by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
A Promise Realized
When modern virtual reality platforms were in their infancy, there were several types of games that seemed like they’d be no-brainer smash hits. Several of these ideas, from lightsaber sandboxes to virtual tabletop games, have been fully realized, but there was one golden goose that remained elusive until recently: a Guitar Hero knock-off. I hesitate to use that term while first introducing Unplugged, but, from its gameplay to its presentation, the resemblance is more than passing. That isn’t a bad thing, though. The original king of musical peripherals has long been dormant, and I’m glad that a new offering is attempting to fulfill many would-be rockers’ virtual dreams.
The simple reason that a VR rhythmic rock-star game hasn’t come out sooner is actually quite simple; up until recently, major platforms like the Valve Index and Oculus Rift/Quest have required controllers that don’t lend themselves particularly well to hitting chords. That’s no longer that case, though, as hand-tracking brings new, complex ways to interact with virtual worlds. If you’ve never experienced hand tracking, it’s arguably just as mind-blowing of a development as VR headsets themselves. I still remember the first time I accidentally found out that the tracking update for my Oculus Quest 2 was live. I’d turned on my headset and forgetter to grab my controllers out of their storage box, and I just started using my hands regularly. It took a minute for me to realize that I was doing something weird, and I formed a huge grin as I wiggled my fingers and watched their ghostly counterparts follow suit.
Utilizing New Technology
Unplugged couldn’t exist without this technology. The game functions almost identically to the famous Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises. Players are put up on a stage, and notes flow down a track towards the player. When they reach the neck of the guitar, the player needs to have the matching chord pressed and strum the string. Similar games, Unplugged doesn’t actually require complex finger placements like real chords. Instead, players need to have each of their four fingers raised or lifted to match the on-screen diagram, and they need to move their whole hand to one of several chord locations.
When it works properly, the experience is as cool as it sounds on paper. Unplugged features a number of venues that players can work their way up through, and it’s easy to slip into immersion and throw a few rocker horns to the audience (which is actually a game mechanic that grants points). There are also a number of different guitars to be unlocked, and they can be used to play a surprisingly great group of tracks. Music licensing for games is notoriously complicated (and expensive), and my expectations for the song choices were fairly low given that Unplugged is a new IP on a niche platform. There are over 20 songs, which isn’t a huge number, but they include recognizable artists such as Tenacious D, Weezer, and The Offspring. Even the songs I wasn’t familiar with were fun to play.
That being said, the game has some pretty sizable flaws that make it hard to recommend without caveats. The first one is that an air guitar is objectively more difficult to play a game like this with than a physical peripheral. I got better after spending some time with the game, but I pretty regularly found myself missing notes in the middle of a song because I hadn’t noticed that my body had shifted a bit, and the guitar body (which stays static in space) was now not in contact with my pick hand. My second issue is a little more frustrating, and it’s the fact the the rhythm of the chords frequently doesn’t match the music. I don’t know if the actual programming is slightly off or if there’s just some latency between the audio and video, but it caused dissonance to have to fight against my body’s natural connection to the beat and when I needed to strum to register correct notes. It’s not a big enough delay to ruin the experience, but everything would certainly be more satisfying if everything was more consistently synched.
Unplugged is an ambitious game that pushes finger-tracking technology further than any other game to date. While it has a few flaws, the experience is undeniably exciting and worth trying out for anyone with even a passing interest in the genre. There’s something special about using one’s fingers to interact with a virtual world, and there’s currently no better way to live out a virtual rock star life.
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Impressive finger tracking, solid track selection, and immersive atmosphere.
The lack of a physical guitar can make gameplay challenging, and the notes are regularly not in beat with the music.