I never thought I’d be able to jump out of a plane and land on the outside of another in VR without getting irrecoverably sick, but Defector let me do just that. This Oculus Studios-published action game is a bit like being inside a Mission: Impossible movie, and it can be a thrill, if a fairly short one. But ankle-deep mechanics and a plot that veers wildly off course keep it from being something special.
Defector starts as a high-tech spy story about hunting down defecting agents who have run off with three pieces of a mysterious device, but by the end that story has somehow made its way to laser guns, giant Cylon death robots, and maybe even aliens or magic or something? It’s not really clear. The spy premise is an interesting one, but Defector only uses it as a jumping off point to show off different VR ideas – from shooting to gambling to rock climbing. That wide variety of mechanics combined with disjointed plot points mean Defector comes off more like a tour of what VR can offer rather than a fully realized game of its own.
That’s not to say the ride isn’t fun, it’s just thin and brief. Defector is a solid VR shooter, with scripted enemies popping out from behind cover in a way that reminded me more of arcade light gun shooters than any FPS in a cool way. The weapons are generally satisfying to use, but beyond having to manually eject and reload ammo cartridges (which does feel great to pull off when done without looking) and the occasional limited secondary fire option, it’s pretty much just point and pull. I really liked being able to pick up the guns of fallen enemies one after the other, John Wick-style, but it’s disappointing you can’t even choose a main weapon for any given fight as you’re limited to whatever gun is given to you in that mission.
But spy flicks aren’t all about gunfights, and Defector hops between all sorts of other activities to amuse you with varying success. The skydiving shenaniganry I opened with earlier is essentially a rock climbing minigame as you struggle to pull yourself toward a door. The second mission forces you to play an assortment of simple gambling games – like blackjack – to progress, which you can (and should) totally cheat at using your spy gadgets. And melee fights have you block telegraphed attacks before punching back at specific times.
This is all stuff we’ve seen elsewhere in VR, often with more depth since other games don’t have to cram all of the disparate elements into one experience, but Defector’s most compelling and successful new ideas revolve around conversations. Your first tutorial isn’t how to shoot, it’s how to talk. Before you jump out of a plane or pick up a gun, you sit down for dinner with a classic Bond-esque villain and have to come out on top in a battle of wits. It was fun to be an active participant in the campy, life-or-death banter that I’ve seen 007 have so many times before.
Instead of just choosing dialogue options as part of the roleplay, there are actually right and wrong answers here. You have to study a simple dossier of the person you are talking to and figure out the best way to manipulate them into doing what you want. This escalates in a neat way in the second mission when you have to resist a truth serum by quickly picking lies before the truth comes out on its own. This system is also supported by some notably good facial animations and voice acting that can be hit or miss, but is still generally likeable.
All of these different distractions and minigames are peppered throughout Defector’s five missions, but there are two big problems. The first is, just like the gunplay, that none of them have any real depth, rarely evolving over the course of the campaign, which renders them more a matter of going through the motions rather than an actual challenge to complete. The second, perhaps contradictingly, is that Defector is bad at teaching you how to play it, so sometimes you don’t even know what those motions are supposed to be.
It was frustrating to be handed a timed objective without a complete understanding of how to navigate the world. A classic spy movie rooftop chase sequence in the second mission was exciting, but could get bogged down when new obstacles like climbing pipes or sidling along walls suddenly appeared with insufficient explanation of how to navigate them. Little moments like this are all over the place, and they could ruin the tension of an otherwise engaging scenario.
Defector is also very short, which is probably why the simplicity of these activities never got stale. I beat the campaign in under three hours, but four of the five missions actually have “branch points” where you have to make a choice – that choice will make the second half of the level play out entirely differently, with whole scenes, fights, and even mechanics locked behind one or the other. After you beat it one way you can load up that mission from its branch point to see what you missed, but even then it only took me another hour to play through all four of the alternate paths.
I really like this branching system in concept, and it was certainly fun to make a choice like “do you want to jump out of this airplane with or without a parachute?” in the moment. The trouble is they don’t have much of an impact on the story itself, so it’s almost more like a mid-mission level select. And Defector is so short I don’t really understand why these sequences wouldn’t just play back to back instead of forcing me to go back and check the other path to experience parts I was forced to miss. And in what I can only assume is a massive oversight, the melee tutorial is actually hidden behind one of the branches in the first mission, which left me further floundering with the controls later on when I wasn’t introduced to that mechanic by picking that path at the start.
Without spoilers, the only decision where your branching choice really matters seems to be the last one, which leads to either of two endings. Don’t worry though, because both of them are complete nonsense. They’re so inconsequential to the gameplay itself that you can still enjoy playing through Defector despite the unjustified endings. But after beating all the paths, I was left longing for the actual spy-movie-turned-VR-game that its first half set it up to be.