(Pocket-lint) - We've seen a fair few false starts when it comes to cloud gaming. OnLive was a major casualty in 2015, while Nvidia and PlayStation have dramatically altered their respective platforms since launch.
But, former disappointment has never buried the concept for us. We always held onto the hope that, if a company did manage to handle the tech's restrictions well, cloud game streaming can become a valid alternative to traditional console gaming. Even expanding the popularity of videogames to people and areas put off by a clunky box under the TV.
In Stadia, that's what Google has achieved. Or, at least, has gotten very very close.
Stadia is, perhaps surprisingly, very good indeed. It runs better than we could possibly have assumed and is the first example of a cloud gaming platform that could genuinely dispense of the need for a full games console. At least, for non-hardcore gamers.
It does have a similarly impressive competitor in Project xCloud, but is the first to full availability and therefore has a head sstart before Microsoft brings its system out of preview in 2020. And, we suspect that will be enough to garner a decent user base in the meantime.
Head in the clouds
For those who don't know what cloud gaming is or why Stadia works better than predecessors in the same field, let us explain.
Cloud gaming is a streaming technology where you have access to full games but do not need to buy discs nor download copies online. Instead, the games are hosted on remote servers and, like Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, your TV, mobile phone, computer or tablet is fed video of gameplay over the internet. In return, all of your controller movements and button presses are sent in the opposite direction so, for all intents a purposes, it feels like you are playing a game locally, but do not need anything other than a decent internet connection, controller and a device with a screen.
The enemy of this kind of tech is latency - the time between you pressing a button and the action being performed on your screen. And, that has always hampered similar services in the past.
A lot has to go on after you move the controller, for example. Your motion has to be read by the gamepad, then sent to your device, which then subsequently sends it over the internet to the remote server. The server then reads that motion, makes the on-screen character move in that direction, then sends the video of your resulting action back over the internet to your device. You then see the outcome.
Each of those steps can add milliseconds of latency. Add them up and a game can feel laggy. While that might be okay on some titles - slow-paced ones, generally, it is no help in a multiplayer shooter or a game where grabbing an overhang has to be perfectly timed.
Stadia handles latency and lag in a couple of ways. For a start, Google owns server centres everywhere as part of one of the biggest network infrastructures on the planet, so you are likely to be served by one far closer than rivals could offer. The shorter the distance to the server, the less latency, most likely.
In addition, Stadia cuts out one of the steps listed above. If you use the dedicated Stadia controller (which comes in the Founders or Premiere Edition sets or as a standalone purchase) it connects directly to the internet itself, so doesn't create extra latency by sending control codes to your connected device first.
There is currently a caveat to that, with the controller only supporting full wireless play on a Chromecast Ultra at present, but by 2020 it will be a standard feature. You have to connect it via a USB-C cable if you want to play on a Pixel phone at the moment, as Bluetooth mobile support is yet to be activated.
At least, though, that reduces latency too.
As an aside, Stadia on Pixel phones actually supports Xbox One and PS4 DualShock controllers, so you can still play on your phone without needing the USB-C cable, although that does add the Bluetooth latency step we've detailed. Still, we played Red Dead Redemption 2 on a Pixel 3a XL using a linked Xbox One controller and didn't really notice much lag. Certainly, not enough to dull the fact that we were playing one of the best games of all time portably.
If you are planning to play on a big screen at home, you will need the official Stadia controller - although it offers more compatibility and options anyway.
The controller we've been using in our tests is the Midnight Blue one that comes with the Founders Edition - a pre-order exclusive. It works exactly the same as the others that are available though, just has an exclusive colour scheme.
It is a doddle to set up - through the Stadia app for iOS or Android - and although some of its features are not available at launch, it is capable of more than other controllers you might be used to.
It is charged through USB-C, with around three hours worth of charge needed to take its battery from flat to full, and it comes with a 3.5mm port to connect a headset.
There is a built-in microphone, with Google Assistant support in the pipeline. A dedicated button can be found on the front of the pad, but it just comes up with a "coming soon" message when pressed. Other unique buttons include a capture button to automatically save screengrabs of your progress as you go, plus a Stadia button that not only turns the controller on to start the service, it can be used to quit games or Stadia completely.
The controller itself is nice to use - a bit of a cross between an Xbox One equivalent and DualShock 4. It is well built and weighted well.
The other device to come in the Founders Edition (and Premiere Edition, if you opted for that) is a Google Chromecast Ultra.
It is essential if you want to play Stadia games on TV as it's the only supported device at launch, save for Pixel phones. And it needs to be the Ultra version even if you aren't a Stadia Pro subscriber.
That too is easy to set up, by using the Google Home app, and it provides excellent video and audio performance during play. You can, of course, also use it to stream Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and other castable video and music services.
We do, however, recommend that you hardwire it to your router through Ethernet - especially if you are a Stadia Pro member and want a stable 4K HDR experience. We ran ours on a wireless connection first, as part of our test, and it dropped over and kicked us out of a game after a warning.
As soon as we connected it via Ethernet, everything was fine (and has been ever since).
For disclosure, we have an average of 300-350Mbps broadband (download) and 11-13ms of ping, so some might find their video runs a little less stable or at a slightly lower resolution dependent on slower speeds. But, we find that if Netflix runs well in 4K HDR on your TV/device, you should have no problems with Stadia too.
Stadia is limited in device support at launch, with only the aforementioned Chromecast Ultra and Pixel phones (from Pixel 3 and up) initially offering compatibility. You can play on a PC, Mac or Google Chrome laptop too - through the Chrome browser - but that's it really.
There are official Android and iOS apps, but you can only manage your account and buy games through them at the time of writing.
If you want to play Stadia games, you'll need one of the devices mentioned above. And, another anomaly is that you can't purchase new games through the Chromecast homescreen, so will have to still have the app installed on another device anyway.
Speaking of the Stadia homescreen, you will be hard pushed to get a cleaner, more friendly user interface in which to find your games and get them to play. Loading times are far shorter than we remember on our local consoles too.
For all the included (or not) hardware, the most important part of Stadia is the games. And, it is here that Stadia is both exemplary and disappointing in equal measure.
The best - and most important - part is that they play superbly on the platform. We've played a good handful of the launch titles, including Destiny 2, Red Dead Redemption 2 and Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and found ourselves hard pushed to notice any gameplay differences between them and console counterparts.
They respond remarkably well, especially so considering they are streamed over the cloud. And, they look great, even though there appears to be something slightly off with the "up to 4K 60fps" graphics initially promised for Stadia Pro subscribers.
It has been recently revealed that, at launch, developers seem to have chosen to limit the resolution of their games on Stadia, with the system and Chromecast Ultra then upscaling the video to 4K. So, that's not ideal.
Reports and tests claim that Destiny 2, for example, runs at 1080p 30fps and is then upscaled to 4K 60fps through the pipeline.
Still, it runs as smoothly in our experience as the version we've played on PS4 Pro - even though it is an extremely fast-paced action game. We have never experienced any lag that has made a difference to our progress and the HDR visuals and 5.1 audio still make for a great experience. It is also crisp and detailed, regardless.
It's only when you put it side-by-side with the same game on PS4 Pro or Xbox One X that you'd notice differences. And, if you already own it on Xbox One X or PS4 Pro, why get it on Stadia too?
Plus, with a Stadia Pro subscription, Destiny 2 is totally free - including all the previous and latest DLC (Shadowkeep) - so we've actually rediscovered our love for the game long after we left it behind.
Our only other gripes when it comes to Stadia games are launch library and pricing.
The only major disappointment we've had with the entire experience to date came with the realisation that Google has adopted console pricing over PC for its games. Games cost around the £40 to £50 mark - a lot when you consider that you don't technically own them. Yes, they are the full versions available to you at any time (you have a data connection), but PC equivalents tend to be a bit cheaper and, effectively, this is what they are.
In addition, a Stadia Pro membership (at £8.99 / $9.99 per month) only gets you access to (up to) 4K HDR 60fps video and surround sound streaming. Stadia Base membership is free, yes, but you only get 1080p and stereo sound.
So, to fill a decent library of Stadia games, playable in 4K, you will need to cough up a decent wedge. Still, it is cheaper than buying an actual games console and titles to play on it, we suppose. And, they can all be played at home and on the go (if you have a Stadia controller adapter).
The final caveat is the games library. There are only 22 games available at launch.
Some of them are excellent titles, such as Red Dead 2 and Destiny 2, but 22 games is tiny in comparison with other platforms out there. Even Apple Arcade launched with a wider selection - and they were all exclusive releases rather than ports.
Still, things will undoubtedly improve greatly over the coming months and Stadia will be getting some of the biggest games around in 2020, such as Cyberpunk 2077, Watch Dogs Legion, Doom Eternal and Marvel's Avengers. And, it's more about how games play on Stadia at present, than how many there are. So, it's far better that it gets the basics right first.
Cloud gaming used to worry us because, well, it just didn't play that well. You couldn't get over the lag introduced by playing games remotely over the internet.
Stadia, however, is next-generation stuff. Hardcore gamers might notice subtle differences between running a game on a console or PC and the same title on Stadia, but that's the beauty of the hobby - there really is now something for everyone.
Where Google's platform excels is convenience. While its games are the same price as Xbox and PlayStation counterparts, you don't have lengthy downloads to wait for in order to play. Nor do you have to worry about scratching a disc, nor faffing about with external hard drives and save game storage.
Plus, if you want to stop playing a game on a Chromecast Ultra in one room and carry on in another, you don't have to wait until your save game syncs up or manually move it from the cloud to the machine, as is the case with the PS4.
We do have to say that, since initially posting this review, we've updated it to reflect the confirmation that games are not running in native 4K 60fps at present - allegedly due to developer, rather than Google, choice. But, while we've knocked the score down by half-a-star, we have found ourselves still enamoured by the technology and its potential.
Indeed, we've been playing several games daily on the service and it still holds up very well - even if we're getting upscaled rather than true 4K visuals right now. We'll look at the score and judgement again if and when developers improve the native resolutions of their games in future.
In the meantime, it further reinforces our feeling that Stadia is never likely to replace a conventional, dedicated games machines, but instead provides a very creditable, technically impressive alternative for those prefer convenience.