Hands-on: Defector is a VR spy game that balances dialogue and gunplay

Being a super spy has been a popular subject for gaming for decades now, but virtual reality offers new frontiers for the experience that have never been possible before. In the recently announced Defector for the Oculus Rift the developers at Twisted Pixel (who previously produced Wilson's Heart) take full advantage of the new sorts of gaming VR allows, delivering a game where you read body language and craft false identities on the fly, drive super cars, engage in furious fisticuffs, and, of course, shoot a lot of bad guys.

Face to face with enemies

In my hands-on time with Defector I was placed in the virtual shoes of a secret agent working undercover on board a luxurious private plane, preparing for a confrontation with a wealthy criminal. A high-tech contact lens provided the in-game HUD, illuminating objects of interest in the world around me, and an earpiece provided me with the rest of what I needed to know about my objectives.

As the mission started, I was able to scroll through both my core goal and a number of optional goals and achievements I could try to accomplish along the way, such as accessing a secret safe or making it through an upcoming gun battle without missing. I managed to check a few of these achievements off purely by accident during my 30 minute demo, but most were challenging and obscure enough to clearly be intended to provide the game with replay value.

Following the instructions in my earpiece, I made my way through a security room in the plane and came face to face with my target: a vaguely European criminal in a flashy outfit, who invited me to take a seat so we could talk business.

At that point the game flashed me back to a training sequence, set prior to this mission, which taught me the basics of how conversations work in Defector. Based on a small dossier of information about the person you are talking to, it's up to you to select the right conversation options at each point, Telltale Games-style, in order to keep suspicion low as you gather the information you need.

Back in the "present" I chose direct and to-the-point conversation options with my target, since I knew that he would respond well to that approach. Being face-to-face with him, across a table, allowed me to appreciate the animation quality on display. 

While the faces and emotional tics in Defector aren't to the level of something like The Witcher 3 or even L.A. Noire (still a pinnacle of what can be achieved in this sort of conversation-driven game), everything feels more immediate and immersive in VR. A conversational misstep on my part drew a scowl and crossed arms from the man across from me, for example, and while I didn't instantly fail my mission, the suspicion I raised meant I had less time to operate later on, and caused me to miss out on optional objectives.

Familiar VR shooting mechanics

As the mission progressed and turned violent, the branching paths of the narrative became more clear. Each mission in Defector will have several key decision points that will cause the action to unfold differently, and in my demo the key choice was whether I parachuted with a fellow secret agent to an adjacent cargo plane or if I stayed on the first plane myself to attempt further mission objectives.

Both paths involved some gunplay, and Defector's shooting and manual reloading mechanics are fairly standard VR action game material. Aiming felt solid, and environmental targets like windows and fire extinguishers provided interesting strategic options beyond the simple point-and-shoot mechanics. There was another training flashback before the shooting started, but if you've played other VR shooting games you probably won't need it.

One of the mission paths climaxed in a fistfight in the plane's restroom, and here Defector felt a lot like Knockout League, with pattern-based boxing mechanics introduced via another flashback training session. Punching enemies in the face remains one of the most satisfying VR experiences around, especially with the Rift's fist-friendly controller, and Defector takes things to a satisfying new level by allowing you to grab your burly opponent by the lapels and throw him forcefully into walls and other environmental objects.

Interestingly, I learned after my demo that it's possible to acquire a powerful electric stun ring during the mission, provided you keep your suspicion low in the conversation and have enough time to unlock a briefcase and retrieve it. With this ring, your later fistfight is much easier, though this is one of those cases where the "easier" path is also very likely to be less fun and satisfying than working up a sweat swinging your fists.

Mission Impossible

It's clear that Defector is aiming to be a sort of "greatest hits" of spy movie set pieces and action scenes, and the demo mission involved massive shootouts, firing at planes with machine guns, and driving cars out of plane cargo holds, depending on the choices you made. Failure is very possible along the way too; if you get yourself killed in a gunfight or if you're especially clumsy in a conversation, Defector will send you back to one of its regular auto-save points.

Defector definitely feels like a bit of a mechanical grab-bag, based on my demo experience (which I played twice, to experience the different major branching paths). While the shooting, conversation, and hand-to-hand combat were all solid and entertaining in VR, they were also a bit on the shallow side, and none of them amounted to a revolutionary VR experience. The conversation mechanics are the biggest stand-out in the game, but even those felt a little primitive compared to what we see in Telltale-style narrative games.

There's a lot of unexplored potential in the VR game space to meld disparate mechanics together to create an overall experience, since so many early VR titles were essentially tech demos focused on doing one or two things really well. Now that the novelty of shooting or punching in VR isn't enough to sell a game on its own, we'll have to wait and see how well games like Defector offer a total package that feels like more than the sum of its parts.

Defector will be coming to the Oculus Rift at some point, but we don't yet have pricing or release date information.