The two protagonists of The Assembly, Dr. Cal Pearson and Dr. Madeleine Stone, couldn’t be in more different situations at the start of the game. Cal’s a long standing veteran, working away in the pioneering, but controvertial science that The Assembly conducts in strict silence, while Madeleine’s recently fallen from grace, her reputation in tatters as she awakes to discover that she’s been kidnapped in order to be inducted into this shadowy organisation. The events of this game see both of them turning a new leaf, as the mysteries and moralities of the group are gradually made clear.
One thing that nDreams cracked during the development of The Assembly was a method of first person navigation and exploration through the world. You pull a trigger and look to where you want to go with a silhouette marking your end position, letting you zip from one spot to another, with shoulder buttons on the controller letting you pivot by 90 degrees at a time. It’s a system for seated VR that has common ground with the teleport mechanic often employed in the HTC Vive’s room scale VR. Traditional console or keyboard & mouse controls are also available, but honestly, the solution that nDreams have come up with works excellently for The Assembly’s slow pace, and doesn’t require a cast iron constitution.
It’s having this in VR that is The Assembly’s best chance to stand out – having played the first half of the game in VR at a recent preview event, we can speak to its quality. However, just as you have a fallback to more traditional control schemes, you also have a fallback to play the game without VR, as we did for this review. It’s when viewed in this light that the game becomes fairly unremarkable. It’s not that it’s bad, just that it feels like a first effort at this kind of game while the developers get to grips with new and revolutionary technology.
Take the underground facility that the eponymous secret organisation inhabits, for example. It’s a convenient plot point that Madeleine’s trials have drawn almost everyone away from their daily routine of secretive scientific research, meaning that Cal can roam the hallways and laboratories without fear of being discovered, mumbling to himself in his Southern American drawl.
At the same time, it means you almost never see another person. Most of the time it’s a glimpse of a few shadowy figures behind doors and windows, and only on a couple of occasions do you come face to face with someone and realise why you’re not in a crowded, bustling facility. Character animation is fairly rudimentary, and all but one person in the game wears a face mask, and the exception to that rule is heavily shrouded in shadow. The Assembly doesn’t quite feel like a real place, as a consequence.
It doesn’t help that, when the story cuts to Madeleine’s trials, she’s given fancy high tech puzzles and games to solve, as an unusual form of aptitude and suitability testing. Some of these are actually really quite strong thematically, and they’re designed in such a way that you can gradually piece together her back story and how she fell from grace for yourself. However, they’re over much too soon and left me wanting more. Certainly, that’s better than outstaying their welcome, but at around 4 hours long, I don’t really think that’s a problem, and I would have liked for these puzzles to be developed further and become more complex.
Cal’s side of the story is hardly devoid of puzzles either, but these are more about exploring the world and piecing together clues through multiple rooms. It could be finding a four digit password clue hidden away somewhere – this happens quite a lot – or trying to figure out how to get someone to leave their room by manipulating something in a different room. And it just verges on the kinds of frustration that you can find in classic point & click adventures, as despite knowing that I needed to find a particular chemical compound in a particular laboratory, I couldn’t find it for a good 20 minutes at least.
It’s better to consider this as a first person VR counterpart to the likes of Telltale’s The Walking Dead series, as a graphic adventure. Tucking into every nook and cranny, opening every computer terminal and venturing into every office that you can helps to flesh out the world. You’re pushed to do so, as you hunt down a particular clue or how to move the story forward, and as you uncover some of the shady research that the group has been conducting – there’s some nice twists – you also get to see some pleasantly human touches to Cal’s work colleagues, even if you never get to meet them directly.
The story in The Assembly gives you a number of fairly tricky moral problems to think about, that tie into the justifications that the organisation uses for itself. These points, however, are quite heavily stacked toward the end of Maddie’s story in particular, as she reaches the final stages of her induction. It’s slightly disappointing that your performance during the trials doesn’t really come into the equation when you’re given that one final decision to make.
I’m certainly eager to see where nDreams take us to next, as they hone their craft in developing for virtual reality, but The Assembly is sadly just a first step on that journey. It does some interesting things, with a nicely constructed story split between two characters and contrasting styles of gameplay, and it gets the controls right for first person exploration in VR, but without that, it would struggle to stand out from the crowd.
Version Tested: PC, Oculus Rift extensively previewed