Espire 1: VR Operative

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Tripwire Interactive
Developer: Digital Lode
Release Date: Nov. 22, 2019

About Tony "OUberLord" Mitera

I've been entrenched in the world of game reviews for almost a decade, and I've been playing them for even longer. I'm primarily a PC gamer, though I own and play pretty much all modern platforms. When I'm not shooting up the place in the online arena, I can be found working in the IT field, which has just as many computers but far less shooting. Usually.


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PC VR Review - 'Espire 1: VR Operative'

by Tony "OUberLord" Mitera on Oct. 7, 2020 @ 1:00 a.m. PDT

In Espire 1: VR Operative you become Espire Agents and use cutting edge Virtual Reality hardware to remote-operate the Espire model 1 drone from the safety of their Control Theatre.

In 2019, I did not have a VR headset for a variety of reasons. A big one was that it did not seem like there were enough appealing games to warrant jumping into the entry price of a headset. I had the chance to play Espire 1: VR Operative at E3 2019, and at the time, it blew me away. Not only did the game get one of our awards for one of the best things we saw at that show, but it also received an equally impressive award: It made me buy a VR headset.

The easy way to describe the game — and I have used this often — is to tell people that it is basically Metal Gear Solid in virtual reality. That conveys the idea, but it also sells the game short. There is plenty of sneaking around and knocking out guards, but the title does a lot to tweak that formula to utilize VR well. Chief among them is the game's ability to intertwine its own premise into why you are using VR in the first place.

In the game, you play as a nameless agent who pilots an Espire Model 1 Operative through virtual reality. It is a neat but subtle nod that doesn't ask you to believe that you are the robot; it instead reinforces at a few points that you are remotely piloting it. With that in mind, it also helps ease some of the inherent wonkiness that can come in VR gameplay; since you're remotely piloting that operative robot, you wouldn't feel your arm brush up against that stack of pallets.

The facility that developed the Espire project is under attack and under lockdown. Everyone inside is either dead or captured, and a paramilitary force controls every room of the facility. No one can get in or out, but since you are elsewhere, you are able to connect to and control of one of the robots. Through the game's six lengthy missions, it is up to you to thwart the enemy's plans and regain control of the facility.

Six does not sound like a large number, but on your first playthrough, each mission can take 30-60 minutes to complete. Levels are sprawling affairs, complete with airlock-style connecting rooms that separate large chunks of the overall map. Passing through an airlock saves your game, so you do not have to complete an entire level in one sitting. This is obviously useful for people who have varied amounts of time that they can spend in VR before they needing to take a break.

That isn't the only feature in Espire 1 to provide comfort. The Control Theatre feature masks the edges of your vision with a semi-transparent grid pattern as you turn or move in ways that tend to cause discomfort. The extent to which it does so is somewhat based on how quickly you are moving. You can also change the strength of the feature or turn it off. I personally don't tend to suffer as much in VR, so I can't vouch for the true effectiveness of the feature, but I did notice that on its weakest setting, the game went from "I could probably play an hour or two" to "I could play this for hours on end."

You can also activate snap turning, but I found that the game feels like it is made to be played with free motion if the player is comfortable with it. The gameplay doesn't suffer from snap turning, but you feel a lot more immersed when it comes to sneaking around and peering around corners when you don't feel quite so … well, robotic. It is important to tailor the player's experience to what makes you feel the most comfortable, since that will better allow you to do some of the cooler things in Espire 1.

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the game is a corridor-shooter with some sneaking elements. It's a perfectly viable tactic to crouch down in a hallway and sneak by when the enemies aren't looking, but it's usually far from the only possibility. The Model 1 can climb a variety of surfaces, so it is almost always a good idea to look up and around. Climb up a metal pillar in the corner to reach a suspended framework near the ceiling as another way to traverse the room.

The climbing mechanic needs to be called out for being exceptionally well done. You're controlling a billion-dollar robot, so of course, the act of climbing is effortless. You use an empty hand to grab onto a wall and pull in the direction you wish to travel. If you have both hands free, you can alternate hands to climb in any direction, hand over hand across rails, or even while hanging under something. If you move your hand(s) quickly and release your grip, you can launch yourself in a direction; it takes skill to get right, but it can further increase your mobility.

As you navigate the level, you will slide open vent doors and skulk onto perches high above the enemy, but as a Model 1, you have other stealthy options. With an empty hand, you can "grab" onto the temple of your head to turn on Espire Vision, which lets you see enemies, traps and turrets as glowing holograms — even through walls. This mode depletes your energy level, but that same energy regenerates when not actively in use, so you can use it often to scout ahead.

You also have cameras built into the Model 1's hands, and the cameras can be used in two different ways. If you are behind cover, you can move an empty hand around or above the cover and engage the camera by pulling the controller trigger, which shows the camera's view. You can also engage the camera, use the other hand to throw it at any surface, so you can see from that vantage point. In either case, you can point the camera at enemies to tag them in your main vision, allowing you to keep track of their positions even when you're not using Espire Vision.

You can sneak up on guards and yell "Freeze!" in real life — or push a button if your spouse is tired of hearing you randomly yelling in the basement. This causes them to drop their weapon and put their hands up, at which point you can dispatch them or punch them in the back of the head to knock them out. Admittedly, punching a guard feels unsatisfying, but it does knock them out and allows you to grab and drag their body to hide it from other patrolling guards.

Eventually, you are going to be spotted or perhaps you'll want to throw stealth to the wind. You can hold a weapon in each hand, store a handgun on either side of the hip, and keep a long weapon across your chest. To equip them, you simply grab at that location, and to store them, you hold a compatible weapon near the area and release your grip. It all functions like magnets, and since you are using a fancy robot, it might be a canonical excuse as well. It is the same reason that you can grab a gun on the floor from a couple of feet away — it's probably for player convenience, but it's also because of shadow agency super magnets, right?

I am not sure there is a similar technological hand-wave to explain the slow-motion mode that you can engage at will, but I am not going to complain about it. Using your energy reserve, you can temporarily slow down time, allowing you crucial seconds to draw a weapon and take out a guard who has spotted you before he can yell for backup. You can use that time to grab an ammunition magazine from your belt and throw it to direct an unwary guard's attention elsewhere. It also means you can use it to do awesome things like drop down from the rafters (no fall damage to worry about) and rattle off some slow-motion headshots on the way down.

There is no aim assist, so your shots must be lined up by looking down the weapon's sights. All long weapons can be used with just one hand, but to minimize recoil and more easily look through the sight, it is best to use your other hand on the forward grip of the weapon. The only exception is the SMG; sure, there is a forward grip, but we both know that you are going to use an SMG in each hand and go ham anyway. There is no shame in it, and there is something to be said about spraying a room with a barrage of akimbo automatic fire.

The game is scored based on your performance; stealthily navigating the level while keeping your body count to a minimum gets you the highest score, which earns you bragging rights and more cheats. However, the game never forces you to play in a specific way, and you can always choose whatever seems to be the most fun for you.

Personally, there are times when I want to sneak around and leave little of my presence. Other times, I am going to enter a room leveling a shotgun in each hand, firing each and dropping them to use the assault rifle from my chest instead. There is nothing stopping you from playing your way, and even if you decide that means playing as a cross between the Terminator and John Wick, Espire 1 isn't going to chastise you for a lack of discretion.

That is not to say that the game always makes you feel like some sort of expert assassin. On a Rift S, I sometimes couldn't work the slide of a shotgun, to the point that I may as well discard the weapon in favor of something else. Later in the game, you encounter enemies that are permanently cloaked and can only be seen while in Espire Vision, which slows down the gameplay as you repeatedly stop to wait for your energy to recharge. A point could be made that you can simply avoid the enemies, but should you alert them, it becomes a frustrating firefight.

There are other nagging issues here and there. You may really like the idea of using a silenced pistol to keep another hand free, or the tranquilizer handgun to keep fatalities down, only to find that handgun ammo is an incredibly rare resource. Your progress in the main story mode, where time is critical, is literally halted at one point until you complete some of the missions in challenge mode. Finally, using the hand cameras is only useful once you watch a YouTube video on how to use them, since the game does not explain them, and their controls are not terribly intuitive.

I call those "nagging" issues because they don't diminish the game much. I did not like how the game made me do some challenges, but they turned out to be a blast. Some challenges are to clear enemies as quickly as possible, others are about saving hostages, and there are a few other types, such as trying to navigate a level in the fastest way. The start of one particular challenge has you standing at the end of a hallway and an enemy is about to train his rifle on you, but on a box ahead of you are two 9mm handguns; you just hit slow motion, grab the guns, and start acting like the game was directed by John Woo.

Espire 1: VR Operative is not a mechanically perfect game. Sometimes, the controls can feel a little clumsy in the way that many VR games tend to do, and I wish you could find more handgun ammo to make that class of weapons more useful. With so many VR titles that feel like glorified tech demos Espire 1: VR Operative has some real meat to it, and for most of your time in the game, you will feel like some sort of shadowy, robotic badass. Use all of the mobility and stealth at your disposal, and you will find that Espire 1 sets a pretty high bar for what a VR game can be.

Score: 9.4/10

Reviewed on: AMD Ryzen 7 3700X, 32 GB RAM, NVidia GTX 2070 Super, Oculus Rift S

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