Espire 1: VR Operative Review – Surprisingly Deep Stealth Action

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After years of development and months of delays Espire 1: VR Operative is finally releasing. Read our full review to find out if this VR stealth game lives up to the hype.

I’ve played Espire 1 a lot over the last couple of years. Between all of the various preview events and conventions I’ve attended it seems like this game always managed to make an appearance, which means I’ve played various iterations of the opening mission many times. One side effect of previewing a game so extensively is you start to feel burnt out before it even releases.

Luckily, there is far more to it than just the opening level.

In Espire 1 you take control of android units that are outfitted with cutting-edge technology to help infiltrate enemy strongholds and remain undetected while out on important, classified missions. The premise here is that if you die, your conscience is just uploaded to a different android unit. And as you play, you’ll unlock newer models with more abilities, offering a sense of steady progression across the 5-ish hour campaign. The story isn’t very gripping and most of the voice acting is sub-par and repetitive, but none of that gets in the way of the fun — it just prevents it from being as great as it could have been.

I played most of the game on the default normal difficulty and found the AI to be good enough, but sometimes it shows its cracks. Most of the time an enemy could spot me above them if I wasn’t very high or hidden at all and if they have clear line of sight it doesn’t take much for them to get alerted. Once alerted they’ll immediately start searching for you, but if you’re discovered time slows down giving you a chance to respond before everyone is tipped off. They’re certainly better than I expected overall, but not perfect.

The slow-mo upon being spotted means there is little risk to attracting a single enemy’s attention and they all seem to forget about you fairly easily if you’re patient. Not to mention they drop like a sack of potatoes instantly if you open fire in many cases, or deliver a swift punch to the head.But when things are clicking as intended, Espire 1 is a rare treat. No other VR game has really nailed the classical stealth action genre quite so well. You’ll find yourself creeping through air vents, scaling the side of buildings, creeping behind cover, sneaking up behind bad guys and yelling “Freeze!” while avoiding the watchful eyes of cameras.

Many of the items are physics objects that can be picked up, thrown, and manipulated, but not all of them. And the fact that your hands just phase through objects like a ghost, unless you’re holding something with mass, is a bit odd. Object interaction is better than in most VR games, but I’d have appreciated if environmental objects were a bit more dynamic.

I did enjoy the health system though. Since you’re an android, when you get shot at and hurt errors and malfunctions pop up in your HUD. If you grab the repair tool you need to physically fix the glowing nodes in real-time, which can be tough to do in the heat of battle. I’d often climb up a wall or hide in a corner to try and quickly heal. I just wish the woman in my ear would stop yelling at me to heal when I’m literally in the middle of a firefight.

Then there are all of the various ways it takes advantage of being a VR-only title. The 3D spatial audio makes it more immersive than ever to listen for approaching guards, reaching around corners to take out enemies with a stun dart, and physically ducking down to avoid being spotted all come second nature. The devs also have some novel mechanics that add a lot to the gameplay, like little cameras on the backs of your wrist that can be used to look around corners and mark enemies without being detected (and even toss the camera orb out and stick it to a surface to keep track of the bad guys.) Things are introduced slowly enough so that you don’t get overwhelmed and ensure you always have a multitude of options for how to approach a situation.

Perhaps best of all is the climbing system. Anything that’s metal, whether it be a ladder, pipe, wall, or something else can be climbed no problem. Using the slow-mo power you can even fling yourself across entire rooms too. Hanging over the edge of a barrier, reaching over with the camera to find an enemy, then reaching back over with a gun to blind fire and take someone out is insanely satisfying. Espire 1 is full of supremely satisfying moments of VR interaction that end up making you feel like a supremely creative spy genius.

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In non-VR stealth games I often find myself wondering what the game designers intended for me to do in situations, but in Espire 1 I find myself wondering what I actually want to do. Given how open-ended these levels are, with powerful climbing and physically interactive sneaking, it’s pretty liberating.

Comfort

From a comfort perspective, Espire 1 is incredibly innovative. It’s got the usual options for snap vs. smooth turning and all that comes with that. You’ve also always got a small visor that changes colors based on guard alertness that helps limit discomfort at all times, but the innovation is in the “Cotnrol Theater” option. Using this mode, when you move you can enable a vignette that blocks the edges of your vision with a transparent visor. Better yet, there are a litany of options that let you tweak and adjust the position and sensitivity, making this one of the few smooth movement only VR games that pretty much anyone should be able to enjoy no problem. You can also adjust where items are located on your body to get the placement just right and even play seated if you want.

Even though the campaign is a bit brief to get through once, this is a game truly designed to be replayed in various ways. Going back to missions using new weapons you’ve unlocked, new abilities, and more to finish it faster, more efficiently, or without killing anyone is seriously challenging. The leaderboard function fosters competition and being able to unlock cheats makes side objectives actually worth pursuing.

On top of all that are an assortment of challenge maps that task you with smaller maps targeted at testing your stealth, climbing, combat, and more. When you add up the amount of time it would take to get through all of the challenge maps that easily adds on a few more hours to the amount of content assuming you play each scenario and mission only once — which is certainly the bare minimum. Given the overall polish, excellent visuals, and high degree of polish it feels like a very feature-complete adventure with tons of room for iteration and improvement if Digital Lode is able to work on a sequel.

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Espire 1: VR Operative Review Final Verdict

Espire 1: VR Operative is unquestionably the best expression of the stealth action genre we’ve seen in VR yet. The small touches of polish go a long way towards selling the immersion and opening your mind to the creativity on display to complete missions, while the inventive VR-focused mechanics make it a pleasure to play actively in a roomscale space. While a larger budget, more time, and overall more resources could have elevated Espire 1: VR Operative to the status of being a landmark VR game that pushes the boundaries and redefines the genre even further, it’s still extremely good and certainly worth playing.

This review was conducted on a Rift S playing the Oculus Home PC version of the game. We were not able to test the Quest or PSVR versions prior to the review embargo, but have played the Quest version previously.


Final Score: :star: :star: :star: :star: 4/5 Stars | Really Good

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Espire 1: VR Operative releases on November 22nd for the Rift platform via Oculus Home, Steam for SteamVR headsets, Oculus Quest, and PSVR at a price point of $29.99 and will be a cross-buy title between Rift and Quest on Oculus Home.

This review was conducted on a Rift S playing the Oculus Home PC version of the game. You can read more about the new five-star scoring policy here.



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