Unplugged

Platform(s): PC
Genre: Rhythm
Publisher: Vertigo Games
Developer: Anotherway
Release Date: Oct. 21, 2021

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PC VR Review - 'Unplugged'

by Andreas Salmen on Nov. 9, 2021 @ 12:00 a.m. PST

Unplugged is a VR music game that uses novel and quality hand tracking technology to make you feel like a musical legend on a virtual stage.

There's never a bad time to unpack an air guitar and lose yourself in an amazing song. It would be better if you could make that experience immersive and skillful to pull off. That's likely the seed from which Unplugged grew. An Oculus Quest 2 exclusive, Unplugged takes the Guitar Hero formula and slaps it on the Quest's hand-tracking feature, creating a mix between tried-and-true "hit the right note at the right time" gameplay and VR, while also not having anything in your hands. From its menu navigation to gameplay, Unplugged relies on hand tracking, so controllers are not compatible with the experience. It's novel and satisfying when you pull it off consistently, but the tracking technology frequently gets in the way and sours the experience.

This will be the last Guitar Hero reference of the review, but if you imagine Unplugged as a more restricted version of that game, you'll have a good idea of what to expect. The music selection features over 20 licensed songs, although they are similar and are songs you have likely played or sung a lot of in any music game that remotely involves rock music. From The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" to Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird," it's a fun but safe track list that is relatively short. At least there is licensed music in the portfolio, which isn't a small feat for a game of this scale.


The music tracks are split up across five LPs that you gradually unlock as you play. Each LP has certain unlock conditions, like mastering songs on a specific difficulty level or scoring a certain combo in any song. This way, you slowly progress and are forced to get the hang of things before moving on to more difficult tunes. It's straightforward in its design, and apart from unlockable guitar models, that is pretty much what you get out of the box. It's not much, but it's enough, provided the gameplay does the rest.

If you own a Quest, chances are you may not have tried hand tracking, even though it's baked-in functionality. Even navigating the regular menus on the Quest isn't intuitive with just your hands. The low-resolution Quest camera, lighting conditions, and your hand angle can give the software trouble with recognizing your hand position. This problem doesn't fully translate to Unplugged, though. During my first steps of learning to play the game, hand tracking worked far better than I had expected. Initially, seeing virtual (and tattooed) representations of your hand digitally but in tune with your actual hand movements feels like magic — until it frustrates you, but more on that later.

When starting a song, a virtual guitar floats in front of you. You can move the guitar in space to adjust its position, and you place your left hand on the guitar neck to start the song. As incoming notes hit the neck of your guitar, you need to line up the left fingers and strum a chord with your right hand. This is where the game starts out surprisingly well. The software had no issue detecting which fingers were touching the guitar neck, and which were not, so it yielded somewhat accurate results. When everything comes together, it's completely immersive. When I hit notes as expected, I feel like a rock god with a head contraption. For every good run, there were at least one or two runs where nothing seemed to come together.

I was certain that I had hit some notes, but they did not register, which was due to the game failing to register my right-hand strumming. I also regularly felt that visual notes and sound didn't align perfectly, but even after trying to remedy this in the settings, the moments continuously popped up and caused frustration. My lack of skill with the game likely contributed to that, but more than any other, Unplugged made me routinely feel like I wasn't the lone screw-up. It could be due to a range of different factors, like local lighting conditions or other interferences with tracking. While not constant, in a game based on skill and high scores, the intermittent and seemingly unavoidable inconsistencies in its tracking often take the wind out of a player's sails.


When you finish a song, you are rated based on combo multiplier and hit notes, and if you score high enough, you could earn a trophy from Gold to Diamond. There's also a fun little game at the end of each sign where you can interact with the crowd by making devil signs with your hands and catching underwear, which increases your fan base and unlocks new cosmetics. Alas, the tracking, again, makes this awkward since I naturally hold my hands away from me at an angle, but that isn't recognized unless my hand is almost parallel to the headset. While that probably is an accurate emulation of the limited movement range of aging rock stars, it's another area where the controls feel like they get in the way due to natural tracking limitations.

I am conflicted with Unplugged. While it discouraged me a few times, whenever I hit my stride and mastered the songs, some of which can get very tricky to play on higher difficulties, it felt awesome. If your combo gets high enough, there are special power-ups with the guitar neck and flaming do-or-die notes that give you massive points when hit perfectly but loosen your guitar string. It's not overly creative, but it keeps the experience varied enough as the difficulty rises, and you get to play increasingly complicated notes that tangle your fingers into a knot.

It's a cool concept that works better than it has any right to, but there's no feedback when you hit a note, and there's no faint rumble when something happens. That's naturally absent, and what hand tracking adds in immersion for your eyes and interaction freedom, it lacks in controls and tactile feedback. The experience feels a lot less immersive as a result and is trickier to play when all you can rely on is the sometimes-janky and overwhelming interface.


I also found that Unplugged isn't kind to my neck. Having to constantly look down at the notes you play can cause serious strain on your neck, making longer jam sessions rather uncomfortable. Your position in space doesn't stay the same, so you'll likely have to spend some time for each song to find the perfect guitar position again.

The game looks good and runs without a hitch, but its menus can be overwhelming and unclear, especially when your hand touches a UI element that had gotten too close, sending you into an incorrect sub-menu or starting a random song. Those experiences are in line with the general feeling that I have about Unplugged. It's pretty great and cool if it works, but it's frustrating and very easy to put away when it doesn't do quite what you want it to, without providing an indication about the issue.

A lot of the enjoyment of Unplugged comes down to the hand-tracking technology that isn't fully there yet, and I'm doubtful that the current Quest hardware will ever fully get there. Better cameras on the headset are a minimum requirement for that to happen. In the meantime, if you can put up with its inevitable frustrations as you air-jam a hallucinated guitar to the tune of rock classics in your living room, Unplugged is one of the best and only games to use hand tracking. You will certainly get rewarded if you stick with it, but it likely won't completely overshadow its downsides.

Score: 6.7/10



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