Espire 1: VR Operative Review: Metal Gear (Not Very) Solid

Espire 1 tries to capture what makes stealth games so special, but doesn't quite hit the mark.

Espire 1: VR Operative is an attempt by developer Digital Lode to recreate the experience of a stealth action game in virtual reality. Throughout a series of covert missions, you'll be able to peak around corners, distract guards with noise, sneak attack them, read their heat signatures for positional awareness, and even shout, "FREEZE!" at them through your microphone. While Espire 1 does deliver an environment where emergent and quintessentially stealth-game happenings can occur, the inconsistent controls, buggy enemies, and drab visuals prevent Espire 1 from living up to the examples set by Solid Snake and Sam Fisher.

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Identity Crisis

In Espire 1, you play as an operative that is able to control an army of killer robots through 1:1 motion inside his own VR chamber. A lot of VR games seems to include this degree of separation from the player character. In Asgard's Wrath, you play a god who is possessing a hero, and in Super Hot VR, you play a guy in a virtual reality game. Sometimes, this comes across as a narrative buffer to help the player cope with the uncanny feeling they are not themselves. Perhaps the player will be less inclined to to cower in existential terror when their hand passes through a door they're trying to open if they understand that the character is not really in their own body either. I don't know, but it's a theme I've noticed that is starting to feel like an apology from the developers for the limitations of the game.

Espire is doing all of the stealth things, mechanically speaking, and even has fresh ones to add to the genre. By squeezing the triggers while empty handed you can project a camera from either hand, useful for looking around corners or above where you're standing. The cameras can also be thrown at walls and ceilings to give yourself a live feed of a hallway to better track your enemies. It's pretty damn cool, or at least it would be, if more often than not the enemies you see through the camera weren't floating along their path without moving their legs like you just slipped into a new Fatal Frame.

A lot of the experience of playing the game is like this. Cool moments soured by laughably silly bugs and frustrating malfunctions. Healing yourself with your repair tool only works about half the time, enemies are sometimes totally invincible during specific animations, and weapons that drop when you take down a bad guy sometimes can't be used, for whatever reason.

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You also don't have the collection of gadgets and tools you would have in other stealth games. You can scan areas, stun people, and even slow down time for precision shots, but you don't have Snake's box for sneaking or Sam Fisher's sticky traps. You can't hide bodies in lockers or drop dirty magazines to distract guards (you can throw a magazine to get their attention though). You can't even jump. There's a technique that involves grabbing a wall, slowing down time, and then flinging yourself down a hallway or on top of a wall, but I could never really get the hang of it and the mobility always felt pretty clunky.

The Level Design Isn't Doing It Any Favors, Either

There are plenty of vents to sneak through and high place to get to for opportunities of attack, but the level design is so sprawling and meandering that I almost never felt like I was in space where I could get my bearings and plan. The most iconic sections of stealth games like Metal Gear Solid, to me, are the levels where you can establish spatial awareness, learn the patrol patterns of your enemies, and then strategically dispose of them until the area is clear.

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Espire 1 doesn't really feel like that. The missions are made up of so many hallways and long treks back and forth that there aren't very many opportunities to explore an area and plan an attack. The scoreboards are based on fastest completion time too. Replayability-wise, you're incentivized to focus on your mobility skills and critical path efficiency over tactical strategy. That play style may be fun (when the bugs aren't actively getting in your way), but as a stealth experience, I found it to be lacking.

Glimpses Of Greatness

I don't think Espire 1 is a total miss. Peaking around the corner to pop a guy with a tranq bullet and watch those sleepy little ZZZs come out of his head is pretty satisfying. There were moments when I was crouched behind cover waiting for an enemy to pass by so I could hold him up, take his gun, and stun him that I thought, "Wow, they really nailed it."

Then I couldn't take the guy's gun, he called for back-up, and while he was using his radio, I couldn't shoot him because he was invincible.

Even as a slo-mo robot that can fling off walls, a stealth game needs some degree of grounded realism so that the player can effectively problem solve. Espire 1's jank gets in the way of the gameplay far too often to be really enjoyable. There's better action shooters in VR certainly, but I guess we'll just have to keep waiting for a good stealth one.

A PC review copy of Espire 1: VR Operative was provided to TheGamer for this review. Espire 1: VR Operative is available now on Valve Index, HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, and Windows Mixed Reality.

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