Espire 1: VR Operative Review — Satisfying First Try at VR Stealth Action
Ghillie up in a robo-suit, bust into a classified military facility, and try not to get caught. Or, alternatively, shoot your way through every guard.
Espire 1: VR Operative is what Metal Gear Solid might have been like without Hideo Kojima dripping his personal brand of eccentricity into each element of the project. As a result, the final product is a bit bland and lacking in much character or eccentricity at all. But what lies at its core is a solid, fundamentally fun stealth action game that fits VR like a glove.
The plot here is straightforward enough: You play as a VR commando with remote access to prototype robot supersoldiers in the titular Espire 1 program. Bad guys have broken into the compound and are attempting to steal the tech, and now it’s up to you to figure out who they are and, potentially, stop them. This is a perfectly competent motive for you to get in there and begin stealthing your way through patrols of less-than-competent enemy guards, but it’s often easy to forget what’s going on and why you’re doing certain tasks at all. Sometimes it’s easiest to just pick up two assault rifles and shoot your way through every patrol you come across instead of sneaking around. And, to make the ‘pew pew’ approach more viable, Espire 1 lets you slow time down at any point and cheap-shot every enemy you come across.
This is a shame because of how many cool little gadgets that developer Digital Lode has strapped onto your suit. For example, each of your hands have cameras that allow you to peer around corners without making yourself vulnerable or visible. To make things even more convenient, you can grab a hand camera with your free hand and throw it like a sensor grenade in Modern Warfare. Even cooler (but far less practical than simply running and gunning) is your ability to just walk up to a guard and tell them to “Freeze!” before grabbing their gun and whipping them unconscious with it.
For a stealth game, Espire 1 really doesn’t do much with its guard AI, meaning that most of the options that it gives you are just arbitrary ways of doing something that’s actually very simple and easy with a gun and some ammo. Only during the very final mission does the game start throwing a lot of really tough enemies at you, where stealthily moving through the zone actually becomes tantamount to your success. But sadly, just as things promise to pick up, they drop right off.
One of the more annoying things is the voice acting and writing that does exist in the barebones story. It’s infrequent, but hammy and annoyingly overdramatic. In fact, the most glaring issue here is that you’re repeatedly told that you’re hurt and that you need to heal yourself with your Repair Tool when it’s visually obvious that you’re hurt and in need of healing. Even if you’re locked in combat, somebody’s voice is screaming in your ear to get to a quiet place and get healed pronto. This is definitely not the worst problem that a game like Espire 1 could have, but it certainly stands out. In fact, this is a game that could do well with very minimal voice acting to match the minimalism of its plot.
The environments are all pretty bog-standard and difficult to tell apart from one another, leading to a lot of times where you find yourself running in circles instead of smoothly sleuthing your way to the next objective. Luckily, you can throw your Repair Tool on the ground to create a waypoint that leads you to the next objective, but it bugs out easily when you have multiple objectives vying for priority over one another. That said, it’s not impossible to remember landmarks and key hallway sections to help yourself get to the next point of interest. In fact, Espire 1 asks of you to do this often, making it more immersive at times when other games might grab your hand and walk you to the next hotspot.
Climbing is a big part of the movement system in Espire 1 that allows for stealthy play and, while not necessary to complete much of the game, is one of the major features that makes it great fun to play. As in Stormland, there’s an acrobatic joy to climbing all over the side of a room and finding the many different entries and approaches that you might have missed on your first go. It’s surprising to see how rooms are connected by a network of crawlable ventilation shafts that are only first accessible by climbing.
Espire 1: VR Operative has its own homebrew solution for VR locomotion that allows it to accommodate for the folks who don’t deal well with motion sickness in VR. The entire game takes place in a glass box, called a Control Theater, where you (the VR operative) take remote command of the various ‘Espire’ androids that you find laying around. As such, the Control Theater comfort mode, which gives the impression that you’re remotely controlling your Espire-bot with visual cues, is automatically switched on from your first time loading up Espire 1. You can switch it off in the settings menu, but I didn’t, because it quickly became so benign that I forgot it was there in the first place.
In all, Espire 1 is a decent stealth action game. It contains replayability through its Challenges mode, but what it offers in terms of main story is a bit short – roughly four hours of story, padded to five or six hours via gates that force you to finish a certain number of Challenges to continue to the next mission. Of course, the main draw of Espire 1 is that it takes place in VR, and it uses that to its benefit. Sneaking around and using the bevy of Espire gadgets and traversal options available to do so feels great, but is overshadowed by a combat system and AI that is so exploitable that sneaking around quickly loses its purpose in the first place.