Last month’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) featured not one but two virtual reality (VR) stealth experiences. One was nDream’s kayak themed title Phantom: Covert Ops and the other was a far more traditional style stealth adventure called Espire 1: VR Operative. Created by Australian developer Digital Lode and being published by Killing Floor: Incursion studio Tripwire Interactive, it’s fair to say Espire 1: VR Operative could be one of the standout summer releases.
Espire 1: VR Operative is set in a futuristic world where you play an Espire agent tasked with infiltrating some facility or another type of base. What’s important (and the hook as such) is that you’re not physically there, you’re controlling and Espire model 1 robot, which means you can perform all sorts of non-human stunts and acrobatics, climbing vertical surfaces, leaping vast distances and other cool moves.
As is fairly common with stealth experiences you can choose to be ultra-sneaky and stick to the shadows or throw caution to the wind and kill everyone in sight. Espire 1: VR Operative does encourage the former as the initial loadout for the demo featured a dart gun to put enemies to sleep. They can then be moved to ensure other guards aren’t alerted to your presence. It’s hard not to compare Espire 1: VR Operative to Splinter Cell in many respects, which is no bad thing.
Secondly, you’re given plenty of options when it comes to progressing through the level in a stealth-like manner. Stay low and slick between cover, shimmy up a wall and stay high jumping across any suitable environmental object. Fall down or alert a guard in any way then be ready for a firefight, as an area can soon be flooded with armed guards. Should the Espire drone become holier than Swiss cheese there’s no need to worry, you’ll respawn in the closest new model.
However, that does need to be avoided as best possible due to other mechanics Digital Lode has employed. You might be a highly skilled government agent yet costs are always a factor and Espire drones are expensive, so at the end of each level, you’ll be given a score. Cost the government too much cash and the overall score will be low. Other abilities can also affect this cost value, such as Espire Vision, which lets you detect enemies using sonar. It’s an interesting feature for adding replayability, and ideal for VR arcades as well.
One of the main elements of Espire 1: VR Operative is the ‘Control Theatre’ mechanic. Digital Lode has been talking about this since the title’s first reveal last year, designed to ensure locomotion comfort as best as possible for most players. It works in tandem with the storyline. As you play a remote Espire drone operator you control the robot from a sort of Holodeck. So when any sort of movement occurs a vignette effect takes place, revealing the Holodeck location instead of blackness, with the videogame world shrunk into a small window. The effect looks quite helpful yet these features are quite difficult to test when VR no longer causes nausea. For those that are comfortable running around in VR, the option can be turned off.
Demoing Espire 1: VR Operative on the Oculus Rift S the visual quality of the title was definitely up there with some of the best examples VR action games. The experience will also be coming to Oculus Quest which was also available to test. As with most Oculus Rift compatible videogames on Quest, the main difference is the visuals. There’s a noticeable drop in texture and detail definition but that’s to be expected. So long as this is the biggest disparity between the two then Digital Lode will have done well.
As a single-player VR experience Espire 1: VR Operative needs two aspects to keep players engrossed, an entertaining storyline and variety of gameplay. VRFocus can’t comment on the former at present. The latter, on the other hand, looks like it has plenty of potential. Hopefully the final version of Espire 1: VR Operative won’t turn out to be a generic shooter, rather a sneaky hit.