An eagerly awaited VR title but delayed just before its planned release date in September, Espire 1: VR Operative was built from the ground up to be a stealth experience in VR. The game’s out now for all major VR platforms and we tested the Playstation VR version.
It’s no surprise that people had high hopes for Espire 1, because some of VR’s best moments so far have involved stealth mechanics. Those scenes in Resident Evil 7 where you were hiding come to mind, and Intruders: Hide and Seek was intense as well. Espire 1, developed by Digital Lode, turns the table in that you’re no longer hiding from danger – you are the danger, and it’s the closest we’ve gotten to Metal Gear’s VR missions so far (since Metal Gear hasn’t actually done VR yet).
Espire 1: VR Operative gets around some of the technical limitations of VR by going with a sci-fi setting in which you control robot operatives from afar. Besides opening the door for plenty of futuristic gadgets, this also allows the developer to use a visual style that doesn’t have to be overly realistic or detailed even though some of your opponents are still human. They’ve overrun a base, and mission by mission it’s your job to take it back.
The game starts off with a tutorial mission that teaches you some of the game’s basics, and gets you going with the game’s somewhat unique control system (that reminded us a bit of Golem) – you control the character that’s controlling the Espire units, so there’s a “picture in picture” element to the visuals which supposedly helps the comfort level of those prone to VR motion sickness. The tutorial teaches you to climb, access your weapons and use them. Some of the more advanced mechanics aren’t covered in the tutorial, so there’s a bit of a discovery element to the game once you go past the tutorial and experiment with different ways to complete missions. Some tricks don’t get revealed until later but are actually useful earlier in the game as well. My guess is that this is a way to increase replayability towards a second playthrough, but other abilities aren’t explained at all. One of my favorite options is the ability to sneak up behind someone and verbally tell them to freeze, after which you can take them down. I know voice recognition has its issues, but it’s a great step forward in terms of immersion.
Unfortunately, while the game is at its most satisfying when you play with an emphasis on stealth, there’s little punishment for going in guns blazing either. Your Espire operative comes with a self-healing option that makes gunplay quite forgiving, so what ended up happening was that I felt like I was forcing myself to play using stealth rather than the game itself forcing that upon me. You can crank up the difficulty level, but this makes the stealth approach feel unfair as well – which is challenging enough at the standard difficulty. This felt like a balancing issue and brought back memories of when Espire 1 was originally delayed to craft a better experience. Now, I feel like the game could have used a bit more development time even now that it’s been released just ahead of the holidays.
Of course I’m not just jumping to that conclusion based on a balancing issue – there are a number of other issues with the game as well. Some are visual in nature, with clipping issues as weapons vanish into walls or you suddenly develop the ability to stick your head inside concrete and take a look at the blackness within. Other cases include features that are missing in the Playstation VR version at launch, including a few options for movement and comfort that PC-based players can already use and which should be coming to PSVR in upcoming patches.
The audiovisual delivery of the game is very nice (with especially good voice work), but could have used a little more polish. More visual cues would have made navigating the levels feel more intuitive and streamlined, for instance. As with the skills missing from the tutorial, there are times where you can feel a little lost inside one of the game’s lengthy missions – having the action take place inside a giant underground facility can do that, I suppose.
Besides the story objectives in the game’s six main missions, Espire 1 also has a number of optional challenge missions which can also be accessed from the main menu. These are tied to an online leaderboard as well, and you can also compare your scores for the regular missions – this, along with the ability to tackle levels using different routes and skills, should provide plenty of replay value, which is always great in an objective-based game.
Yet, despite its issues, Espire 1: VR Operative is still a fun stealth experience because its stealth mechanics are so much fun to play around with when they work as intended. You can hit enemies with tranq darts, knock out an unsuspecting soldier from behind, hide bodies or create distractions. The latter’s definitely my favorite, since you can throw something in a corridor and wait for someone to come check it out, or you can verbally yell something to grab their attention. When you then climb out of the way and crash land on top of them a minute later, it’s incredibly satisfying.
Let’s hope the Playstation VR version receives the post-launch attention it deserves. Espire 1 is a stealth VR experience with tremendous potential that is currently hindered by technical issues and a lack of polish. We’re already seeing a few patches being released though, so fingers crossed…..