The Assembly hands-on: The future of VR is adventure games

Adventure games may have fallen out of popularity in recent years, but virtual reality reinvigorates the genre.

If virtual reality takes off, the adventure game is along for the ride. It’s perfectly suited for the format. Shooters don’t work that well. They’re too fast, the movement too unpredictable. Third-person action games are fine, but leave you feeling like you could’ve experienced the same on a normal monitor. But first-person adventures? Pretend I just kissed my fingertips like a French chef or whatever.

And The Assembly is one of the most anticipated adventure games of the year, if only because it’s been in development for so long that people know quite a bit about it. They’ve been demoing it since the days of the Rift’s Crescent Bay prototype.

The Assembly

The gist: The titular Assembly is a company of scientists that’s like Aperture without the humor. They consider their work to be of paramount importance, and thus are willing to flout ethical constraints, laws, and common human decency if it means it eventually benefits humanity as a whole.

You play as two different characters in alternating chapters. One, Cal Pearson, is a high-ranking scientist in the Assembly who’s begun to question its methods. The other, Madeleine Stone, is an outsider.

I recently played three chapters as each character and the perspective switching is one of The Assembly’s highlights. It’s a simple idea—hell, Game of Thrones is famous for it. But it works because you get multiple outlooks on the situation, each characters thoughts and fears. You get the dramatic irony of knowing what’s happening to Madeleine because you’ve played as Cal, and et cetera.

So story-wise, The Assembly seems well worth your time. I don’t know how it’ll wrap up, but I do know the demo ended on a cliffhanger in Chapter Six and I wished I could keep playing—a good sign.

The Assembly

As for how it plays, well, I’m of two minds. Remember how I said The Assembly has been in development for a long time? That’s a double-edged sword in virtual reality. Sure, it means the team has some name recognition and a game that’s actually a game and not a ten-minute tech demo.

It also means The Assembly was conceived before some key developments in VR. Namely, room-scale and motion controllers. The Assembly is cross-platform Rift, Vive, and PlayStation VR but only takes advantage of a standard gamepad. There's no Vive room-scale support.

That’s a shame, because the Vive’s control scheme is tailor-made for first-person adventure games, as evidenced by The Gallery and other less-polished titles. Playing with an Xbox controller is just…well, it’s playing with an Xbox controller.

That disappointment aside, it’s a competently-made adventure game. Cal’s episodes focus mostly on corporate espionage. He’s looking to turn whistleblower, so you’re focused on gathering evidence against the Assembly—digging through file cabinets, trying to find keys someone hid in a bookshelf, standard adventure game stuff. Unfortunately it also means “reading a lot of in-game emails,” which is fine except the Rift still isn’t great for looking at text. I struggled a bit there.

The Assembly

Madeleine’s episodes are way different. She’s being inducted to The Assembly and thus her chapters are a battery of mental testing, like MENSA puzzles in three-dimensions. Some are great—the last chapter of my demo involved a murderous-dinner-party-as-allegory, and rendered in a fascinating way. Other chapters feel a bit like VR gimmicks though, particularly her second test which is just “Move these boxes around in VR.” It almost feels like you can tell which chapters were developed very early in VR’s lifecycle and which are more recent, though that’s just my own biases talking.

In any case, navigation is done by way of teleporting, same as most of these new-era VR adventure games. It’s not a node system—you’re not constrained to certain areas. Instead it’s the standard “look-where-you-want-to-go-and-teleport-there” method. There’s also a free-roam method if you have a better stomach than me.

Which brings me to one other crucial aspect: There are some scenes early in the game I think should be reworked, but I don’t think will be. They involve you in a wheelchair or something, being pushed along by someone else. I didn’t get sick, but I did close my eyes at one point as the world went madly sliding past. In a game that’s so careful about keeping the player comfortable the rest of the time—that’s what teleportation is for—these scenes seem out of place.

The Assembly’s hooked me though, Xbox Controller and all. Ever since wrapping up The Gallery and Dead Secret I’ve been waiting for another polished and meaty adventure game to release. This looks to be the next big one, and I’m curious to see where it goes. It’s dated for a July 19 release.

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Hayden Dingman

PC World (US online)
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