VR is still pretty fresh for me, having had fairly limited time with it to date. However, I can see the excitement and trepidation surrounding its potential. For those who haven’t had any time with VR, the problem seems to be in describing the experience well enough to get across what makes it work. A lot of the setups for VR games are pretty simplistic by regular modern gaming standards, and it can seem like a step backwards. What you’ll find when you actually try out a VR title is that the medium brings a finer appreciation of the minutiae found in many more complex regular games. The dizzying feeling of immersion from VR doesn’t have to involve grand-scale battles, visceral horror, or high-octane speed to make it click with your brain as a viable extension of videogames’ near-future. No, the humdrum, day-to-day rummaging through rooms and taking in the scenery becomes a far grander experience in VR. This is something The Assembly, nDreams’ upcoming PS VR title, does well.
The Assembly is a first-person adventure title that has you take control of two separate, yet loosely-connected protagonists who are involved with proceedings at a titular research facility. Cal Pearson is a longstanding member of staff at the facility, and he begins the game a teensy bit narked off at his treatment by others working at The Assembly. He stumbles upon a seemingly grand conspiracy involving his own research, all the while dealing with the interpersonal issues of an entrenched workforce. Meanwhile, our other protagonist, Madeleine Stone, is new to the facility. This side of the story sees Madeleine being tested in various ways by the scientists. There’s much murmuring about her disgraced past and more than a hint of unwilling participation in these odd puzzle-based trials. It should come as little surprise that it is Madeleine’s sections provide more in the way of traditional game elements through puzzle-solving, whereas Cal’s parts seem to be geared more toward the investigative route. Neither sits particularly close to the game The Assembly has found itself compared to the most.
After getting hands-on with The Assembly, I found the oft-repeated claim that it shares a thematic genus with Valve’s seminal shooter Half-Life to be a little unfair but not without merit. Yes, it is set in a lab carved into grand desert mesas. It does indeed appear to feature some potentially unethical experiments within its halls, and perhaps the closest point of comparison comes about from the sense of a living, breathing workplace. While Half-Life was more of a sci-fi horror shooter, The Assembly is far more grounded in reality while maintaining a science fiction edge. Also, from what I have played, I can’t see crowbars making a blood-spattered appearance either.
In fact, when I asked the developers if there was any truth in the Half-Life influence, or if other popular culture touchstones had a say in the look and feel of The Assembly, the comparison was appreciated but not strictly true. The Farnborough-based collective are of course flattered by the comparison, but the clearest influence, they feel, is from actual working relationships and moral grey areas, both of which make up a significant portion of the six chapters I experienced. Moral questions on the boundaries of scientific research crop up in both storylines, and Cal’s sections show the effect of a group of ego-driven individuals working together for large amounts of time in such a secluded, and often clandestine, manner.
It’s not quite as dramatic as that might sound; no, the pace is rather glacial, and for good reason. You’ll spend a good portion of your time in The Assembly exploring the fairly normal offices and labs. Here’s where the VR magic comes in. To go rooting through cupboards and reading emails in most games of a similar ilk would feel somewhat overused and too much like busywork at this point, but with virtual reality behind such menial gaming tasks, it elevates and amplifies them. The Assembly does enough to capture your attention in these moments and occasionally makes you forget you’re playing a game when you kick a real life table once again, because you saw virtual space in front of your feet. Becoming immersed in game worlds has proved to be a more difficult task in recent years as age’s cynicism dulls the sense of joy and awe that discovery brings. Of course, some games have that, but with VR it seems that you can rediscover that without being involved in anything especially complex. The sense of space is immense, and that turns a cookie-cutter office layout into an intriguing prospect you actually want to explore. The cleverest part of this is in how you can control that exploration.
You see, VR in first-person can cause some literal headaches when you apply traditional first-person movement controls. It isn’t always easy to replicate the correct movement of the player’s own head and this causes a fair bit of sickness, as PSU’s own Kyle Prahl pointed out in his time with the Resident Evil 7 VR demo. The Assembly has that option in there for headsets that have the right equipment to manage that properly, but it also provides an alternative in its secondary control scheme. With this control setup, the controls are simplified to an almost point n’ click adventure, where holding down the left trigger gives you a predicted, moveable path to where you wish to go and a quick button tap later, you instantly teleport that short distance to the point you highlighted. With a flick of the right stick, you change viewpoint by 90 degrees, thus eliminating the head-swimming nausea of a regular control scheme’s head-turning.
It works very well indeed, and I hope more games like The Assembly adopt this method as an alternative. Being an adventure game at heart means it makes perfect sense to have what amounts to a modern take on a very traditional point-and-click interface as the solution to a common VR problem. You could argue this breaks a little of the immersion, and in truth, it does, especially when objects feel a little more fiddly to interact with than they should, but I’d gladly take that sacrifice over having a higher chance of lying down every ten minutes with a head whirling like Zangief doing a drunken spinning Lariat.
I like the direction that The Assembly is heading in. There is much in the way of intriguing mystery and conspiracy in the early chapters I played with novel ways of implementing the puzzles Madeleine faces into the design of the facility. The set piece experiment she undergoes in this preview build sees you trying to solve a whodunit murder case by examining evidence and listening to statements. It makes for a fascinating scene that feels smart without being too obtuse. In fact, there was just the one odd moment in the Cal chapters that left me stumped simply because the game had failed to catch up with the fact I’d already read an email that was supposed to spark progress to the next chapter. A small design flaw really, as the other objectives were far more straightforward to solve. Here’s hoping that’s an aberration, because things could be quite promising for nDreams’ current foray into virtual reality.