When I first heard about Defector I was excited to see what essentially amounted to Mission Impossible coming to VR—the laughably improbable, overblown action that makes you feel like a true badass. And while there are some choice slices of action hero greatness served up on a silver platter, I couldn’t help but feel like Defector was still a bit undercooked in the middle.
Developer: Twisted Pixel Games
Publisher: Oculus Studios
Available On: Oculus Store (Rift)
Reviewed On: Rift
Release Date: July 11th, 2019
As a kid growing up in the ’90s, I spent untold amounts of quarters on arcade light gun shooters like Area 51 (1995) and many of the Time Crisis franchise regulars. In a few ways, Defector reminds me of these on-rails arcade games of yore despite offering up a measure of choice when it comes to how you experience the game.
Although it isn’t an on-rails experience in the sense that you’re forcibly carried from one location to the next (it has free locomotion), Defector hasn’t made the allowances to give you any leeway to be clever, or discover alternate solutions to problems on your own. It makes me feel that, despite being able to switch the proverbial minecart on a temporary left or right track, that the choice is only about engaging in a one-off experience you want at that moment. And I was really looking forward to a game that promised not only to let you do incredible things, but to decide how you accomplish them.
To be clear, Defector is basically an arcade shooter at heart; it relies heavily on basic tropes that become a big focus later in the game, such as various gun types, infinite ammo, sparse health pickups, and a few minor bosses. When you’re not blasting away at enemies though, you’re following simple instructions from your telepresent buddy Doran—and you’ll find yourself chatting with NPCs and trying select the best answer from a basic dialogue tree for any given situation. More on NPCs in the ‘Immersion’ section below.
Here’s a quick rundown of the story: you’re an elite spy who’s tasked with tracking down stolen ‘device segments’ which are important to the government… for reasons. Sitting in a government office, you flash back to each of your five missions, ostensibly while at your own deposition; the top brass aren’t happy with the way things went down. You don’t have much besides a special contact lens that lets you see key items, and an earpiece, both of which are used by your support buddy Doran to feed you important info.
Minor spoiler: My favorite part by far is the first 25 minutes of the game, which is spent waltzing around undercover on a bad guy’s private jet with the aim of stealing back the first device segment to an absolutely incredible effect. After completing that part of the mission, the game presented me with an explicit choice between two different paths I could take next. I chose to parachute from one plane to the next, which ended with me clambering up the side of the damaged plane, looking out the open hatch, and shooting a machine gun at incoming fighter jets. The alternate pathway would have taken me through Dr. Villain’s plane to fight through all of the heavies and drive off the plane in mid-air James Bond-style.
This is the ridiculous high-octane fun I signed up for, however Defector seems to dole these moments out at pretty sparse intervals for my liking thereafter, instead choosing to pad the game with its arcade shooter and its toothless NPC interactions. To its credit, Defector doesn’t bore you with a lengthy on-boarding experience, instead tossing you into new interactions as they happen, although it’s hard to call it a non-stop adrenaline ride.
As for the shooter bit, the game presents three types of enemies, maybe four if you count grenade-throwing goons as opposed to the overwhelming majority of the enemies with machine guns. There’s also Terminator-sized robots and flying drones, but none of the baddies present any real challenge if you ever played a VR shooter before.
Like its arcade cabinet forbears, enemy AI is pretty simplistic; bad guys dash out of nowhere and basically stay put until you do your thing. Like true bullet sponges, you can shoot them directly in the head a few times before they go down. I would have liked to see more realism here and less arcade controls, but I can see how that might turn off people who aren’t in it for the shooting elements alone, and are just looking to be in an action movie.
As for the story, it predictably follows your standard action movie narrative, sending you off to interesting locales including India, London, and New York. It’s here that I wish the game would have given me more agency to explore, and accomplish missions in non-standard ways. More on that below.
In the end, I spent a little over three hours on a single pass through the campaign, although you can jump back into previous missions (with the option of enabling cheats), so you revisit any one of the five missions to see where a different decision might have taken you.
One of the most frustrating elements in Defector is talking to NPCs. On first blush, the dialogue tree presents an opportunity to get through missions in unexpected and clever ways, possibly by looking at their dossier and finding out to best way manipulate the person into giving me what I need. But the reality is most of the time you’re continuously shunted towards a single answer that is deemed acceptable by the game, which often seems to have no guiding principle other than it’s just ‘right’.
At almost every turn, unacceptable responses are met with the moral equivalent “Are you stupid? Try again, dumbo!” And although you’re not penalized for giving a ‘wrong’ answer, you have to doggedly click on each option to figure out which one is right in order to progress.
And then there’s the NPCs that don’t offer anything. All answers are ‘wrong’ and lead nowhere. In fact, in the second mission I was so frustrated at the lack of any clues that I asked every single NPC in the level every question until I eventually found the one that would let me progress in the story. Your mileage may vary, and you may hit on that one NPC right away by chance, but there are zero clues to get you there—all of them dead ends. That was decidedly the only moment when you deal with non-combative NPCs in the game, but I really felt like it was a missed opportunity.
Despite this, there are valid divergences in the game’s narrative, which are marked with a big green ‘ACTION BRANCH’ labels. These represent a binary choice that the player can make, which is implicitly understood beforehand—e.g. go after the big beefy boss guy, or go after the weaselly little turncoat.
Ultimately, action branches are a fun little asides that ideally appeals to what you want out of the game. Are you looking for a shooting section in the mission, or are you looking to go stealth? Although the scope of the game is fairly limited in terms of mission flexibility, I’m glad to at least be able to choose what sort of ride I’m in the mood for.
Visuals are a fundamental part of immersion, and the ingredients for impressive visuals are definitely there in Defector, but the game is still in need of a little more refinement. Anti-aliasing seems non-existent, and even on ‘Ultra’ settings it seems the world has its fair share of jaggies and inexplicable blur at moments. This is an honest shame, because I count many of the game’s design elements as a net positive, such as overall character design, motion capture, set pieces—all of it has enough meat on the bone for the sake of immersion. Although as is, the game’s visual fidelity puts a definite damper on both distance shooting and making out enemies in darker scenes.
Object interaction is also somewhat of a missed opportunity; there are objects you’re allowed to pick up, and others you can’t. There’s really little rhyme or reason to it all. You can pick up a fork, but not an apple from a box. You can pick up a dish, but not a fire extinguisher. So on, and so forth. If you drop an item, sometimes it appears in your inventory, but if it’s a magazine, it just disappears.
Despite a few moments when being swung around violently, Defector is mostly a comfortable game. It includes both variable snap-turning and smooth-turning for users who want max visual immersion.
If you’re looking to get the most out of your ability to move around though, you’ll want to strafe continuously so baddies can’t get a bead on your head. That sort of constant lateral movement can be uncomfortable though, so it’s nice to see that strafing is also a toggleable option.
Although ‘camera shake’ is enabled by default, which gives you more of a thrill when things start exploding around you, you can turn it off it that makes you uncomfortable.