Defector, the VR spy thriller from Twisted Pixel and Oculus Studios is finally here, but does it deliver on the promise of being like Mission Impossible in VR? Find out in our Defector review.
The best way I could describe Defector would be to call it like an exercise in bare bones wish fulfillment. You get to do cool spy stuff like shoot guns, jump out of airplanes, and blow up secret underground bases, but in their obsession with making you feel like a spy saving the world, the developers forgot to craft a world worth saving.
At the very start of Defector you get to pick either male or female and choose the skin tone of your hands, helping you put yourself in the shoes of the main hero. The story plays out as a series of flashbacks in which you relive five key missions that lead up to climactic events on Liberty Island, near the Statue of Liberty in the United States. Each mission is about 45 minutes to an hour long with a key branching point that diverges the plot and gives you one of two different outcomes. How you resolve each mission contributes to the overall narrative and ends up offering two very distinct ending options.
Playing Defector from start to finish only takes about 4 or 5 hours even if you do take your time a little bit, and you can probably spend another hour or two choosing different options on subsequent playthroughs. The nice thing about the ‘Quickplay’ choice from the main menu is that it lets you jump directly to the branching point and skip the preamble of the level that’s always identical.
Defector’s main problem is that it does a poor job of establishing any connective tissue between the five levels other than very loose character motives. The opening mission has a cool reveal moment in which an enemy ends up being your partner in disguise all along with some high stakes intensity as you try to escape a flaming plane hurtling towards the ground but that intensity never resurfaces again. During the level’s climax I shot down over a dozen fighter jets using nothing more than an assault rifle, like any action movie star would do.
Then every other level features some new cast of characters. There are double crosses, interrogations, espionage, and everything else you’d expect from this sort of game, but it’s all abbreviated. You never spend more than a few minutes with any character so there is zero development to make you care about the fact that Mr. X (that’s the bad guy’s actual name) turns out to be a double agent.
It’s like Twisted Pixel picked the climactic moments from a cookie cutter spy film and snipped out all the rest leaving a mostly uninspired greatest hits of what a narrative designer might think makes a good game. It honestly reminds me a bit of early 2016 VR game design more so than a mid-2019 Oculus exclusive. The $20 price tag starts to make sense when Stormland and Asgard’s Wrath are due out in a few months by comparison.
Don’t be mistaken though: I actually really did have fun playing Defector. It’s got a ton of small, interactive moments that truly sell the experience from a VR perspective. Jumping out of an airplane felt amazing, putting on a Mission Impossible-style mask to impersonate my enemy was immersive, and punching bad guys with a shock-powered super glove was an appropriately campy gadget that Bond would have been proud to see.
The branching moments offer great replayability by actually being dramatically different scenarios. There are even cheat codes you can unlock for completing side objectives that add nuance to a game not seen often these. I remember unlocking hilarious cheats in Uncharted 2 that did things like turn off gravity, make Nathan Drake enormously fat, or even switch character models around. Some of the cheats in Defector include switching the shader to a red-hue similar to the Virtual Boy, pixelating all the visuals, or one called ‘Hot Potato’ that forces you to reload weapons rapidly before your gun explodes.
Clearly Twisted Pixel had fun making Defector and there are some really good bits here, usually the parts that ask you to set aside your guns and use your brain instead. Every character has a name and a dossier you can pull up full of background information (such as a guard’s closet obsession with pop music) that can be used implicitly while talking. Navigating the branching dialogue trees was a lot of fun even if it could have been more immersive. For example, requiring me to speak the lines aloud to make a conversation choice, quickly choose on a timer such as in TellTale games, or at least some sort of system that isn’t literally just looking at my choice and clicking a button, would have been nice.
Guns could use some work too. Technically there are a good number of different weapons to use throughout the levels, but they all kind of feel the same. Other than fire rate variations shooting a pistol or SMG or assault rifle is basically identical, including how you reload by ejecting a magazine, grabbing a new one off your belt, and slotting it in.