I think we all probably had the same thought process the first time we saw what would become Unplugged in a Reddit post: “This is a great idea and there’s no way it will work well.”
As solid as a concept hand-tracked air guitar in VR may seem, it was tough to envision the current tech keeping up with your fast-firing digits. Well, for now at least, you’ll have to take my word for it: Unplugged works well. Better than it has any right to, in fact. Honest.
Anotherway’s take on Guitar Hero knows its limits and fills those gaps with a smartly curated tracklist, some inspired ideas and a fantastic approach to presentation. But first, the feel. Remove the plastic instrument and Unplugged plays almost exactly like its inspirations. Colored notes stream towards your virtual guitar and you’ll need to meet them with the corresponding combination of fingers on one hand and strum with the other.
“Radical,” you might think, “so let’s bust out Through the Fire and the Flames and get the fretting hand warmed up.”
Well, not quite. Rather than focus on the frantically technical tracks that went on to define its kin, Unplugged wisely doubles down on riffs and chord shapes that give the game more of an approachable, rhythmic guitar angle. The crunchy undercurrent of The Offspring’s The Kids Aren’t Alright makes for a perfect example, feeling less like you’re “playing it” in the introduction but really settling into a tempo as you keep rhythm during the chorus.
This is not something you’re likely to ‘get’ on your first go. Unplugged is very detailed when it comes to making sure you have the optimal setup, and it’ll take a while for you to find the right position for your guitar, not to mention getting used to grabbing thin air. There’s an inherent strangeness to it that will only disappear with a bit of practice to get into the game’s groove.
Fortunately, that’s not too hard to do. In the demo at least, chord changes are quite simple, switching between all four fingers to raising one finger or just keeping two held down. It’s a measured, sensible approach to dealing with the hand-tracking that’s less concerned with you missing notes and more about empowering you. And, in its best moments, it really does the trick; the heavy thud of the chorus to Weezer’s Say It Ain’t So really drives it home even if the more complex fretting seen in the intro doesn’t quite have the same effect.
But the game finds other ways to make up for what it might lack in fiendish dexterity. Some notes don’t need to be strummed, for example, instead asking you to move your hand rapidly up and down the fretboard. My current favorite feature is solo notes which let you waggle your fingers to your heart’s content and sound brilliantly in step with the moments of scale-shredding mastery seen in some songs. It works wonders in Ozzy Osbourne’s Flying High Again, taking a song I didn’t really know and making it one of my favorite to play so far.
‘Cursed’ notes meanwhile have to be played with perfect timing or you’ll snap a string and require a quick retune while the song continues. Start to falter and disgruntled fans will throw items at you from the crowd. These are all pretty inspired ways of mixing up the gameplay and feel authentic to the rock experience and you’ll encounter more of these in the game’s hard mode, which really pushes the challenge in some songs.
What remains to be seen about Unplugged, and what I honestly couldn’t tell you right now, is if it will be embraced. Moments in songs really do deliver on the pure ecstasy of playing guitar, but there needs to be a breadth of challenge across a variety of songs that always feels accurate and fair. In my hour or two of play, I’ve managed to improve and return to complete songs on hard that I couldn’t top before, but without that tactile sense a controller provides, it’s tough to tell if a missed note is coming from an off-beat strum or an accidentally-raised finger. It’s not enough to really detract from the sensation of casual play, but the game’s going to live and die on if a hardcore community can embrace and overcome those intricacies.
But, to Anotherway’s credit, it’s gone above and beyond what you might have first expected of Unplugged when you first saw it. That even comes down to the frankly brilliant presentation, spearheaded by Satchel of the beloved (and, in many rocker’s eyes, immortal) Steel Panther, who serves as your poster-trapped mentor. Anyone that knows Steel Panther knows exactly what type of humor the band goes for and, surprisingly, Anotherway and publisher Vertigo Games don’t pull Satchel’s punches. And, while the full tracklist is yet to be revealed, the combination of Ozzy, Weezer and The Offspring should give you a good indication of how far and wide the game’s able to reach. If you’ve been put off by most VR music games’ focus on EDM, you’ll probably find something to like here.
All-in-all a pretty promising warm-up act, then. There’s still a lot to learn about Unplugged, including a full tracklist, before it releases later this year, and we haven’t tested out the PC VR version, which only works with compatible hand-tracking headsets and the Valve Index controllers. But, on Oculus Quest at least, Unplugged has already addressed that biggest of hang-ups; it really works. That’s surprising enough as it is.