If you're a fan of Splinter Cell or Metal Gear Solid, our description of Digital Lode's Espire 1: VR Operative will most likely be enough to heat up that credit card in your wallet and send an urge to play the game deep into your brain. For VR enthusiasts, this rings even truer as the stealth genre hasn't really been a big part of the VR phenomenon despite its potential on that front. Espire 1: VR operative lets you climb like Sam Fisher and say 'freeze' as Solid Snake in an Australian-based story of mysterious terrorists and shady government initiatives. The game is the debut title of Australian studio Digital Lode and while the studio's size and lack of experience are most definitely noticeable, the game also has some interesting ideas that take VR in new directions.
The most exciting aspect of Espire 1 is the fact that it gives the player free movement in a VR environment and even goes a step further than similar games by letting you climb on virtually all pipes, beams and cables. The only obstacles you can't climb are the completely smooth walls. The free movement opens up otherwise linear paths and demands you to bring your observational A-game. There are usually more paths to your goal than the most direct one. Espire 1 (naturally) falls back on the ubiquitous ventilation shafts found in stealth games, but it's more fun to climb over enemies by utilising the excellent and flexible climbing system.
Thus, stealth in Espire 1 is very much about route selection and timing, especially since you don't have many gadgets to use to your advantage. The ones you do have are primarily useful in orientation. The 'espire vision' lets you see enemies, cameras and useful objects through walls and the cameras in your hands let you peek around corners. In addition, you have the opportunity to slow time down, which comes in handy during combat situations as well as when navigating and puzzle-solving. However, the modest range of gadgets doesn't feel particularly restrictive. VR is an excellent format for more physically oriented gameplay so it makes sense that Digital Lode focused its skill and budget on that instead of spreading its resources too thin.
While the game is successful in giving you choices about how to tackle the linear trajectories, often because flexible climbing mechanics bring a lot of opportunities, the game struggles to present spaces that are easy to orientate. Had it not been for the multi-tool, which can be thrown to the ground to reveal a way to the goal, we would probably have gotten lost in the many generic and visually consistent hallways and offices of the not-so-exciting government building in which the game is set. The current system actually restricts creativity as we often just chose to follow the suggested route instead of planning our path properly. Of course, you're not forced to use the suggested option, but as mentioned, the level design is often too confusing and visually muddled to make the process satisfactory.
Although Espire 1: VR Operative is primarily designed to be a stealth game, we appreciated how satisfying it was to let the bullets do the talking. The combination of free movement and VR's intuitive way of orienting and aiming does wonders on this front. Accompanied by the excellent climbing system, it creates grand moments. In the second mission of the game, we were being chased by two enemies who were one floor below us on an open staircase. When they were getting close, we grabbed the railing, lifted ourselves over it and landed on the floor below. By the time our pursuers had registered what had happened, we had already turned around and emptied half a magazine into their backs. At other times, however, the hopeless AI ruin the experience, such as when we noticed enemy after enemy running down the same path to us only to create a bottleneck horde in which they all got stuck.
The game's AI is most definitely its Achilles heel. The enemies alternate between being extremely aware of your presence and completely blind to their surroundings. It creates uncertainty regarding what you can actually allow yourself to do without being discovered, which is rather frustrating in a stealth game. To add to the problem, the checkpoint system is a bit stingy. The combination of these aspects makes experimental gameplay feel daunting, which is a shame in a stealth game where it's fun to try out different approaches to solving one's problems.
The story, dialogue and voice acting in the game aren't that great either. The plot deals with an unknown group of soldiers who have occupied a secret government building. As an agent, you remote control various Espire robots to find out what their motives are. The result of this makes the game feel like a badly-written Metal Gear Solid fan fiction piece. The flat voice acting doesn't do much to elevate the experience and the same can be said about the exchanges between characters, which become involuntarily comical. Imagine, for example, your scientist sidekick yelling out "Oh shit, here it comes - the fuckening!" without a hint of self-irony in his voice. Yeah, it's bad.
In addition to the six extensive missions that the story offers, Espire 1: VR Operative also contains 22 minor challenges in a simulated environment (and the Metal Gear Solid inspiration makes itself known once again). These include pure combat simulations, challenges that have you sneak up to enemies and say "freeze", and climbing challenges.
In regards to comfort, we should mention that we were having a hard time when starting the game up for the first time, which is probably due to the free movement in first-person. Fortunately, the game gives you plenty of options to tinker with and we managed to minimise the issues to an acceptable level.
It's always nice to see developers trying something new and different and Digital Lode's ambition to make a Metal Gear Solid-inspired stealth game in VR is commendable. The climbing system is excellent and the opportunity to play things your way is greatly appreciated. That said, however, Espire 1: VR Operative has too many issues for us to recommend it at this point in time. We can look past the generic story and the flat presentation, but the dull surroundings and confusing level design is just too distracting. The biggest flaw of the game, however, is the utterly hopeless AI that makes things unpredictable in the worst way, breaking immersion again and again. We realise that Digital Lode is a small studio with limited resources, but it's important for the studio to know its limitations and choose the scope of the game accordingly. Digital Lode has aimed too high for sure, but the team also has plenty of interesting ideas that we'd like to see them (or other developers) explore more in the future.
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