I've been playing guitar for around a decade now but I've been playing rhythm games for much longer. This divide is always there in modern music games and how they commit is perhaps the most important part. The best games tend to take some of the most over-the-top caricatures and blend them with just enough reality to feel satisfying. You may never play the right notes but it at least follows the right pattern. Once it provides that, the rest of the fun is down to you.
To give you the elevator pitch, Unplugged is a guitar rhythm game where you are challenged with literally playing air guitar. Using the Oculus Quest's built-in hand tracking, you take a stance, put your hands up and play along. It gives you a guitar to hold and tells you where to place your fingers but there's enough customizability to feel like your stance is your own. You can place that guitar high up like the most pretentious math-rock guitarists or low down with the worst that metal has to offer.
Speaking of, the game is somewhat tutorialized with the voice of Satchel from the 2000's glam-rock band Steel Panther. He plays up that goofy narcotics-induced rocker of the '80s in a weird way that is equal parts cringe and charm. Honestly, he's perfectly cast. He represents the faux machismo of hair metal with a hint of self-awareness that comes off self-indulgent and kinda goofy, in a refreshing way.
Essentially, your virtual guitar has four central parts you can place your hand on. You must place your thumb on the back of the guitar to hold it and the remaining four fingers can be used to play frets. For the most part, this is all you really need to know. You can move that headstock around for a more comfortable feel but, once the song has started, you can no longer adjust the height of the guitar itself, often making you wait out a song to get that feel just right. It doesn't tend to have you play singular notes, making most note choices the feel of a chord.
This can be a little hard to grasp immediately as you have to warp your brain to fit the weird on-the-fly logic it has. Looking at the likes of Guitar Hero as a comparison, chords tend to involve multiple notes and solos employ the use of single notes. If the note is higher than the last one, it will tend to make you play the higher note on the fret. Things make sense in a weird video gamey way. Notes in Unplugged don't feel nearly as logically consistent. Some songs may have you repeatedly strum the same notes getting different sounds, really breaking that natural immersion VR sets up. This is mostly a problem with the easier modes.
The harder modes are where Unplugged shines most. They feel more methodical and intentionally built, having interesting runs and employing hammer-ons and some other guitar techniques. Ultimately, this is where Unplugged will click for most people. It's not necessarily trying to be Guitar Hero, it's trying to be an air guitar simulator, complete with fun power-ups, ridiculous solos and grungy venues. Some sections don't care about hitting notes, they just demand you wiggle your fingers like your uncool dad pretending to play guitar. Despite this, I feel kind of cool in that headset. I, no doubt, looked incredibly silly but I play VR for me, not for some unknown spectator. This is likely isn't one you should play in front of friends if they're too used to making fun of you. That being said, if they enjoy being a little goofy, this is perfect to make fun of yourself for a little while.
Unfortunately, the hand tracking in the Oculus Quest still isn't perfect. Strumming is perhaps the worst part of playing as it requires a little more depth perception and strumming up and down can get a little lost in the tiny lens' of those Quest sensors. A degree of precision is needed to hit everything on time and the technology still doesn't feel like it's totally caught up with the concept. It's by no means a bad experience at any point but maybe a slightly unfulfilled one.
Games like this can often live or die based on their soundtrack and Unplugged has a really solid soundtrack. Feeling somewhat eclectic, whilst still fitting a central aesthetic, songs like "Hate to Say I Told You So" by The Hives and "Are You Gonna Be My Girl" by Jet add a certain simplistic coolness where classics like "Say it Ain't So" by Weezer and "Should I stay or Should I Go" by The Clash give enough recognisability to a slightly older crowd. With 23 total songs, there's a healthy lineup there that will hopefully expand with packs in the future. You start off with just a handful and unlock more through challenges like completing songs on a harder difficulty or with a higher score. This adds some interesting goals but is somewhat let down by imprecise hand tracking.
Unplugged - Final Thoughts
Unplugged is an interesting VR experiment that I'm really happy to see hit the Oculus Quest 2. Its controls can feel a little held back by the equipment and some inconsistent design decisions can leave it feeling a little shy of what it could be but there's enough goofy fun to be had here to more than make up for it. If you can handle its worst moments, Unplugged can offer you a unique VR experience you'll want to keep coming back to.
TechRaptor reviewed Unplugged on Oculus Quest 2 with a code provided by the publisher
- Interesting Idea
- Solid Soundtrack
- Genuinely fun
- Inconsistent hand tracking