Google Stadia continues to impress, but its success remains in question

When I tried Google’s Stadia game streaming service back in March, I came away impressed by its ambition but expressed significant concerns over how much of a reach it will have among consumers.

After a second, lengthier hands-on opportunity at Cologne, Germany’s Gamescom event, my cautious optimism remains more or less intact. This time around, I got to play Bethesda’s upcoming first-person shooter Doom Eternal and Warner Bros.’ recently released fighting game Mortal Kombat 11.

For context, Doom Eternal was running on a Google Pixelbook while Mortal Kombat 11 was available on the Google Pixel 3. The devices were connected to a 25mbps network and played using the Waterloo-developed Stadia controller.

Both titles, perhaps more so than many other Stadia titles, require a consistent frame rate and low latency. Doom Eternal is all about speed and momentum, which is at risk of being ruined if the game’s not running smoothly. Likewise, fighting titles like Mortal Kombat 11 rely on precise button inputs and timing, which can be completely thrown off by any form of lag.

That’s why I was particularly impressed by how both games performed on Stadia. Truly, I wouldn’t have guessed that either game was running on the cloud if I didn’t already know going in. To really test Stadia’s limits, I even made a point of trying to play as chaotically as possible.

In other words, I used combinations of pretty much every available mechanic and weapon available — double jumps, dashes, shotguns, rocket launchers and brutal executions, among others — to progress. Likewise, I tried out as many of Mortal Kombat 11‘s roster as I could, while fighting against characters I didn’t choose and choosing new stages each time.

In either game, regardless of how I played or what matchup I selected, Stadia kept up brilliantly and with no visible hiccups. It’s certainly a good look to see these types of games play as well as they do on the service.

That said, the games lineup is predominantly made up of games that will be offered on other platforms as well. That’s even when considering the several new Stadia titles that Google revealed at Gamescom, including Borderlands 3, Cyberpunk 2077 and the Toronto-made Watch Dogs: Legion. There are some great titles in both that list and the previously confirmed launch lineup, to be sure, but I still wonder how many people would want to pay full price for the novelty of being able to take them on the go.

For example, Cyberpunk 2077 promises to be a sprawling, dozens of hours-long branching action-RPG not unlike The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. I’m not so sure many people would opt to buy the Stadia version of the game, rather than playing it on console or PC, or even double-dip and get both. It’s not like choosing to buy, say, Skyrim or the upcoming Witcher 3 again on Switch where you’re guaranteed (for the most part) a consistent, internet-free experience wherever you take the game.

I’m also disappointed that a wide rollout of public Stadia demos isn’t in the cards. I’ve long felt that people should experience new technology for themselves before buying into it. However, a Google representative told me that demos like the one I played are only set to be offered at select major gaming events, such as the upcoming PAX West in Seattle. It’s unfortunate that countries like Canada — where gaming events are few and far in between, no less — are essentially left out as a result. In contrast, Microsoft’s rival Project xCloud streaming service will be playable in public trials in October.

That’s to say nothing of Stadia’s biggest issue — the internet. As many have pointed out, people with usage caps or those who live in areas with spotty reception will struggle to use Stadia. Being able to test out the service at home — like what Microsoft aims to do with xCloud — would at least help consumers get a better idea of how the service would work in their homes.

With all that said, I’m fascinated to see how Stadia ultimately performs. There are a lot of hurdles to overcome, most notably in terms of infrastructure and availability, so it remains to be seen how Google addresses them.

We’ll find out for sure when Stadia launches in Canada and several other countries in November. The Stadia Founder’s Edition — the only way to play Stadia when it debuts — is now available for pre-order at the Google Store for $169 CAD.