We’ve all thought it; VR must be great for horror games, right?
And it’s true; Resident Evil 7 and The Exorcist VR are some of the most compelling, immersive experiences you can have in a headset. But I’d argue that, recently, another genre has sneaked out of the shadows to threaten the VR gaming crown. Stealth could soon be the new king of immersive play.
Two Gamescom demos really hammered home that point. The first was, of course, Espire 1: VR Operative, Digital Lode’s hugely promising ode to Metal Gear Solid. The other is Phantom: Covert Ops, nDreams’ lovably ridiculous mix of sneaking and water sports.
Espire is a giddy experience and deeply nostalgic for any fans of Metal Gear Solid 2. In fact, everything from reloading your non-lethal sidearm to shouting ‘Freeze’ when holding up unsuspecting enemies is directly lifted out of Hideo Kojima’s stealth sandbox. If it were any less of a game you might consider that a slight, but rediscovering these ideas in VR is something of a revelation.
Digital Lode’s ambitious foundation is that, if a player can think it, they should be able to do it too. Knocking a guard’s head with the butt of a pistol sends them straight to sleep, walls can be scaled and any dropped weapon can be picked up and fired. It’s the closest I’ve seen a VR stealth game get to the idea of dropping the player’s physical body in the world and having it drive every element of the game’s mechanics.
Phantom is essentially the same game just…on water. Sneaking into enemy bases and sabotaging machinery all from the comfort of a kayak requires a bit of suspension of disbelief. That’s ironic given the consideration put into making the game’s movement as believable as possible. Paddling through streams feels entirely natural, from alternating strokes to pushing yourself away from walls with one end of an oar. It’s perhaps more streamlined than Espire, with stripped back options and encounters, but what it loses in player freedom, it more than makes up for in immersion.
There’s two sides to the coin, though. When you’re in control, VR stealth makes you feel like a kid sneaking into a backyard to steal your ball back. It’s alive and electric in a way most other games can only hope to capture. But when you’re caught, things can crumble away a bit.
I noticed the AI in both of my demos felt a little rusty. In Espire, when a guard caught me peaking out from behind a corner, a crew of goons sprinted to the same spot only to stand around aimlessly before running off with little coordination. For a game that otherwise emulates Metal Gear with uncanny precision, it was disappointing to see the veil lift in that moment. Phantom’s baddies, meanwhile, acted like headless chickens once I hid under a walkway.
This is a complex problem, one that both nDreams and Digital Lode told me they were working on. Realistically, I’m not expecting huge improvements between now and launch; there’s only so much you can ask of modestly-sized teams like these, especially Digital Lode (which, in many respects, they’re exceeding those expectations). The truth of it might be that we don’t see that final puzzle piece fall into place until Ubisoft lends its slick production skills to the rumored Splinter Cell VR. But, again, these are games that are about not being seen and, when all that’s expected of an enemy is to stick to their patrol routes, everything runs like clockwork.
And for now, clockwork will do just fine. Espire 1 and Phantom are both coming later this year and I can’t wait to properly sink my teeth into them.