Everyone has strummed out a little air guitar at some point in their lives – come on admit it – whether that’s in the shower or when you hear an awesome solo over the airwaves. But mimicking your wild arm flailing into a cohesive, hand tracked virtual reality (VR) videogame is another endeavour entirely. It’s a challenge indie team Anotherway decided to tackle, and with the help of Vertigo Games behind them, has begun to showcase what rock dreams are made of in Unplugged.
Unlike every other rhythm action guitar title where you had some sort of plastic controller with fret buttons and a whammy bar to hold, giving that pseudo sense of being an ace axe player, Unplugged’s use of hand tracking is bold. That’s because up until now hand tracking on Oculus Quest has revolved around slower, more methodical genres like puzzle videogames; Cubism’s recent implementation is testimony to that.
Without having a guitar to “feel” where your hands are on the neck going into Unplugged for the first time is like stepping into the unknown, as the expectation is that this level of complexity can’t work (or work well). And first impressions definitely are mixed when it comes to playing a hand tracked guitar in VR.
The demo of Unplugged VRFocus got to play offered the main gist of the experience, an introductory tutorial as well as four songs to try and master, each with three difficulty levels. It must be said that Unplugged looks extremely polished, from the tattoos on your virtual fingers to the inclusion of Satchel from Steel Panther as your rock guide, it is very well presented. Even the buttons to select the various menu options have a nice push to them, a small but important touch.
When it comes to actually playing the virtual guitar the neck is split into five sections with each of your fingers colour coded so you can play specific notes. That means you have to pay attention to where the notes are going to hit the neck as well as the appropriate finger combination. You also have to strum of course. However, from what’s been shown so far there are no epic individual finger solos like you used to get on Guitar Hero, most tend to be all four fingers, three and the occasional two-finger notes. And that’s certainly enough.
Even on easy Unplugged isn’t particularly straightforward. Without that physicality, playing tracks like Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Fortunate Son or The Offspring’s The Kids Aren’t Alright requires focusing all of your attention on the guitar neck so you know exactly where to place your hand whilst ensuring optimal tracking of your fingers. The downside to this was forgetting where that important strumming hand needed to be. Quite often notes were being missed not because of incorrect finger placement but that pick hand moving out of place during an awesome rock solo.
You can play Unplugged both seated and standing with the latter tending to be the easier option. There’s also the option to adjust where the guitar is placed in relation to you, moving it up/down, in/out depending on preference. While this does really help, strumming still seemed to be the main issue as it’s difficult keeping your hand in very near the same point mid-air for an entire song. Or maybe much, much more practice is required.
Thankfully, Unplugged doesn’t just have notes you need to strum. The Pull-Off notes are by far the easiest to play as you can move your hand up and down the neck for some true air guitar rocking! The same goes for the Virtuoso notes where you’re given a blank flaming box to wiggle those digits however you see fit. These are the moments where Unplugged comes alive, coordination and precision go out the window, allowing you to enjoy the song at its fullest.
At the end of each track, you can then pump up the crowd for more points and hopefully a top leaderboard position.
Unplugged is going to be the greatest test of Oculus Quest’s hand tracking and likely very divisive as to whether it can really offer a viable alternative to those physical, guitar rhythm action games of old. There’s no doubt that it works with some flashes of brilliance but the learning curve is huge, especially trying to complete those higher levels. With a launch planned for fall 2021, there isn’t long to wait to see if Unplugged is the hardest air guitar you’ve ever played.