Preview: The Assembly

Originally revealed last year, nDreams’ The Assembly has undergone significant changes since its debut. Heading into this month’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), Los Angeles, the virtual reality (VR) experience has a new build to show, rebuilt on a new engine and confirmed for HTC Vive. A year well spent, one might assume, but bulletpoints on a press release will always be of secondary importance to the videogame itself.

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The storyline of The Assembly hasn’t changed, though the way in which the videogame presents it most certainly has. The first part of nDreams’ latest vertical slice was based on last year’s E3 build – strapped to a gurney, you are paraded through the corridors of a secret underground laboratory with no recollection of how you got there – however now it’s more than idle chit-chat as you journey from outside the bunker deep into the earth.

The storyline is delivered to the player via overheard conversation as those restraining you aren’t aware you’ve regained consciousness. It’s an old technique made famous by the Half-Life franchise, but it works wonderfully in VR. You are Madeleine Stone, a celebrity of sorts who has somehow unwittingly become involved in a decidedly disagreeable experiment. It’s not made clear in this build what this experiment is nor why you are being held prisoner, but the descent into the laboratory clearly reveals that what lies ahead will not be pleasant.

This first part of the preview build lasts just a few minutes and is entirely scripted. There is no player interaction beyond that of having the freedom to look around, however it does present a couple of interesting design decisions. Firstly, should the player turn or move their head to the point where it breaks a boundary – into the gurney, for example – the screen will quickly fade to black. Secondly, Madeleine has a physical presence when strapped to the gurney – a body and visible bare feet – while the second character you become, Cal Pearson, does not.

Cal’s part of the experience is far more interactive than Madeleine’s, presenting puzzles and dialogue in a direct fashion. Your inner dialogue gives you objectives while your suspicion grows. The player is afforded the opportunity to explore while simple A-to-B tasks hint at greater mental dexterity challenges to come later in the videogame, all the while building towards an end that hints Cal is about to do something that’s either very brave or very stupid. It’s reasonably straight forward once you get the key principle that highlighted objects are your obvious points of reference for progress, but at the same time it works in line with the idea that players should be eased into VR and given enough freedom to investigate at their own pace.

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It’s not clear at what point in the final videogame’s timeline that Cal’s level will take place, but the hope is that it’s very near the start. The player isn’t exactly held by the hand, but there is little challenge and no pressure in this sequence. It’s an area of welcoming, despite the overbearing atmosphere of worry coming directly from Cal, wherein the player is free to interact with all manner of objects other than those necessary to progress.

Drawing a line between gameplay design and technical achievement, The Assembly certainly hits many of the right notes. It looks far better now it’s utilising Unreal Engine 4 over Unity, with the reflective surfaces and characters models in particular having received a significant makeover, and the fact that the videogame has been designed specifically for VR remains evident throughout. The slow pace, the remarkably accurate head-tracking, the visual effects that aid the player’s understanding of the plot development far greater than any dialogue could ever hope to; The Assembly has been born of a love for the medium.

Many existing franchises might stutter in the move to VR, but The Assembly would most certainly find itself encountering chokepoints where it to release a non-VR version. There’s no telling whether or not nDreams will be able to turn these humble beginnings into a solid, uniquely interesting VR videogame at present, however when comparing to many of the other demos currently available for Oculus Rift it’s clearly a project blessed with significantly higher production values. Now confirmed for HTC Vive as well as Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus, it will be interesting to see how The Assembly makes use of each format’s unique features, and you can be sure VRFocus will continue to follow the title for this exact reason.

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