Espire 1: VR Operative is getting ready to step out of the shadows.
We’ve been looking forward to this VR stealth game from Digital Lode for longer than we can remember. This week we finally got an extended look at the game, free from the constraints of industry demo booths.
The good news is that the game holds up under the added scrutiny, though there’s certainly room for improvement. Below, we’ve rounded up some of the key elements that really make the game shine, along with a few we’re hoping to see improved before the launch of the final build on September 24.
What We Love
Like the best stealth games, there’s no one way to play Espire 1. Right off the bat, you can choose to play the game as a ghost, passing through areas unseen, or go loud with gunfire. The former is itself open-ended, with hidden paths to find and the choice of knocking out enemies or leaving them be.
Playing it as a shooter is certainly an option, though it doesn’t come with as many end of level rewards. But Digital Lode makes some clever adjustments, keeping the enemies flowing when in high alert and implementing a health system that adds a touch of strategy (more on that in a bit). Ultimately it’s up to you how you play Espire 1.
The Health System
If Espire 1 had a simple regenerating health meter, it’d be simply far too easy. But, if there were no way to replenish health at all, it’d probably be a little too difficult. Digital Lode’s solution is wonderfully logical. When under fire, you accumulate damage over time. To stitch up, you’ll need to repair yourself.
To do this you use a rod located to the left of your UI. When you grab it, glowing orbs representing damage will appear in front of you. You need to hold the rod over each until they disappear. It takes a little time, meaning you’ll need to find a safe space to repair instead of replenishing health in the middle of battle.
The Sticky Cam
Perhaps one of Espire’s most thoughtful inventions is its take on the stealth sticky cam. Holding the trigger on either controller when your hand is free sprouts a small camera from the back of your hand. Its capture is displayed on a small screen on the side of your UI. You can use this to carefully peek around corners in tight spots without the risk of being captured.
Better yet, though, you can actually grab the camera with your other hand and toss it. It’ll stick to any surface, allowing you to hide away and wait for the perfect time to make your move. You can even emit sounds that will cause a distraction, clearing the way. It’s a strikingly organic addition to the game which can be a little tricky to fully utilize (I have a terrible VR throwing arm) but overall it’s a lot of fun.
This one is of personal affection for fans of Metal Gear Solid. Sneaking up behind an enemy, holding a gun at them and physically saying ‘Freeze’ into your headset’s microphone holds baddies up. You can then retrieve weapons from their hands or simply knock them out.
But take caution when using this option; baddies can also decide to sprint off at any moment and grab help. That’ll definitely put a quick stop to your no-kills streak.
The Little Touches
Aside from what we’ve listed here, there’s a lot of other little touches that really make Espire 1 sing in its best moments. When you make a fist, for example, you can see your robotic hand reinforce itself, ready for impact. If you drop your repair rod on the ground, it makes a waypoint towards your objective.
What Could Be Improved
Noise is a key part of any stealth game. It gives consideration to your each and every movement. But this is one of the areas that Espire struggles with; while firing many weapons will sending the guards running, other actions go confoundingly unnoticed. In one level I had an automatic turret taking potshots at me while a guard walked on by in oblivious bliss.
It’s an awkward omission in a game that otherwise puts so much consideration into every tiny element. From what I could tell, my footsteps would go unnoticed too. Perhaps this would simply make the game too hard, but it’s pretty jarring all the same.
There’s a lot happening at any given moment in Espire 1; multiple enemies patrolling different routes in various stages of alert. Once you’re discovered, all of these systems sort of fall in on themselves as the enemy’s singular focus becomes finding you and taking you down.
At these moments the cracks in the game’s design can start to show through. Enemies sprint in only to stare at barren patches of walls or run off to completely irrelevant areas. Worse yet, the exact same lines of dialogue are repeated ad nauseam, sometimes by the same characters. It gives your pursuers the impression of lifeless robots (ironic, given that you yourself are a drone).
Espire 1 releases on September 24th, 2019, for all major headsets including Oculus Home for Rift and Quest, Steam for all SteamVR headsets, and PSVR. We’ll have a full review later this month!