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Hands On: ‘The Assembly’

'The Assembly' is like a Whitman's sampler of VR games, but it will fill you up

The Assembly stands out as one of the most complete VR gaming experiences yet.

For all the attention it’s received in the last few years, virtual reality is still in its infancy. Like the Lumière brothers of early cinema, VR artists are only now figuring out what’s even possible within the medium, let alone its best uses. Accordingly, the vast majority of games currently out there feel more like tech demos than fully realized products.

With that in mind, developer nDreams created The Assembly to stand out as an engrossing narrative experience that will excite new players about the possibilities of immersive VR gaming. A first-person narrative adventure game with puzzles, The Assembly’s science fiction story is divided into 12 chapters. I recently had a chance to play the first few.

It’s a trope!

The story is set within the eponymous Assembly, a powerful, secretive organization that conducts ethically dubious scientific research in an underground facility, away from public and government scrutiny. Questionable intentions and experiments gone awry set of a chain of events that could expose the Assembly’s work to the public, and it’s on you as the player to figure out what’s going on and determine what will happen.

The Assembly’s story travels well-trod territory, but it does so with aplomb.

With mad science conducted underground by shadowy organizations and the looming threat of man-made epidemics, The Assembly’s story travels well-trod territory, but it does so with aplomb. The developers are well-versed in sci-fi and so The Assembly is a studied and confident genre piece.

Your perspective alternates between two characters within the organization. Madeleine Stone is a disgraced scientist whose experiment killed her own mother, catching the attention of the Assembly, which kidnapped her for recruitment. Cal Pearson is an established researcher at the Assembly, who finds that some of his past work might be being used to nefarious ends.

As Madeleine, you need to solve a series of tests designed to determine if she’s competent enough to join the Assembly’s labs. These range wildly from spatial challenges like manipulating color-coded boxes and switches in little mazes, to logical challenges like a murder mystery you have to solve by listening to taped statements. A female voice guiding you through the segments carries a slight echo of Portal, minus the wry beratement.

Cal’s sections play more like an adventure game. He roams the facility to explore and investigate. Like in the Fallout or Deus Ex games, a lot of storytelling happens through reading other people’s e-mails on computer terminals throughout the labs. In addition to exploration-based challenges, like finding keycards and passwords to progress into new areas, there are some optional puzzles here as well.

Within the section that I played, there were not any readily apparent narrative choices to make. The developers told me that as the game goes on, it opens up more optional parts of the story to explore and meaningful choices to make that effect the ending.

Beginner friendly

Making The Assembly accessible to VR novices was a priority for developers. For instance, since many people have trouble staying in VR for too long without feeling a bit of motion sickness, the game was divided in to 12 chapters that take about half an hour each. The episodic structure allows for play to be easily divided into digestible sessions, while still allowing for an immersive overall story.

The Assembly is almost a sampler of potential VR games.

The game also introduces movement gradually as a way to ease new players in. Like the opening moments from Arkham Asylum, the initial section of the game has Madeleine immobile, strapped to a trolley and being wheeled into the facility as she drifts in and out of consciousness. This acclimates you to looking around on rails before you need to move for yourself.

Rather than walking, you move by casting an arc out onto the floor in front of you and teleporting to that spot. This has become a popular solution for movement in seated VR experiences, rather than trying to account for the potentially dizzying effect of fluid movement. You can also move a short step in any direction with the D-pad for slight adjustments. While it’s not the most immersive movement system, there’s a reason that variants of it have emerged as an agreed-upon design best practice for many recent VR games. It works.

The variety of puzzles and experiences makes The Assembly almost a sampler of potential VR games, reminiscent of Valve’s The Lab, which is just a collection of minigames joined by a common hub area. While The Lab is just variety for its own sake, The Assembly uses it to keep up moment-to-moment interest while the overall plot pulls the player onward.

No VR required?

The Assembly is deliberately designed to introduce new players to VR, but ironically, there’s nothing particularly essential about VR to the experience. In fact, when the game launches on PC, it will also be available in a discounted, non-VR form, translating the complete game to a conventional screen. Players who subsequently acquire the hardware to play it in VR will be able to pay the difference for the upgrade.

On the one hand, that’s an admirably consumer-friendly model for making the game available to as many players as possible and encouraging them to make the VR upgrade at their convenience. However, any game that can be played without VR isn’t using all of its potential. Porting tested gameplay concepts over into VR serves as a stopgap while we figure out how to use the technology, but the medium won’t be able to really take off until developers find structures of play that could not exist without it.

That being said, The Assembly is an engaging and well produced game, made with genuine enthusiasm for sharing what VR has to offer. It stands out as one of the most comprehensive games we’ve yet seen, and as such will fill a necessary role for many of VR’s early adopters, eager for games into which they can really sink their teeth.

The Assembly launches on July 19 for HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. It will follow on PlayStation 4 and PSVR later in 2016.

Highs

  • Studied genre piece
  • Expansive narrative in digestible chapters
  • Unexpected variety of activities
  • Designed with players new to VR in mind

Lows

  • Nothing VR-specific to the game