For better or worse, so far Konami has shown zero interest in bringing its long and storied Metal Gear series to VR. But if you’re looking to scratch that stealth combat itch with more than a flair for superhuman acrobatics, you may find Espire 1: VR Operative a serviceable Generic Snake, albeit a bit rougher around the edges than you may like.
Espire 1: VR Operative Details:
Developer: Digital Lode
Publisher: Tripwire Interactive
Available On: Steam (Vive, Rift, Index, Windows MR), Oculus (Rift, Quest), PlayStation Store (PSVR)
Reviewed On: Rift, Vive
Release Date: November 22nd, 2019
Espire 1 offers up a pretty standard story that fits in the same basic vein as many entrants in the Metal Gear franchise; there’s a terrorist group, superhuman agents, infiltration of opaque national intelligence agencies, and plenty of talking heads that radio in to give you constant guidance and objectives along your stealthy way—that’s of course in addition to the game’s trope of puppeting a military-grade telepresence robot, of which there is ample supply stashed at various points throughout the game, making death an inconvenience, and not a total showstopper.
Robot-stuff notwithstanding, you should feel right at home dispatching the faceless, nameless baddies with a variety of weapons, some silent, while others announce your presence to the world. It’s your job to slink around, avoid security cameras, defuse trip mines, crawl through conveniently placed air ducts, you know, spy stuff.
Shooting is predictably a big part of Espire 1, and it’s a pretty unforgiving experience; you don’t simply line up the dot in your red dot scope or your green glow sights and blast away. I mean, you can totally do that, but there’s actually significant recoil applied to your gun after every shot. That’s not to say it’s inherently a bad thing, although it does make your rely on a few other tricks at your disposal so you aren’t wasting an entire magazine on a single guy, namely your ability to temporarily go into bullet time. Not only does it slow down time, but it also smooths out your hand movements so you can get a better, more focused shot when it counts the most. Reloading is done by jamming your gun down onto an available magazine sticking out of your hostler, which is less fiddly than it sounds.
You can also use what’s called ‘Espire Vision’, which highlights in the vicinity all enemies, objectives, and traps like auto-turrets and laser mines. This feels a bit cheaty to be honest, but I can see why it exists; it eliminates some of the frustration of coming around a corner with your pants down. There’s also a tossable camera that you can throw around corners, which is actually an even cooler idea in practice, but I found myself more readily abusing Espire Vision instead simply because of how easy it was, and how regularly I was allowed to use it. Espire Vision, repairing, bullet time (more on that in a bit), and stunning guards with the repair tool all takes energy, which auto-refills over time.
There are genuine moments in the beginning when you’re scared stiff of being caught, as you slink around corners and hope the guards aren’t alerted to your presence. I’m not the most stealthy of players though, and I only died once throughout the campaign, which lasted a little under six hours for a single play-through (end game content prolongs this substantially, but more on that below). That’s true even near the end, where you encounter heavies that take multiple shots to kill, and a few baddies with active camouflage that require you to use your Espire Vision—one of the few times when you actually have to use it outside of detecting otherwise unseen laser mines.
I didn’t die that many times because it’s super easy to fix yourself with your repair tool, and you also seem to have a pretty large number of hitpoints available to you. Juice is infinite too, and while it takes its time regenerating, you can easily wait it out by ducking into an air shaft or in a quiet place behind a box. Repairing is done by touching the device to a number of holographic orbs placed in front of you. Why? Because you’re a robot in the future and you should stop trying to make sense of things, that’s why (apparently).
Like the Hitman series, you don’t necessarily need to be a silent killer to pass any of the game’s missions, although your score will take a major hit as you’re expensed for every bullet, gun, death, etc. The less Rambo-like you are, the less money you’ll spend, and the more cheats you’ll unlock for end game fun. I would have liked to see a higher level of difficulty here in place of the unlockables, which include cheats and starting weapons. There isn’t any difficulty levels to speak of too, only progressively harder objectives to fulfill such as freeing all hostages under a minute, or using your repair weapon to knock out all the guards in a level. That’s up to you though.
There are a few real sore spots in Espire 1, the most egregious of which is melee. It’s rough, and I never once felt like I actually intentionally landed a punch on a bad guy after running out of bullets. When you get too close to an enemy, their character animation magically teleports them a meter away from you, which feels wrong on so many levels. You can also technically “hold up” bad guys by snatching their weapon from their hands, but this is really hit and miss unless you’re using bullet time, and even then it’s not a sure thing due to the aforementioned animation fuckery.
AI is also painfully dumb, and going undetected whilst walking in front of a guard only 20-feet away is laughably easy. It’s unclear what they can see, and where their field of vision ends, so you’re basically just guessing and hoping they don’t see you as they robotically walk their planned loops. Make not mistake: I’m not hating on planned loops here. After all, that’s a well-established feature of the genre.
That said, it’s still really fun to climb a wall, sneak over and stun a bad guy, or alternatively launch yourself through the air, engage bullet time, and line up a few choice shots to take out multiple targets, all while having zero auto-aim at your disposal for maximum self-pats on the back. All of this just nearly makes up for some of the unsightliness of dumb AI.
Once all is said and done, you can do a few cool things with Espire 1 to keep the fun going. You accumulate unlockable cheats by fulfilling extra objectives during the campaign, which changes up the feel by giving you things like invincibility, invisibility, a one-shot golden gun, etc. You won’t be able to save that progress though, or get on the leader boards, but unless you’re really a points-chaser, you probably won’t care about the leader board anyway. I certainly don’t. But you might, and if you do, there’s plenty of opportunity here.
Not only that, there are challenges too, which are apart from the campaign. Here you’ll be able to hone your stealth, combat, and various objective-focused things.
Level design is actually one of the real high points to Espire 1. While the game’s multilayered levels offer admittedly contrived, conveniently person-size air ducts, they play an important role in filling a melange of attack vectors, be it through an air duct, overhead by way of pipeworks, through easier side routes, or straight down the middle through a gang of guards. It’s really up to you, and this makes me actually think about where to go and what to do next as opposed to dumbly following orders and waypoints to my next bullet sponge. Ok, enemies are bullet sponges, and I would have liked at least more than a single boss to fight, but you catch my drift. Anway, I like it when games don’t hold your hands and simultaneously offering help—not forcing it upon you—when you need it most.
It’s easy to get lost in the sprawling government facility throughout the game’s six missions, and there’s a degree of backtracking that you have to do too, although I was happy to see that Espire 1 avoids the temptation of simply giving you a map and floating objectives, which would otherwise make it feel a little more flimsy, and a little more hand-holdy. You can however toss your repair device on the ground to give you a line to your next objective if you do find yourself in a tight spot, however your omnipresent mission buddies will always give you some sort of clue as to where to go to next.
That said, voice acting is particularly good, but the rate at which the game launches the same lines at you over and over really makes me want to turn off audio completely. The cutesy teenage Japanese girl voice goes from interesting to downright unbearable as you’re fed the same prompting dialogue, something that magnifies in the game’s challenge portion. The same goes for whenever you’re hurt, as your served up a barrage of the same shrill lines about heading for covers and healing. Here, I would have liked to be left to my own devices, and the game definitely steps on some toes by insinuating I can’t see the plainly visible health meter.
Visually the game is fairly dark, drab, and doesn’t offer a bunch in variability when it comes to the environment, but it seems to be cohesive enough graphically.
Positional audio is less-than-alright however, as solid structures don’t occlude sound in the slightest, so you can constantly hear enemies prattling away to themselves behind massive concrete slabs, or sometimes entire floors of a building, which forces you to use Espire Vision to confirm they are indeed not walking on top of your head, or sticking their heads into your armpits.
Climbing is a missed opportunity due to it lack of haptic feedback the transience of the world’s geometry (i.e. you have ghost hands). There’s a slight audio cue when your hand touches a grabbable surface which is typically metal, but your hands can pass through geometry with zero haptic feedback to help you understand where you can climb and where you can’t, making the world feel like a less solid place in general. Climbing involves guesswork, and that’s not great.
Espire 1 also features voice commands, but not only will you feel silly shouting ‘Freeze’ at an enemy, but I found it didn’t work all the time, so I basically just forgot about them.
If you’re looking for maximum movement, you’ll eventually find yourself swinging through the air like Spider-Man. Although you can take it easy by climbing one hand at a time, flinging youself around isn’t only more efficient, but it’s actively encouraged during timed events. Of course, this level of unpredictable movement can cause discomfort in some users.
If you’re planning on going full ham on being Spider-Man, you may want to use the game’s ‘Control Theatre’, which applies a grid around your field of view that creeps in every time you turn or move. I turned this off in the settings immediately, but it is a tried and true method for keeping the player more grounded, as it eliminates movement in your peripheral, something that typically triggers discomfort in sensitive users.
Variable snap-turn is also available, but you can just as easily forget it if you have an inside-out tracked headset, as you can simply move forward with the stick/touchpad forward movement scheme. Nope, no smooth motion turning here, but you shouldn’t need it if you aren’t on an OG Rift CV1 or a PSVR.
There’s also no teleportation, which is demonstrably the most comfortable (read: not most immersive) way of moving around. That may be for the best of things, as you’ll want to move quickly and fluidly when shit hits the fan.