Stealth and virtual reality: it sounds like the perfect combination, right? It’s not something that’s been done that often on the platform so far, but Espire 1: VR Operative looks to change that with its sci-fi adventure that prioritises satisfyingly sneaking through levels as opposed to just shooting everyone in sight (although you can do that too).
Espire 1: VR Operative puts you in the role of an Espire Agent – a drone operator that controls special robots known as Espires in order to infiltrate a facility full of baddies. It’s not the most original of narratives and it doesn’t do anything too special, but it’s nice to have a bit of a story to go along with all of the sneaking you’ll be doing.
Espire 1: VR Operative’s missions are pretty straight forward, with the player having to work through an assortment of levels whilst completing objectives on the side. These objectives become increasingly difficult as you progress through the game, so there’s a decent sense of challenge that constantly keeps you on your toes. You’re also judged on your performance, with things like how many enemies you’ve killed or how many alerts you’ve triggered affecting your grade – high scores unlock rewards for the player, so it’s definitely worth taking the sneaky approach.
The core gameplay mechanic of Espire 1: VR Operative is its stealth, with the player encouraged to sneak through levels and avoid enemies as opposed to going on all-out killing sprees. Thankfully, you’re well-equipped for the job, with plenty of tools at your disposal to help you evade any guards – you’ve got cameras on your wrist that you can use to sneakily look around corners, cameras you can throw to get a look at what might be ahead of you, and even an ‘Espire Vision’ ability which will highlight objects in the environment for you. Clever use of all of these items is essential to your success, whilst the fact that you progressively unlock new abilities as you go along means that you’ll always have additional things to play around with as you work through the game.
What’s most fun though is climbing around to avoid enemies. Any object in Espire 1: VR Operative that is metal can be climbed, so you can find yourself scaling walls and swinging across the ceiling as you look to get past some patrolling guards. It’s a simple enough mechanic, but it’s one that works SO well that it was hard not to find myself constantly smiling as I monkeyed around. Add to that the fact that you can listen out to guard’s movement by listening from above or around corners, and you’ll quickly find that Espire 1: VR Operative is an incredibly immersive stealth experience.
Whilst the gameplay is satisfying, it does have its flaws. For one, there’s a real inconsistency to the enemy AI – sometimes, they’ll be ridiculously smart and spot you when you’re in the perfect hiding spot, whilst other times they won’t notice you when you’re right in front of them. It took away from the game’s tension a fair bit, especially when you’re trying hard to hit Solid Snake levels of sneakiness only to find your hard work undone by some flaw in the AI.
That being said, if they do see you it’s not a big problem. Not only does time slow down to give you the chance to quickly take them out, but they also completely forget your presence and go back to normal if you hide away for thirty-seconds or so. Whilst I appreciate this has been the norm for stealth games for some time, it would’ve been nice if there were more severe repercussions for my actions just to add to the pressure a little.
Whilst sneaking is at the forefront of Espire 1: VR Operative, you do come equipped with weapons too – I mean, even Solid Snake had to shoot some baddies at times, right? The shooting mechanics are decent enough with a good few weapons to use across the game, whilst the bullet-time function that slows down time allows you to pick off enemies with satisfying ease. You can also drag any fallen enemies’ bodies to hide them, which is darkly satisfying when done in virtual reality. Whilst stealth is encouraged, I actually had a lot of fun with Espire 1: VR Operative’s action-orientated moments – you can even combine them both by swinging across a room’s ceiling like a ninja and dropping down to unleash hell on unsuspecting guards with a machine gun. It’s good stuff.
Everything comes together nicely to make for a satisfying experience. The campaign is a decent length with it lasting around five hours, but with extras to unlock there is some replayability on offer. There are scenario levels to tackle that are smaller in scale but offer challenges that encourage you to play in specific ways too.
Comfort-wise, I didn’t find Espire 1: VR Operative to be a stomach churner, even when I was climbing and swinging around. It should probably be noted that there aren’t any teleportation-based movement options in place for players who rely on that (for obvious gameplay reasons), whilst you will have to crouch a lot too which I know plays havoc for some players in virtual reality. For the most part though, everything in Espire 1: VR Operative is pretty comfortable.
Espire 1: VR Operative offers a satisfying stealth experience that’s a whole lot of fun to play in virtual reality. There are some clever ideas on show with the sneaking mechanics, whilst the abilities and tools that you have at your disposal ensure that the gameplay remains fresh throughout too.
It’s just a shame that the enemy AI is so inconsistent because it’s the only thing holding the game back. If you can look past that flaw though, you’re sure to have a good time sneaking (and occasionally shooting) your way past Espire 1: VR Operative’s baddies.
Developer: Digital Lode
Publisher: Tripwire Interactive
Platform(s): Oculus Quest (Reviewed), PlayStation VR, HTC Vive, Oculus Rift