If you're reading these words on the Internet, odds are you've acclimated pretty thoroughly to a digital life. It's probably safe to say you have a Netflix account, that you probably listen to podcasts, and that you get most of your music from a streaming service. The cloud has completely changed how we entertain ourselves—convenient, mostly affordable, and full of options. The only exception has been video games.
For years now, tech companies have tried to make streaming video games as quick and easy as streaming a movie on Netflix. They've mostly flopped, usually due to some combination of the streaming technology not being all the way there and American Internet connectivity generally being pretty lousy. (Streaming a video game requires a lot more data usage than streaming a video, and you often play games for a lot longer. The data adds up.) Google wants to turn this around with their newest service out today. It's called Stadia, and if it works as advertised, you could say goodbye to consoles entirely, and just stream a game to any screen from the cloud with a little Google magic.
Trouble is: it doesn't work as advertised. Not yet, and not all the time. But when it does? It's incredible.
The first problem is simple: The version of Stadia you can get now, the one that I've spent the last week with, isn't even close to being finished. The dream of Stadia is being able to play whole-ass PlayStation or Xbox-quality video games on just about any screen, without a PlayStation or Xbox. In the ideal form of Stadia, you just need your laptop and a Chrome browser window. Or your phone with a Stadia app. Or your Chromecast-enabled TV. All you need is a solid internet connection and some kind of controller. You can't quite do that yet though.
In the version of Stadia available now, the Premiere edition, you have some pretty hard limitations. The Premiere package comes with a special Stadia controller, the only real piece of special hardware you need to play games on the system. You also get a Chromecast Ultra, which you'll need to play Stadia games on your TV. That's it. No console to plug anything into. No discs for games. Just a controller and a Chromecast.
So How Does It Work?
Getting started with Stadia is a bit of an involved process, but it's also an easy one. You set up the Chromecast like you normally would for non-gaming purposes. (There's nothing special about this Chromecast Ultra, it just has a software update pre-installed for Stadia support. Other Chromecast Ultras that are purchased separately will eventually get this update, but for now, the only Chromecasts that can run Stadia are the ones included in the Founder's edition.) Then you download the Stadia app on your phone.
Then comes the first hurdle: While there's a free version of Stadia coming, right now the only one available is a paid tier, Stadia Pro. Stadia Pro costs $10/month, and while a subscription can include free games, Stadia does not include a library of games to stream at-will, like Netflix. You buy games on Stadia, just like you would on any other platform, for roughly the same price. So Red Dead Redemption 2 on Stadia would cost you $60, just like it would on Xbox or PlayStation.
While there's currently no free tier to compare it to (the free version will launch in 2020), Google says that Stadia Pro will let you stream games at higher resolutions (up to 4K) and with 5.1 surround sound, whereas the free one will cap your resolution at 1080p HD and limit your sound output to regular stereo. In addition, Pro members will be able to purchase Stadia games at a discount, and will receive free games "regularly." Right now, the only free game is Destiny 2: The Collection.
If you've noticed the games we've mentioned so far, you might pick up on the next big hurdle: Stadia is launching almost entirely with games that have already been released elsewhere. Of the 22 games launching with Stadia, almost all of them are games that came out in the last year or earlier. Mortal Kombat 11, Just Dance 2020, NBA 2K20, Rage 2—all games that have been out for at least a couple of months. And there's only one game you can't get anywhere else—a cute little adventure game called Gylt.
Those are pretty big hurdles, but let's say you’re fine with all that. You've got your Stadia app open on your phone, and you use it to sync your controller to your Chromecast and buy your first game. It immediately appears in your library on your app and on your TV if you've got Stadia open there too. And you can start playing immediately.
The Part Where Stadia Kicks Ass
This part's incredible, because you know what? Stadia works. I went a few rounds in Mortal Kombat. I rode around on horseback in Red Dead Redemption 2. I helped a sad little girl look for her missing friend in Gylt. Then I stopped playing on my TV, plugged my controller into my laptop, and went to stadia.google.com, where I could also play these games in my Chrome browser window. And then I paused for a minute, plugged my controller into a Pixel 3a XL and started playing Red Dead Redemption 2 on a goddamn phone.
You should make note of a few things in that paragraph, because everything involving Stadia comes with a caveat. First: the Stadia controller is supposed to work wirelessly no matter what screen you use for Stadia, but right now that only works with the Chromecast, so you have to use a USB-C cable if you want to play on anything else. And you should also note that I used a Pixel phone because Pixels are the only phones that let you actually play games on Stadia—which is why Google sent one with the review unit. (You can use the Stadia app to manage your account on any phone, but the ability to play games is currently limited.) Google also sent me a nifty little clamp to attach the phone to the controller, and a very short cable for connecting the two with little fuss, so know that if you want the experience I had, you'll need a little bit of gear.
"You don't understand," I said as I showed the thing off to friends at dinner, streaming Shadow of the Tomb Raider on the Pixel phone. "This is nuts! You have to have a whole PlayStation to do this!" Most of them, however, did not play games and ignored me. One pal though, got it. I handed him the controller, and he moved Lara Croft through a tomb as if the phone was running the game itself.
"This is amazing," he said.
The Part Where Stadia Absolutely Does Not Kick Ass
The biggest problem is always going to be your Internet connection. In America, service providers impose data caps. They throttle upload and download speeds. Or they simply provide shitty, inconsistent service. Stadia presumes a connected world that isn't terribly realistic right now.
If your connection has a hiccup while streaming a movie, maybe the picture or audio gets a little fuzzy for a minute before correcting. A slightly more severe interruption that stops a movie for a few minutes can be an excuse for a bathroom break, or the chance to get some snacks. With games, you can't really ride out these little regular inconveniences. The errant pixelation or occasional stoppage you might encounter in a movie is unforgivable in a game. It shatters the illusion, reminding you that you're playing a game on a new, unproven streaming service that isn't always guaranteed to work.
Even when a game seems to be working quite well, some games might suffer a noticeable delay between you pushing a button and something happening in-game. Destiny 2, a sci-fi shooting game, suffered such a delay, with a noticeable lag between my pulling the controller's trigger, and the gun firing on-screen. Sometimes a game will display poorly, characters blurring onscreen. And sometimes, the entire screen will fritz out in a jumbled mess.
Right now, Stadia is mostly a toy. I'm impressed by it, and eager to impress others with it, but I also got it at no cost to myself, purely so I could toy with it and tell you about it. When money enters the picture, I quickly run out of reasons to recommend Stadia. As a service, it's nowhere close to being done, with half of its features—this thing is supposed to let you join in on games with YouTube streamers at the push of a button at some point—unavailable for now.
If you buy Stadia right now, you're mostly just paying for the privilege of helping Google test out a project knowing that there's a wide gap between the Stadia that exists and the Stadia that's promised. You could get it if you really wanted to flex—but if you like games enough to care about Stadia, you probably want to make sure your games work when you want to play them, and not at the whim of a fickle internet connection.
Two GQ contributors hash out the new Nintendo Switch games.
Good luck looking away!
Originally Appeared on GQ