The immediate assumption with VR is that playing games from the first person and effectively embodying a character in a game is going to be amazing, intuitive and transformative. It certainly can be, but it’s not a guarantee that can be taken for granted and there have been a number of high profile missteps along the way, leading to motion sickness. Having last seen The Assembly in the first half of last year, I worried about nDreams’ ability to overcome these hurdles, but overcome them they have.
As a slower paced, narrative driven adventure, the control system that they’ve come up with is an excellent fit for a sat down VR experience, letting you move around the world at a leisurely pace in a game that never forces you to move quickly. It’s an intuitive blend of letting you look and zoom to a point in a fashion that’s similar to the approach used in many HTC Vive games, alongside the shoulder buttons on the gamepad letting you snap your view 90º at a time. Traditional twin stick controls are also an option, but trust me… don’t try them.
Even then, The Assembly is very gentle in how it eases you into the game and teaches you how to interact with the world. You slip in and out of consciousness as the disgraced Dr. Madeleine Stone is wheeled into the underground bunker, having been kidnapped by the eponymous organisation, in order to be pushed through a series of trials and tempted into joining their ranks. It’s in the lucid dreams of her half-consciousness that you learn the basics of movement, while the early strands of her story are filtered through to you.
Her side of the game is very puzzle driven, as she has to work through a series of trials, and that stands in quite stark contrast to Cal Pearson, who’s become jaded and suspicious of the shadowy Assembly and their motives, with one key tipping point leading to him deciding to leak information to the outside world. It just so happens that Dr. Stone’s induction trials, which are being broadcast to the rest of the Assembly members, almost as though it were a Hunger Games style event, give him the perfect opportunity to try and get the information out there.
It gives the facility an oddly uninhabited feeling at times, as you move from one empty office or laboratory to another, but people are there in the background. There’s groups sat in their viewing rooms waiting for the next trial to start, the occasional conversation that you can listen in on, whether it’s from people behind closed doors or as they walk above you on a gantry. Alongside being able to root through and read peoples’ emails, with a little canny clue spotting to get past any password protection, you’re given a little taste of reality to the world, from Benedict Cumberbatch fans affectionately calling themselves “Cumberbitches”, to a budding romance.
Madeleine has none of that, though. Her side of the story seems to be rooted firmly in the puzzles of the trials and exploring certain aspects of her own backstory that led to her loss of credibility within the medical profession. The first trial sees you at a console, manipulating blocks around a short series of mazes, while Madeleine shrugs off how impressive the technology that allows large metal slabs to float in midair. The second trial, a murder mystery that requires you to take in all of the statements and evidence to uncover the motive and pin the blame on the correct person, is much more involving.
But I was quite simply left wanting more of these puzzles and trials. While I’m hesitant to try and put a figure on the whole game’s length, having played the first six of the game’s twelve chapters, I was surprised less than two hours had passed. I’m all for a game not outstaying its welcome and needlessly padding the experience out, but I felt that both of Madeleine’s first two trials could have been expanded and drawn out a little further. Perhaps a trio of further block shifting puzzles and another murder mystery to add another layer, as both were nicely done and warrant a further look.
However, brevity aside, The Assembly is an important first step for nDreams to take as they embrace VR technology. Getting the movement systems right was absolutely vital, and something that other studios could potentially learn from, but it goes beyond that, with minor touches to the interface that brings computer screens towards you to read, mastering 3D positional sounds, so you can pinpoint where something is without looking, and so on. Getting all of those immersive features right lays the foundations on which they can build on, both with The Assembly and with their games in the future.