stadia to play games on a Pixel 3 smartphone proved challenging, with games failing to launch on a few occasions before finally becoming playable. When it worked, however, the games streamed to the phone without any hiccups or lag when the device was within a few feet of the modem.

The Premiere edition of Stadia retails for about $170 and includes a controller, a Chromecast Ultra and three months of the Stadia Pro subscription service. After that, the Pro service coasts about $12 a month. Pro subscribers will get access to some games for free; at launch that included first-person shooter "Destiny 2" and fighting game "Samurai Showdown."

A free Stadia service is set to launch next year without access to the free games and without the ability to stream in 4K.

While Stadia has a few kinks to iron out, the bigger test will be selling the concept of a service that lives entirely on Google's servers to potentially skeptical gamers.

The idea has some merits. A streaming system could solve scalability issues in gaming by putting the financial strain of upgrading on a deep-pocketed service provider rather than a gamer with potentially limited discretionary income.

The ability to play a game without having to wait for a lengthy download or setup process is appealing, as is not having to find space for another bulky console in the living room.

The price point is relatively low, considering a new PlayStation 4 or Xbox One sell for well over $400, with powerful gaming PCs costing considerably more.

Google faces some significant challenges, however. Stadia offers a minuscule library when compared to its competitors, which can be expected for a system that has just launched. But Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo have been around long enough to cultivate exclusive franchises that sell systems. Google plans on releasing its own exclusives and recently announced its first game-development studio will be based in Montreal, but realistically it will be playing catch-up for a long time.

Also, anyone expecting Stadia to be the gaming version of Netflix will be disappointed. Rather than playing a flat monthly fee and having access to a library of games, Stadia users will have to purchase games (save for the ones included with the Pro service) for the same suggested retail price as their competitors typically offer for a physical or digital copy.

That means gamers have to put their faith in the stability of Google's servers. There's every chance that stability of the servers will prove to be rock-solid, but if they suffer an outage — or, however unlikely, the service ceases operation — that leaves clients who invested in the games without access to their purchases.

Also, no physical or digital copies means gamers must always be online to access Stadia. As of now, the Stadia service is only available on WiFi, and not using mobile data. So while games can be played on a smartphone, the system has nowhere near the portable appeal of a handheld gaming console.

And the low price point? That goes up for gamers who may find it necessary to invest in an upgraded internet service, or for those who don't have unlimited data. The Canadian Press test found that gaming sessions of around four hours at 4K resolution could use around 50 gigabytes of data, meaning those with limited plans will need to be careful to avoid overages.

Still, some of these challenges will be overcome by providing a stable service from launch. Other technical issues will hopefully be hammered out in the following weeks.

Stadia's launch has at the very least shown that a streaming video game service can work, and work well. It will be interesting to see if it can leverage its technology and improve its library in the months to come and become a viable threat to the dominance of big consoles.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 19, 2019.

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