“Nobody knows you’re alive, and nobody can know.” Welcome back, agent, to the high-stakes espionage of Espire 2, out now on Meta Quest 2 + Pro for $29.99 USD.
Espire 1 introduced players to the Espire program, operatives that tackle challenging missions around the world with a combination of stealth and steady aim. The twist? The operative in question is safe and sound in a different location, potentially thousands of miles away. The “person” on the ground is actually an Espire Frame, a cutting edge robot controlled remotely.
Espire 2 picks up years after its predecessor’s explosive ending, and doubles down on the blend of action and stealth that made the original stand out. Expect a stiffer challenge for those who want to run-and-gun, and expanded stealth capabilities for those who want to move through missions without ever raising the alarm. You’ll even have your choice of two different Espire frames, tuned to support different play styles—or you and a friend can team up in the (completely separate) co-op campaign and see how their skill sets complement each other.
It’s an ambitious sequel, and to celebrate the release we sat down with Espire 2 Game Director Michael Wentworth-Bell to chat about the new gadgets and abilities, integrating voice commands into the game, the influence of Nintendo 64 classics GoldenEye and Perfect Dark, and more—including a (brief) tease of the next game from developer Digital Lode.
What are the stakes in Espire 2 and how does the story tie into Espire 1, if at all?
Michael Wentworth-Bell: We hope fans of Espire 1 will be happy to hear that Espire 2 is a direct sequel—with all the main characters returning. You again assume the role of POE (Primary Operator of Espire). You are the only person on planet Earth who is able to “possess” Espire frames across great distances. Your Meta Quest’s Guardian is your holodeck-style “Espire Control Theater”. You use your VR headset and controllers to remotely operate your Espire frames deployed on the other side of the globe. Every movement you make is mimicked by your Espire frame.
In Espire 2, the OPHIS techno-terrorist organisation returns and has access to the same Espire tecnology, deploying frames of their own against you. OPHIS are set to launch a doomsday weapon. You know the launch date, but must work against the clock to find out the location, delivery system and payload. POE begins the game in a critical condition but is forced into the field—it’s unclear if Poe will survive without having Espire frames to possess as makeshift “avatars.”
You can play through the singleplayer campaign as two different Espire frames, right? Is this just an aesthetic choice or does it change how Espire 2 plays?
MWB: That’s correct! The 2 frames—Sinder and Sooty—are two of the big feature revolutions in our sequel. Sinder is tall and strong, and uses its height to its advantage. It’s able to climb up high into the rafters, drop down on unsuspecting enemies, and crush them under its weight!
Sooty is a short, quick, super-stealth bot. Though very fragile compared to Sinder, Sooty is able to sneak under small gaps and has an easier time remaining undetected. Sooty also has advanced spy gadgets to help track the enemy.
These frames—new in Espire 2—not only change how the game plays, but how it’s perceived! When you select Sooty, we scale the world around you, so you’ll always be three feet tall in Espire 2, no matter what your “real world” height is. We also scale your IPD—the distance between your eyes—so everything literally looks massive. Playing as Sooty is something you can't really convey in a 2D video, you have to experience it yourself in VR!
You can switch between Sinder and Sooty throughout your missions, though there are some sections that only one frame can play through. Our level designers have worked hard to create environments and enemy encounters that reward creativity and encourage replayability. We hope players will always discover something new in the levels when they switch up their play-style and possess another frame.
Are there any new gadgets or abilities in Espire 2? What are some of your favorites?
MWB: Sinder and Sooty each have a signature ability. Sinder has a hand-mounted tranq dart launcher! You fire darts by putting your hand out in-front of you, activating the launcher on your hand, then gripping and manipulating a holographic lever that appears on your forearm. Pull it back like a slingshot to add tension. Let go to fire a dart at an unsuspecting human!
Sooty has a built-in noisemaker device. This can also be fired into the environment, sticking to any surface it lands on. You then raise your hand to your mouth and whatever you say will be projected at the location of the noisemaker. It’s the ultimate distraction tool. And a tip: you can even remotely hold up or interrogate guards!
Both frames have Espire Vision—an X-ray view mode that allows you to see in the dark, highlights the location of items, and track enemies through walls. But my favorite ability is Espire Instinct, the ability to slow down time. This was a popular mechanic in Espire 1, and in Espire 2, Sooty’s Espire Instinct literally stops time. You can see bullets frozen in mid-air. It’s the perfect ability for fragile Sooty, enabling you to stop time during combat and calmly evaluate your next move before time starts again!
During the Meta Quest Gaming Showcase this past spring, you announced that there’s an entirely separate and unique co-op campaign. What’s the story setup there? And did creating a separate co-op campaign allow you to do anything that isn’t possible in the main singleplayer story?
MWB: The co-op campaign is made up of four missions set in locations from Espire 1, and it bridges the seven-year gap between the stories of Espire 1 and Espire 2. POE is in a coma and may never wake up, so you assume the role of two experimental agents, Tempest and Nix. Like all the other Espire agents before POE, Tempest and Nix are only able to possess Espire Frames within 1km of their control theater, lest they risk serious neurological damage.
It’s in our co-op campaign that the differences between the Sinder and Sooty frames really stand out. Playing as Sooty, you’ll have to crane your neck up to see your co-op buddy playing Sinder, who towers over you. Players can coordinate together, combining the strengths, abilities and gadgets of the two frames, creating VR stealth gameplay moments that aren't possible in the singleplayer campaign—and (we think) haven't been seen in any other VR games!
You’ve integrated voice commands into Espire 2. How did that idea come about and what can the player do with them?
MWB: Our goal with Espire has always been to reimagine classic stealth mechanics in VR - trying to make the most immersive stealth experience possible. Voice commands were a feature that was present in the very first Espire 1 prototype we shared in early 2017 and from that initial reveal, it was clear that players loved the overall idea; the concept of being able to sneak up behind a guard and literally say the word ‘freeze’ to perform a hold up! It’s a thrilling mechanic that when performed in VR makes you really ‘feel’ like a super spy!
But, with Espire 1, we felt we barely scraped the surface of what could be possible. Part of this was due to technical limitations - doing voice commands is not easy!
With Espire 2, our goal was to supercharge this feature and we had an amazing opportunity early on - to partner with Meta and integrate their upcoming “Meta Voice SDK”. This is an AI-powered voice detection system and the results we got with the Voice SDK were incredible. It allowed us to achieve our vision - being able to not only hold up guards, but actually interrogate them; issuing commands like, ”Where are your friends?” to mark the location of all nearby guards or say “drop your weapon!”
The coolest thing about using the Meta Voice SDK for this feature is that you can actually issue a command in multiple ways, and the AI system is able to interpret your intent. For example, one of the interrogation options is “give me your ammo”. You can say it multiple ways like, “Give me what you got” or “Empty your pockets” and it will decipher what you mean.
We would like to say thankyou to the Meta Voice SDK team for giving us the opportunity to integrate the technology into Espire 2.
Are there any other features you added or improved for Espire 2 and want to call out?
MWB: We’re extremely proud of our “Espire Control Theater” comfort feature. The holodeck-style control theater that you stand in to pilot your Espire actually becomes a VR sickness-reducing system while you’re in the game. Every time you perform any artificial movement (such as using thumbstick locomotion to strafe sideways while standing still in the real world), Espire’s view will shrink down to the size of an iPad and the control theater will appear in your peripheral vision.
We believe it significantly reduces the onset of “Simulator Sickness” for players and have tested this on hundreds of people over the years. The Theater is enabled by default for first time players, and users can switch between different levels of intensity - and of course disable the feature entirely!
We also had fun adding more cheats to Espire 2. Classic Nintendo 64 games like GoldenEye and Perfect Dark were huge inspirations for Espire 1, and we included 20 unlockable cheats in the original game. For the sequel, we’ve brought that total up to 28. You unlock a cheat in Espire 2 every time you earn a Meta Quest achievement.
Two of our favorite cheats:
What were some of the lessons you took away from Espire 1? How did those lessons inform development of Espire 2?
MWB: We could write a 12-part book series on all the lessons we learned from Espire 1! It was the first game we ever made—not only as a company, but also for most of the development team within the company.
For Espire 1, we targeted all VR platforms on day one and our primary lesson was that we spent more time making Espire 1 run than making it fun. This is the reason why Espire 2 is only launching on Meta Quest 2 (and Pro).
Another lesson was that with Espire 1, we tried to make “GoldenEye meets Metal Gear Solid.” We got a ton of feedback from stealth lovers that the stealth wasn't rewarding enough—it was too easy to run-and-gun. This really changed our approach to Espire 2. In Espire 2, it’s still possible to take the action approach if you want, but it is significantly harder to do so. And at the same time, we have added many features and mechanics to make the stealth option much more rewarding.
We did try to collect as much feedback as possible from players, including feature requests for the sequel. Co-op multiplayer, IK Arms, realistic weapon reloading, AI improvements and Loadouts are all examples of top feature requests from players that we added into Espire 2.
What’s next for you and the team? Any future plans?
MWB: We are already working on the post-release for Espire 2. Top beta tester feedback prior to release has been, “We want more co-op content!” and that is going to be our focus for post-release updates.
Aside from Espire, 2023 is gearing up to be our most exciting year yet at Lode. We have been very lucky to establish a niche with our Espire brand, and now’s the perfect time for us to scale up our company to build a second development team, creating an all new IP—something that builds upon Espire’s DNA, but is completely different tonally. We’re excited to share what else we’ve been working on behind the scenes!
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
MWB: We’d like to thank all the Espire fans that have made these games possible! From sharing the earliest prototype videos that got the attention of our publisher Tripwire Presents, to buying our first game Espire 1 and sharing your thoughts, feedback, and passion around the Espire games! It’s the fans that gave us the dream opportunity to make a sequel!
We’d also like to share that we are growing Lode Immersive Media in the coming year, so if you’re a passionate VR dev that wants to join us, send us an email on our website. We’re particularly looking for Senior Producers and Design Leads as we kick off new titles!
Stealth or action—which will you choose? Espire 2 is out now on Meta Quest 2 + Pro for $29.99 USD.