I'd like to warn everyone in the game community about The Assembly. I don't mean to alarm as if it's a title to stray away from--in fact it's a title from nDreams I'd recommend for anyone who likes heavy-handed topics in games. It's not often that I'd question my own choices after playing a game, especially when those choices (in reality) merely affect polygons, textures, and voice acting in immersive virtual reality. I think that last part probably makes the premise of this game stick a little longer in the mind after seeing the credits roll. But, as before, I'd like to warn you: The Assembly is a game that doesn't joke around--most of the time. Seeing what choices the community of The Assembly has made to conclude the game is a nice touch, as we're able to see who killed whom, how quickly we all were able to solve puzzles, and what information we're able to gather in order to make seemingly important decisions throughout the fabric of the game.
Let me back up though--as in our previous coverage, a player becomes the eyes and ears of two people, Cal Person and Madeleine Stone. Their paths coincide briefly, although I won't ruin why. Cal wants to leave The Assembly, while Madeleine has been taken against her will to The Assembly. It's this entire leaving-staying (against the will) backdrop that paints the organization with opaque colors, answering the question "Why?" with a tired response of "Because we can." Populated with masked trainees and decade veterans, there's an air of mystery and cover-up in the underground facility. Cal comes across strains of what appears to be further mutations of a virus he once generated years ago. That becomes the fuel behind the fire to prompt his departure from The Assembly, but we aren't spoiling what happens.
Similarly, Madeleine becomes the subject of several tests. Initial tests are simple: moving blocks via joystick controls over a glowing grid. Nothing out of the ordinary in terms of puzzle dynamics. However, her trial progression throws her into stronger predicaments, like determining who is lying in a simulated murder trial, or judging how to manage a world-wide disease outbreak while keeping mortality rates as low as possible (a simulation, no doubt, but still). Her trials unravel a lot about her past and how The Assembly has spied on her, but her story doesn't seem to be entirely clear. Many of her trials address her past and even introduce family members, but there weren't many details to lay out what had happened to her life and why. One test session you're solving a "whodunit," and in another you're discovering more about her estranged father. We could have used more story details on her end to understand the relationship between her parents and how it affected her career.
The story elements are important, but I think the mechanics need more focus. It's obvious we can't utilize the world as our room scale for virtual reality, and The Assembly is a product built for both Oculus and Vive, so movement becomes a factor. I'll admit that virtual reality in it's current state is clunky. Sometimes wires get in the way, tracking might assume the headset has flown into space, or there's just too much tension on the damned earbuds to keep them secure. Mechanics and devices are still new. It's okay to say the movement scheme that nDreams has developed isn't great--but it works. Holding down an assigned button in this case will "ghost" your character to a certain point in the distance, and then pressing a second button launches the character forward. It's nice to be able to navigate throughout levels without using inorganic analog sticks, but launching forward via character ghost doesn't solve the problem either. As before, the navigation system is new. It's not perfect, but it works. VR navigation is shoddy at best right now--our characters move in this meshed framework, while we're sitting in chairs. It's almost as if the virtual reality ride is more akin to a motion ride at Disney.
That aside, the drive to produce a virtual reality experience is there, but it's not as deep as could be. Cal can zoom into some bacteria and rotate them three-dimensionally as if they were recreated in front of his face. Little details like condensation pouring from fridges immerse players into the experience, but few items were interactive in the world, save for drawers, cupboards, phones, and music players. We'd welcome a higher immersive experience with the ability to manipulate a lot more items.
I think the developers at nDreams were happy to provide a thought-provoking experience that sticks in the mind well after it's over. Albeit short, with puzzles that aren't too difficult (a lot of cause-and-effect switch puzzles), it's a game I'd still recommend for turning the cognitive gears. There are funny little references to Archer and The HitchHiker's Guide to the Galaxy that keep it from seriousfest status, but overall I stand with this game as being a thought-provoking experiment--one that's worth a few playthroughs to see how results vary from different choices.