We first got a glimpse of what to expect from this stealth-oriented VR title back in 2018 through Tripwire Interactive. What was originally expected to be released in September was held back due to performance errors through final testing. The public wasn’t given a beta build to mess with, and preordering fans were left waiting expectantly for the newest title. We weren’t given a sliver of an expected release date window. Thankfully, it only took 2 months to iron out the remaining kinks, and we were graced with the long-awaited ability to finally press download.
You play as an Espire Agent, utilizing the Intelligence Force of Australia’s latest technological leap to Virtual Reality. As you take control of the Espire model 1 from their Control Theatre (think Ready Player One but instead of being hooked up to any wires or haptic suits, your character is in a big empty box). As you progress through the story missions you gain access to three different Espire models that have unique skills. Each mission has you complete an overall objective, the first being to escape the IFA that’s currently under siege by a terrorist organization. The tutorial sets you up nicely for the mechanics and puts you right into the action from the start. Yet overall, the story missions seem significantly less important than the overall experience of playing a serious stealth game. This is when the challenges come into play, and I had more fun with those shorter levels and restricted objectives than anything in the campaign. All that being said, the gameplay, comfort, and immersion all come with their own set of pros and cons.
With the story taking a back seat, the gameplay is what sells the title. As you take control of an Espire model, you are given a variety of tools and avenues of attack that would make both Sam Fisher and Solid Snake proud. The most interesting being the voice control option. Standing behind a guard and yelling “Freeze!” would register in-game and your now hostage would throw their hands up and say something in response. One of the noticeable differences that the devs originally planned was being able to use your voice to attract a guard to your position. In my playthroughs, not a single enemy would be interested in coming to my location if I tried to alert them that way. The only thing that was close to the original intention was commanding the flak jacket terrorists to freeze. If they heard you they’d come find you, and if they found you you’d better have your gun ready.
Interestingly, there are multiple ways to turn a terrorist into your hostage. One is being able to shoot out a guard’s gun from their hand, or simply stealing their weapon. These are great, especially utilizing these moments in a firefight, where you manage to shoot an enemy’s gun from 20 meters away. You have an option for your arsenal as well, ranging from a tranquilizer pistol to a pump-action shotgun, and essentially everything in between. Although you have to search for some weapons through each level, the basic tranquilizer pistol will get you through almost every endeavor. In the likely chance that things go FUBAR for you, there’s always the option to pick up a terrorist’s gun and use it against them.
If killing unaware guards on their predetermined patrols doesn’t do it for you, or the panther/assault-style just isn’t your thing, then you have the option to try to be a ghost. Which I found was the best method of play given how buggy the current build is. The cone of guard vision is inconsistent, being sometimes arcade-y and other times realistic. For example, you’re easily caught when it’s within close-to-medium range, even on the lowest difficulty, but at long range and on the same level you’re effectively invisible to them. For this reason, trying different avenues of attack like prowling the rafters is a lot more difficult than just stalking your target from the ground. A clip of your head while up there at medium range and you’ve got twenty Australian terrorists swarming you and cussing you out. And while it’s fun to play a stealth title that takes the genre a lot more seriously (cue gameplay of Budget Cuts), it’s dejecting when you’re trying to hang on a pole 15 meters up but end up being caught red-handed. The lighting as well feels out of place for a stealth title, as I was being seen by guards without flashlights in pure darkness while I couldn’t see them. One feature that could solve this issue would be a light metering system, so those memorable moments can be accomplished. Otherwise, at least for those who want to take the title less seriously so they can try those arcade-y moments, the ‘Smart AI’ that the developers implemented should be dumbed down, and leave the higher difficulty for those who prefer the realism.
One ingenious implementation by the devs is the deployable camera. Its small body lets it go unnoticed while you’re viewing a live feed of the video on your HUD. It’s also ambidextrous, with it being deployable from either hand. Simply pull the trigger on one hand, and grab it with the other and it’ll stick to almost anything it lands on. As long as you’re holding that trigger you’ll maintain that live feed. One forgiving design is the fact that you can use as many of the little things as you want. The 360* capability is controlled with the direction of your hand, and you’re also given 3x optical zoom, a scanning ability, and a noisemaker attachment. The noisemaker, however, is highly inconsistent, and only sometimes alerted guards. When pressed I found it wouldn’t emit any noise that I could hear, and I’d have to rely on throwing a magazine or something else to distract them. Occasionally even doing that would warrant the same result, so as of writing it appears that player-made sound is highly buggy in the current state. Nonetheless, the camera makes an effective tool for ghost-style players and is a welcome addition that is always with an Espire model even if you spawn with nothing else.
When you’re damaged by an enemy, you can take the time to find cover and heal up. To utilize the gadget you need to have enough charge to repair the damaged red orbs on your HUD. With this, it’s very easy to stay alive with both the gadget and the fact that all Espire models have a huge health bar. I welcome this gadget, as it keeps you in the game and helps you finish the toughest of levels.
You’re also given both Espire Instinct and Espire Vision, which become available as you progress through the game. These both come at a cost however, requiring your suit be charged up enough to activate. Espire Instinct allows you to slow downtime, and makes for fantastic moments when taking out a group of terrorists. Just press that button and with a few trigger pulls you’ve cleared the way in only seconds. Just don’t mess up your shots, as you’ve also got to deal with the bullets/darts being projectiles instead of hitscans, and a moving target is a lot harder to deal with (albeit a bit easier in slow-motion). If you’re sneaking through and get caught by a terrorist, as long as you have full charge your Espire model will activate Instinct just so you’re given enough time to kill them before they radio in the whole base. With Espire Vision, you’re able to see better in darkness, find enemies through walls, and see lasers. Although Instinct requires a small charge to activate, Vision requires the whole bar to be full before you can use it. While waiting to use it does slow down gameplay, especially since it’s essentially required in darkness, it’s a lot of fun to use when you can, and is a welcome addition to a VR stealth game.
Next on the list is how comfortable the game is for new and old players. I am someone who has had a Vive for a couple of years, so motion sickness was only really apparent for me at the start. One of the neater details the devs implemented for those who suffer from VR motion sickness is the Control Theatre. When standing still, the Control Theatre doesn’t activate, so you can see everything clearly. When in motion, however, the Control Theatre limits your view to a very small yet clear window, while everything outside of that looks like a denser version of the SteamVR chaperone bounds. The devs promise most players won’t feel motion sickness when using it, and if you’re like me and don’t like feeling visually restricted you can always turn it off in the settings.
Movement also felt very fluid, as did climbing. There’s no jump feature so sudden jolts in your vision won’t throw your stomach off either. You’re given the option to run artificial or physical crouching, the former being that you press a button to crouch and the latter is a bit more immersive, allowing for more accessibility to all types of players. Overall, the game should feel extremely easy to play for almost everyone, and for those new to VR, I expect it eases you into motion controls nicely.
A deal-breaker in VR is the lack of immersion. It’s arguably the main reason for refunds and poor user reviews. This title seems to walk the fine line for immersion, as some features tend to feel more dejecting than assisting. One is the visual elements. While I’m not a fan of the Control Theatre, I can easily switch it off in the settings menu. I can’t, however, turn off the peripheral black bars when I physically crouch. While it assists in letting you know that the game recognizes you’re in a crouched position, it also stays locked in your peripheral vision until you stand up, meaning you can’t see squat to your left or right unless you actively look. This, in turn, affects gameplay experience, as when you’re stalking a target you can easily lock yourself onto them and forget to look around. Additionally, given that most VR headsets already give a small field of view, limiting that vision even further is frustrating. Many times that resulted in me being found out on a stealth playthrough, and then I have to go back into hiding and try all over again. It would be better suited to have a HUD change, like slight vignetting, to inform you that you’re currently crouched.
The game is also very dark in some areas, and very bright in others. It’s just plain hard to see when you’re in a bright environment looking into the darkness. And the darkness doesn’t play much of a role since you can be seen in it by an enemy without a torch. Again, a light metering system would solve that, but to solve the disparity between the light and dark the player needs night vision goggles. While Espire Vision does somewhat help, it has limited assistance in darkness and doesn’t last for very long. Overall, it detracts from being able to use the darkness effectively, and for a stealth game, darkness is one of the most important features for the player.
As stated before, there’s a decent amount of inconsistency with the enemy’s vision. At points, I’m crouched behind cover and a small bit of the Espire model’s head is showing, leading to me being found or searched for. If I’m up near the ceiling, an enemy shouldn’t be able to see me way above them. It seems like the enemy’s cone of vision is way too large for what they should have. It’s detracting how easy it is to be seen, and I’m having to always be aware of how large the Espire unit’s body is, then take that into account to maintain stealth while being on the lookout for guards. It’s clumsy and frustrating how hard maintaining stealth is while on the move, even on the lowest difficulty.
I also found that the game found it difficult to recognize when I was attempting to physically knock out an enemy. At some points, it would register the damage as it should, at other times my hand was going right through their head. Only when your fist is closed can you cause significant damage, so you can’t Judo Chop a terrorist if you want to. Hitting a terrorist in the head with a weapon would only mildly hurt them, and really just infuriate them. It doesn’t make much sense to change the damage levels like that depending on what you are and aren’t carrying.
All that being said, it’s not completely immersion-breaking. I did enjoy the freedom of choice, albeit more in the confined challenge maps over the story maps, and with all the gameplay mechanics available it’s completely possible to avoid all of them by playing highly stealthy and very slowly. My favorite panther-style doesn’t suit the title as much as playing as a ghost would, but if you were to play as such then the enemy vision and lighting issues wouldn’t be as much of a problem since you would be utilizing your available gadgets more effectively.
While the game has its fair share of issues that need to be worked on, I have had plenty of hours of fun sneaking up like Sam Fisher, making hostages, and having a blast clearing out rooms of hostiles in slow motion. While it’s far too easy to get caught, it’s also very easy to hide until things die down. When a deep-voiced Aussie is yelling at you that they’re going to find and kill you, it’s heart-pounding to try to get them before they get you, and incredibly satisfying when you finally do. The many gadgets and weapons that you’re encouraged to use are seriously fun and give rise to all types of playstyles. Playing a title that takes the VR stealth-genre seriously is very refreshing, and opens doors to show other developers that it’s worthwhile to fill out the genre. It’s tough, and the story isn’t very interesting, but it’s made up in the Metal Gear Solid inspired challenges that have you test every feature in the game so you’re not without experience. If it’s not only those challenges, it’s the unique gameplay mechanics that have you wanting more by the end of it. Yet, with its glaring bugs and feeling more so like a demo, it’s a game that falls short of the mark of being crowned King of all current VR stealth titles. It’s one of the better available titles, but not the best we’ve got.
Espire 1: VR Operative
Espire 1: VR Operative is good for those new to VR wanting to experience what the platform has to offer without getting easily motion sick. But for those wanting to play a serious stealth title with incredible gameplay mechanics, the unmistakable bugs and annoying enemies may make you want to put down the controllers.