I have to admit, I didn’t really expect to be saying this, but Google Stadia is the most ‘next-gen’ console on the market.
When I first reviewed Google Stadia, it was a mixed bag at best. Now, as I survey my lineup of expensive, storage-confined next-gen (okay, current-gen now) systems, I can’t help but see it. Stadia is by far the most next-gen of the bunch.
It was the surprisingly great experience with Cyberpunk 2077 that compounded this realization, though I’d been dabbling more and more with Stadia before that, including a remarkably good-looking, well-performing Destiny 2 foray.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, Stadia is quite possibly the best place to play Cyberpunk 2077 even if it’s not quite as rich an experience as a high-end gaming PC. The game still actually runs the best, and looks nearly as good, on Stadia. It’s leaps and bounds better than PS5 or Xbox Series X, where a last-gen version of the game is running on new hardware.
But that’s not all. My PlayStation 5 came with less than 700 GB of storage space which was almost immediately consumed by Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War and Warzone and a handful of other games like Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Demon’s Souls, both fantastic offerings you won’t find on Stadia.
My Xbox Series X had a bit more space, but I’ll still fill the thing up sooner than later. 1 TB only goes so far when game installs are routinely over 100GB these days. Sooner or later I’ll need to expand my storage space on both systems, though for now I can use my old expansion drives to play last-gen games, sacrificing some of the loading speed I enjoy from the internal SSDs in the process.
I will never have to worry about expanding storage for my Google Stadia. Actually, I now have two Stadia setups since I purchased Cyberpunk 2077 when Google was giving away a Stadia (replete with Chromecast Ultra and a Stadia gamepad) with the game. Since every game is streamed, you never have to download and install them on a drive. You never have to worry about patching or updating. You never have to choose which game to delete to free up storage space. This is incredibly convenient.
It’s also convenient to be able to play Stadia seamlessly on my TV, my computer and my phone, switching between each screen relatively painlessly. (It can be annoying to first setup a controller with a Chromecast, and more annoying still if you replace your router and need to get the whole thing working again on a new network. Hopefully Google irons out these irritations). I mostly play Stadia on my TV, but I can switch easily between my living room TV and the bedroom TV.
Then there’s the price. A PS5—if you can find one—will set you back $399 for the Digital Edition and $499 for the disc-based one. An Xbox Series X costs $499 while an Xbox Series S (with half the storage space) costs $299.
A Stadia Premiere Edition, which includes the gamepad and a Google Chromecast Ultra (and with some offers comes with three months of Stadia Pro for free) costs just $100. That’s one third of the price of the cheapest next-gen console and it plays Cyberpunk 2077 better than any of them.
There’s also the Nintendo Switch, as next-gen as any system Nintendo has at the moment, though a Switch Pro could be in the works. Other than its extensive exclusive game library, which Stadia can never match, Google’s offering does much of what the Switch does for less money and with better graphics. It also doesn’t suffer from the maddening—truly maddening—Joy-Con drift issue that has impacted so many of Nintendo’s consoles.
There are caveats, of course. Online multiplayer games can still feel less-populated than on PlayStation, Xbox or Steam. This is one trouble with a still relatively new platform like Stadia (and another big argument for cross-platform play which benefits gamers on every platform).
Meanwhile, your Stadia’s performance is even more reliant on a fast, stable internet connection than normal online gaming. Even single-player games that have no online multiplayer component require the internet with Stadia. If your connection isn’t great, your Stadia experience won’t be either. Then again, so much of gaming relies on the internet these days, whether you’re on consoles, PC, mobile and so forth.
Nor can Stadia compete with its traditional console rivals when it comes to gaming exclusives. Google needs to pad its efforts here with big, must-play exclusives on par with Halo and God Of War. Right now, there’s nothing like those big franchises on Stadia.
Finally, Stadia Pro could be more robust. You get some free games with the subscription service, and access to 4K game streaming, but you still have to purchase most of your games at full price. I’d like to see a more robust subscription offering here, and cheaper games overall.
Another point worth mentioning: Nvidia offers its own GeForce Now game-streaming service (I’ll have a review of that in the near future). It’s a fantastic service for a lot of reasons, including price.
GeForce Now does one thing much better than Stadia: It allows you to stream the games you already own on platforms like Steam and the Epic Game Store and GOG.com on any machine. So your not-so-great laptop can stream demanding games like Cyberpunk 2077 or even titles like Fortnite (not on Stadia) and you can choose between a subscription or one-hour free trials.
This isn’t exactly a “next-gen console” in the same way Stadia is (Stadia is a walled garden, whereas PC gaming is more “open”) but it’s a great alternative with no upfront costs if you already own a bunch of PC games.
Edit: A reader pointed out that GeForce Now and Stadia actually compliment one another which is a great way to look at it rather than simply as competition. Not every game is on either platform, so using both makes a great deal of sense!
Stadia may not be the most exciting new console. It’s not even really a console at all. It doesn’t have a physical unit other than its gamepad, and you can actually play Stadia games on some devices with other controllers, meaning you don’t even really need a Stadia setup to get started (once again, lowering the barrier to entry for price).
But it feels more next-gen than either Sony or Microsoft’s newest systems. Don’t get me wrong, I still think the PS5 and Xbox Series X are great machines. But I do like being able to just start any game in my library right away, whenever I please, without having to wait on a download or an update. I like the portability of a Nintendo Switch paired with the graphics of a next-gen console or gaming PC. I like the simplicity of it all and I really, really like the price-tag.
Google Stadia gets my Best Next-Gen Console award (at least for now) even though it came out in November of 2019, a full year ahead of the PS5 and Xbox Series X. It’s cheaper, runs great and has an ever-growing list of games to play, ranging from online shooters like Destiny 2 to action-adventure games like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla to indies like Hotline Miami. It plays 2020’s most controversial release, Cyberpunk 2077, better than any other platform and I have high hopes for continued Stadia success stories down the road.