Many years ago I would have considered the Metal Gear franchise my absolute favorite. But that was a long time ago. How long ago, you ask? Well, I’ve been playing Metal Gear since Snake was 8-bit and didn’t eat anything but rations. I didn’t even know what a ration was, but I knew I needed those mysterious round tins, plus I just loved sneaking around. Then a couple of console generations later, Metal Gear Solid hit the OG PlayStation and went legendary. I still consider my first playthrough of that game as one of my fondest gaming memories. And don’t sleep on Splinter Cell. It is a great stealth franchise too. It had all of the cool gadgets and all of the sneaky action with only a fraction of the absurd storylines and cringy dialogue. It’s a genre we don’t see as much anymore and not at all in the VR space. Digital Lode has changed that. Espire 1: VR Operative aims to bring those Solid Snake fantasies to life in honest-to-god virtual reality. That 8-year-old boy who didn’t know what a ration was… consider his mind blown.
I played this on the Quest, but it is a cross-buy, so if you have a VR capable computer and a decent USB C cable, you can play the game tethered with much-improved graphics. I messed around with it on the PC version, and it does look better. The world is sharper and has more detail, as you’d imagine. Especially the weapons. I plan to replay it via the Link cable, but for my first play-through, I made significant use of the Quest’s wireless nature. On more than one occasion, I found myself lying on my stomach, crawling under laser wires, and hiding under tables. You can use a crouch button, and even play seated if you don’t have the room or don’t feel like crawling around, but for me, it’s one of the things that make a VR stealth game sound so exciting.
Much has been made of what Espire 1 does wrong, namely a frustrating AI and unwieldy comfort settings that can be confusing, but I’ll get to those in a minute. First of all, I honestly didn’t expect as much content as I found here. As a VR early adopter, my expectations may be set too low, but either way, the campaign that Digital Lode put together is impressive if we’re measuring it in terms of content. The story isn’t all that original or compelling, but it does enough to keep you going. The dialogue is full of stealth game tropes in terms of both content and delivery. The lady who logs me in at the beginning never asks me if she thinks I could find love on the battlefield, but she could have, and now she’ll never know. Her loss.
You play as a man remotely piloting an Espire unit, which is basically a super-advanced robot built for war. Like Snake, only with circuits where the mullet used to be. As you progress through the levels, you unlock new Espire units with new skills, like the ability to slow time or check for enemy heat signatures in your area. But strangely, you get the best skill at the very beginning. That is you can climb anything metal. It works like most climbing mechanics in VR games only you don’t need to look for ladders. If it’s made of metal, you can climb it, and it turns out unscrupulous architects prefer to build their nefarious spy compounds with about 85% metal because you can climb just about everything in this game.
The climbing mechanic works great. It’s simple to use, with only a slight strange out of body experience when you reach the top of something. Instead of using a canned animation when you reach the peak of whatever you’re climbing, the screen dims, you make a funny noise and suddenly you’re done climbing and standing on the top of the box or railing or whatever you were climbing. I didn’t hate it, but sometimes when I wanted to just peek over the top of something, this sequence would begin before I wanted it to. Small quibbles aside, the ability to climb through the levels added a degree of sneakiness even Snake would envy. You can climb a wall, shimmy along the top, and then fling yourself off and grab a pipe or a railing. It took me a few levels before I remembered to fully utilize the climbing to achieve my goals, but when I did, the game really took off. The developers smartly designed the levels to allow multiple paths to victory, but if you don’t climb around, it’s much harder. Or you can just grab an automatic weapon and blast your way through the levels. I did this a few times, but this always feels like a failed mission when playing a stealth game. But when you do it, the guns feel good.
You’ll start the game with a tranq gun. It’s the perfect sneaky weapon as it’s silent and mostly puts the guards to sleep instantly. Sometimes it didn’t, and at first, I thought that meant I didn’t hit them in the head, meaning the darts would take longer to do the job. But other times, I would hit the guard in the arm and down he would go. So ultimately, I chalked it up to a quirk of the game, of which there are several. Besides the tranq pistol, you have a repair tool and cameras on the back of both hands. You can activate the cameras to peek around corners or even toss them down a hallway to get a better view. The repair tool does a number of things: its primary focus is to repair yourself when you take damage. If the bad guys shoot you, some lady will repeatedly scream at you to find a hiding spot to repair yourself. If you’re hurt, several red nodes will appear when you reach for the repair tool on your chest. Touch the tool to the nodes and press the trigger button until the red nodes shrink and turn blue, eventually disappearing altogether. It’s an interesting mechanic that works pretty well. But that’s not all repair tool does. If you are unsure of where to go or what your mission is, pull the repair tool from your chest and toss it. It will zip back to you, but not before marking a line to your next objective. This mechanic works, although it doesn’t make much sense. Whatever. I used it a ton. It was glitchy and illogical, but useful nonetheless. Those are the two uses of the repair tool that the game takes the time to explain. I found out by accident that the repair tool also disables turrets, laser wires, and even drops unsuspecting guards. That information would have saved me some frustration and maybe kept me from crawling underneath those laser wires. Ah, who am I kidding, I would have crawled underneath them anyway.
I mentioned the repair tool was a bit glitchy, and unfortunately, the glitches didn’t end there. I found several annoying glitches through over five hours of gameplay, but none of them were more than simple annoyances. A few frozen guards and floating guns. The most prevalent glitch shows the controllers transposed over your in-game hands. Not a way to build immersion.
[EDIT: I saw late tonight my Rift version of the game downloading a patch to handle many of the bugs including the Touch controllers showing up in-game. I have not tested that patch as of this writing.]
The biggest problem with Espire 1: VR Operative is the inconsistent guard AI. I saw a lot of people complaining of stupid guards, but I found them to act similar to some of the other stealth games I’ve already mentioned. It wasn’t easy to sneak undetected all the way through a level, even an early level. They were just too inconsistent. Sometimes a guard would see me from a great distance and sometimes they would walk right past me. That is bad enough, but the worst part was when they would see me through a wall. This happened a lot when I was lying down under a table. I can envision my digital foot sticking through a wall and the guards thinking “what the hell!”.
These types of “cheap” deaths or failures are always frustrating, but the core gameplay was good enough for me to deal with these other problems. The menu systems – especially the comfort settings – are confusing and not pretty to look at. The voice activation, including sneaking up to a guard and saying “freeze”, or saying “open console” to initiate the game, is super cool and immersive when they work, but, much like the enemy AI, they only work when they want to.
Despite these issues, I found the smooth movement (even with the blinders all the way off), gun handling, and the climbing so smooth, polished, and fun, that I was able to overlook some of the lack of polish in other facets of the game. It is frustrating, however, that a game with so much refinement in some areas, could misfire so badly on some of the more important stuff. One piece of really cool polish I want to mention is that when you aren’t using the crouch button feature, and you are physically crouching, the run button doesn’t work. But if you’re are pressing the run button while you stand up from a crouch, you start to run as soon as your body reaches its normal height. It’s not groundbreaking, but I thought that really added to the immersion, but it’s those extra levels of detail that make the missteps feel even worse.
On average, it took me almost an hour to complete each level, so for a campaign featuring six levels, plus extra single-player missions, you’ll find plenty here to justify the $30 price tag. Of course, now that I know which paths work for me, the missions could be completed in a fraction of the time. Plus the run-and-gun crowd will blow through the levels much quicker as well. You are scored on how you complete each mission based on how many guards killed or times you were spotted, etc, so aiming for that perfect run will add some replayability.
The bottom line for me is that I had a lot of fun with this game, but there is plenty of room for improvement with Espire 1: VR Operative. The base game is pretty damn good. The problem is if you don’t really like sneaking around, and you don’t hold a special place in your heart for Solid Snake, then the shaky AI doesn’t offer a satisfying straight shooter game. You can play it that way if you choose, but it won’t be nearly as satisfying. In the end, Espire 1 features polish in most of the important areas, like gameplay and level design, but drops the ball in the enemy AI. This Snake isn’t completely Solid, but it’s not limp either.
Espire 1: VR Operative Oculus Quest Review
Overall - Fantastic - 8/10
Espire 1: VR Operative from Digital Lode and Tripwire deliver a fun and full-size campaign full of VR stealth action. If you ever wanted to sneak around a giant compound full of bad guys, knock them out and then hide their bodies under a desk, do I have some good news for you? The climbing brings something new and fun to the table, but the shaky enemy AI keeps the game from truly shining.
- Exciting gameplay inside a full-size campaign
- Numerous comfort settings yet zero motion sickness with them all turned off
- Fun level design with multiple paths to success
- Above-average story with good voice acting
- Enemy AI is all over the place, making some failures seem cheap
- An unmemorable story full of tropes
- Menu system & comfort setting are confusing
- Several annoying (but not game-breaking) glitches
Review Disclaimer: This review was carried out using a copy of the game bought at the expense of the reviewer. For more information, please read our Review Policy.
Reviewed using Oculus Quest and PC via Oculus Link
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Also available on:
PSVR, Oculus Rift, Windows Mixed Reality, HTC Vive, Vive Index
November 22nd, 2019 (All supported platforms)