Straight out of Early Access on May 18th, Detached (2017) promises to deliver that free-flying experience, complete with smooth-turning that only a section of the most hard-core first-person VR junkies crave. Offering a single-player mission based on navigation puzzles and an online capture-the-flag multiplayer, space pioneers hoping for a long-term solution to their need for exciting and comfortable zero-G fun may have to look elsewhere.
A deserted space station seems like a real treasure for two scavengers looking for loot. Another routine salvage. Everything is going according to plan. Suddenly, system alerts indicate a problem in the cargo area. It turns out that a group of scammers has infiltrated the station and will do anything to seize its precious cargo. The startup procedure has been initiated… There’s no time for retreat…
Primed with TV series like Firefly (2002), Cowboy Bebop (1998), and films like Event Horizon (1997) and the Aliens franchise, going on a real life space salvaging mission sounds like serious fun. Unfortunately, the text above is little more than flimsy pretext for zipping around a single level filled with a small collection of space hubs—indoor environments that ultimately deliver humdrum, navigation-based puzzle-mazes.
Interiors, while beautifully rendered, are strangely aseptic in Detached besides the odd fuel canister or oxygen tank. While both fuel and oxygen are finite, there was only a single moment when I almost ran out of air, and that was only because I began to ignore all of the tanks littered throughout the game. With no real need to survive, my interest generally fell on the puzzles ahead.
Most puzzles are simple with the most difficult tending to be time trials which come down to how well you can maneuver in the zero-G environment. In the end, I felt like 3/4 of the hubs were overly consumed with tutorializing the various systems; boost, shield and rockets, than letting you genuinely explore.
Locomotion in Detached is achieved either through hand controllers or gamepad, the latter of which felt more natural despite the environmental suit (EV suit), flight stick theme the game is running with. The game is a forward-facing experience best piloted from the safety of a chair. I talk more about the game’s locomotion and some of its drawbacks in the ‘Comfort’ section.
The single-player mission took me about an hour to complete, and although the open space scenery promises some awe-inspiring vistas and a modicum of that ‘space pirate feel’ I was hoping for, I couldn’t help but feel like I was on rails going from hub to hub. Boost gates are placed tactically throughout the map, which promise convenience but also detract from the ‘found wreckage’ feeling the game professes in its description.
Finishing the single-player portion, I was then urged by the game to play the online multiplayer, a capture-the-flag mode taking place on two maps. Only the original map made for Early Access was available to me though, so I can’t speak to the quality of the second. Using shields, boost and your EMP rockets, you’re tasked with out-flying and neutralizing your opponent so you can grab and return a randomly spawning flag.
If multiplayer is supposed to be the star of the show, there’s still much that studio needs to do to ensure ongoing interest for old and new players alike. Despite offering a few truly fun sessions of hide and seek as you hunt down your opponent and reclaim the flag, I have some concerns about the overall health of the multi-player mode. It’s pretty straight forward, and admittedly much more fun then a the single-player game, but with only two maps currently available and only a capture-the-flag mode, replay value doesn’t look promising. Also, with no apparent ranking system in place, you’ll also be randomly matched with another person regardless of how much time either of you’ve been playing. And if you have mastered the game’s locomotion, the danger of your sole opponent rage quitting (ending the match) is a real barrier to creating a healthy player base.
Scenery alone can go a long way in terms of creating immersion, and lower budget, albeit competently-built productions like Detached definitely capitalize in this area with some good-looking environments. Yes, they’re too clean to be believed, and yes, they’re obviously contrived for the purpose of being a puzzle and nothing more, but they do look quite good.
Your shadow projected on a nearby wall or asteroid certainly does the trick too.
Wearing your trusty space helmet, you’re given a heads-up display (HUD) populated with oxygen/fuel indicators and mission objectives, all useful in their own right. These near-field elements are projected at an uncomfortably close distance though, making me less willing to pay attention to them. This is because current VR headsets don’t let you see near-field objects like you would outside of the headset. Without going into too much detail, it has to do with the fact that your eyeballs are converging correctly on a digital object, but you’re not focusing the way you normally would because the light from the display is focused at the incorrect distance. Check out this article on dynamic focus tech in AR for the full explanation.
A big hit to immersion comes when you try to reach out and touch something, like batting away a canister. You’ll soon find your hands are nothing more than ghostly controllers, and fiddly ones at that.
Admittedly the studio offers some forewarning when it calls Detached “an extreme VR experience that simulates sudden and dramatic acceleration, freefalling, twisting, and rolling,” but this advisory doesn’t excuse it entirely. While the game provides you with a helmet that offers the ‘anchored feeling’ of a cockpit, this isn’t a panacea to the zero-G locomotion scheme. Let’s talk about smacking into shit.
In most first-person VR games, when you slam into something or otherwise encounter an immutable barrier, you’re treated with some degree of respect, which could mean a fade to black, or a reduction of physics so you’re gently slowed to a halt. But slamming into a wall or a simple fuel canister in Detached—which happens constantly because of the close quarters—invariably sends you head-over-heels on a spinning, wild ride that doesn’t stop even when you’re dead, making you scramble for the ‘reload’ button on the screen as your virtual POV is tossed about willy-nilly.
Since the game makes heavy use of the boost function and is chock-full o’ low ceilings and random pipework, you’re bound to hit something on accident eventually. The last hub, to my anguish, was exactly this—a sort of proving ground for every game mechanic you learned along the way. Disorientation due to the repeated us the same interiors and too many blunt force deaths forced me out of the headset and onto my couch for a few hours because I stupidly thought I had my “VR legs.” Reentry was a less attractive prospect.
To my surprise, there are actually two locomotion styles on offer, but neither seem to fix what was mentioned above.
It’s been a while since I’ve played a game like Detached, and although I personally think it has more in common with an Oculus Rift DK1-era PC port than a modern made-for-VR game, there is obviously still a group of people who prefer the front-facing, vestibular system-whirling wild rides it has on offer. I don’t think I’m wrong when I say most of us left those behind and never, ever want to look back.
This is a review of the full version of the game which is due on Thursday, May 18th.