It feels like we’ve been hearing about and covering The Assembly for ages now. As the biggest currently active project from breakout VR studio, nDreams, it’s been at the forefront of many people’s lists of “most anticipated VR games” for quite some time. As one of the few large-scale VR-focused studios in the UK with some relatively hefty financial backing, The Assembly is a bit of a coming out party of sorts for the company.
We’ve previewed the game in the past and spoke to the studio recently about their multiplatform ambitions and financial optimism, but this is the first chance we’ve had to get an extended first-look at the essentially final build of the game in action. The team stopped by our office in San Francisco with a copy of the game running on a CV1 Oculus Rift and let me take it for a spin through the first several scenes, which lasted somewhere from an hour to an hour and a half in length.
A Matter of Perspective
As an immersive first-person narrative adventure game, The Assembly takes a decidedly slower approach than you’ll find in something like EVE: Valkyrie, for instance. There isn’t really any combat to speak of and you’ll spend about as much time listening to characters talking as you will actually poking around in the game world.
nDreams have crafted a richly detailed universe full of memorable people and moments. Over a week removed from actually playing the preview build, I can still recall specific scenes and phone calls as if they happened in real life. Part of that is due to the believable setting and wonderful writing, but part of that is also due to how intimate VR is as a medium for storytelling.
In the world of The Assembly, you’ll actually take on the role of two entirely different people, viewing the story from each perspective throughout the game: Madeleine and Cal. It’s a world overrun by genetic experimentation and infectious diseases, full of questionable ethics and experimental science.
The opening moment I experienced had me in the shoes of Madeleine as she’s being wheeled into The Assembly compound itself, strapped down on a vertical gurney, fading in and out of consciousness.
Since my first moments in the game are spent in such a state, without the ability to move or interact with anything, it immediately forces me to take stock of not only my surroundings, but my orientation to the world as well. I overhear people talking about me as I can do nothing more than look around in captivity. It’s an incredibly immersive introduction that helps set the tone for the entire experience.
Eventually, I switch over to Cal, a male scientist stationed inside The Assembly complex. His moral compass is intruding on his ability to stand idly by while his colleagues distort and abuse his previous work for potentially nefarious means. These moments made me feel like I was playing a detective, collecting clues and searching for information, as I explored various rooms within the underground facility.
When things would switch back to Madeleine, I found myself undergoing a series of “trials” as some sort of twisted job interview. My first trial involved rearranging blocks in a puzzle/maze hybrid, which was challenging but rewarding, whereas my second trial got significantly more interesting.
In this trial, I was presented with a long dinner table full of mannequins that portrayed people from all walks of life. I saw one dressed as a firefighter, one as a teacher, one as a politician, and so on. My task was to investigate each individual by inspecting small rooms filled with their personal effects, letters, emails and more, to determine who in the group was lying.
This entire segment felt like a more involved version of something you might find in a Sherlock Holmes or L.A. Noire-style game and I found it incredibly engaging, especially when played from inside of a VR headset.
Once I passed this trial, the switch back to Cal was a welcomed change of pace. By shifting perspectives between segments of the game, it not only keeps you on your toes as a player, but prevents things from getting too monotonous or stale. Just as I start to get bored of sifting through files and looking for clues as Cal, I flip over to Madeleine to prod my mind with some tricky puzzles.
The focus of the experience is clearly on negotiating the two differing characters and their interpretations of the events that unfold, but I found myself personally the most engaged by Madeleine’s more methodical and unique “trial” segments than Cal’s plodding investigation of science labs.
Whether or not this ever-changing dynamic will dilute the story and make it difficult to follow, or actually have a profound implication on the events that unfold, remains to be seen. All the same, it’s a clever mechanic that I haven’t seen explored much in these types of games, VR or otherwise.
Is It Too Little Too Late?
While I came away from my time with The Assembly overall impressed and entertained, I can’t help but levy some criticisms as well. For one thing, it feels as if the final product may suffer from cooking in the oven for a bit too long.
Since the game is being designed as a bit of an “introduction” to virtual reality as a medium, the slow pace can come off as a bit heavy-handed. By this point, most VR enthusiasts have already sunk their teeth into meaty experiences and don’t need to dip their toes in the water any longer. With much longer games like Obduction on the radar and fully immersive episodic adventures like The Gallery that feature room scale and hand tracking well under way, I wonder if The Assembly may only muster up an effort that’s received as too little too late?
nDreams is certainly taking VR seriously, as evidenced by their collection of established projects and unannounced new projects for the likes of Google Daydream, so the attention to detail is absolutely there. Hopefully that care and polish carries over throughout The Assembly’s 4-5 hour adventure and doesn’t grow old before the story is finished.
The Assembly is set to release on July 19th, 2016, on PC for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, priced at $29.99 / €24.99 / £19.99. The PlayStation VR version of the game will release later this year. The Assembly is also getting a non-VR PC version, which is releasing simultaneously with the VR version.
For more information about the game’s upcoming launch and its different versions, you can read our recap of the announcement here.