The stealth genre isn’t one that springs to mind immediately when you think of the kinds of games that would work in VR, but that’s quite unfair. After all, being able to carefully peek around obstacles, line up a headshot or use your arsenal of gadgets is entirely compatible with a headset and controllers. Fortunately, I’ve been able to try out an upcoming game at E3 that shows how well VR and stealth can combine.
Espire 1: VR Operative is a title currently in development by Digital Lode and published by Tripwire Interactive, which is due to launch later this year. The dev team comes from Melbourne, Australia, and this comes across in game quite clearly. All the voice actors are Australian, and the Australian Government is your in-game employer, funding your sneaky activities.
Your player character is technically a drone operator, but you’re effectively playing as one of these humanoid robots. You can find these machines scattered through the levels, both locked in stasis tubes where you can activate them for extra lives, or you can find them at the sites where you have previously been killed, quietly twitching and flashing red lights, reminding you of your past mistakes.
I was able to try two different sections of the game, one on the Oculus Rift S, and the other on the Oculus Quest. Both performed nicely, albeit with a slight graphical downgrade on the self-contained Quest. It’s also coming to PSVR, although I didn’t try that version out myself.
The general set-up of the game is familiar enough. In environments with lots of blind corners, obstacles and enemy guards, you sneak around trying to find your way forward and advance the game’s story. Sometimes that involves climbing objects like pipes or ladders, drawing a weapon (either a tranquilizer pistol, a few conventional firearms or your own clenched fists) to neutralize the guards, throwing objects to distract them and dragging around the bodies of your defeated foes to hide them. All of these use the Oculus remote controls in sensible and immersive ways, the perfect balance as far as VR is concerned.
In typical VR game style, you can move around with one joystick and snap the camera to different angles with the other. In order to prevent motion sickness, the Espire system projects an unmoving grid around the edges of your vision to act as a vignette, which is cleverly integrated in-game as a part of the drone control system’s design.
The inbuilt microphones get some use too. If you sneak up on a guard without alerting them, shouting ‘Freeze!’ will make them surrender, allowing you to take their equipment and move on. There’s a button for this too if you want to stay quiet.
It’s the same with crouching, an essential mechanic in stealth games. You can do this by crouching down yourself, but if you can’t or don’t want to do that, there’s a button that will perform the action for you. You can also use a button to activate slow-motion, which activates automatically if you’re detected to allow you to respond before you end up in any more trouble, but you can also turn it on at will if you want some more aiming time or to help your appreciate your freefall from the rafters onto an unsuspecting guard’s head.
Stealth games require a good selection of tools for the player to use, and everything you’re given interacts nicely with the VR mechanics. Guns can be stored on your toolbelt, along with clips of ammunition that you must manually insert into the weapons. Within your robot hands you’ll find floating cameras for tagging enemies, which can also be thrown to see what’s lurking around the corner or above or below you. You can also bring an empty hand up to your head to activate a scanner that will show the positions of enemies for a short time after activating. And if things go wrong and you end up riddled with bullets, you can pull out your repair tool from a shoulder holster and hold it over your wounds to heal up.
As mentioned before, the government pays for your activities, having to shell out AU$ for every gadget you use, object you damage or hit you take. Being able to complete your mission cheaply as well as quickly are the key to ranking high on the game’s leaderboards, incentivising multiple kinds of approaches to the challenges.
Of course, VR games should be immersive, as that’s the whole point of forking out the extra cash for headsets and compatible games, and Espire 1: VR Operative succeeds on that front. But what really impressed me is how much Espire makes VR make sense. The headset and remotes are justified by the story, and being able to manipulate your weapons and tools in-game feels smooth and easy while also requiring skill to wield properly. I am certainly looking forward to how this game develops as it approaches its release date, and recommend VR system owners keep an eye out for the launch: this one’s worth paying attention to.
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