Some time ago Thomas Was Alone graced the gaming scene from the mind of Mike Bithell, and was seen (quite rightly) by most as a breath of fresh air in its simplicity, water-tight gameplay and storyline which somehow managed to make controlling a series of rectangles a deeply moving experience. Fast forward a little while, and the same man has come up with Volume, a tribute(ish) to classic Metal Gear Solid stealthiness, only without trying to be too serioues or complex. With simple gameplay very much the order of the day again, and a rock solid idea of what a well made and enjoyable game looks like Volume manages to do what a lot of other stealth games fail at: it’s really good fun.
Some might see Volume on their online gaming store of choice and wonder why they’d bother when the bigger budget (and undoubtedly phenomenally good) MGS V is also now available, with more realistic visuals, a more intense experience and more lifelike enemy visibility. Well, frankly, that’s exactly why you SHOULD bother with Volume. Bad guys have their cones of vision clearly displayed, so you could be stood 5 metres in from of someone and they’ll look straight through you until you sneak into their direct cone of sight. It’s hugely unrealistic, but so was a series of rectangles trying to traverse a small pond and nobody criticised that. Volume isn’t about realism, it’s about predictable patterns, things behaving in the way you expect, not the way someone perceives a real life person would react. Make a noise near a guard and they’ll come to investigate, find nothing, and go back to where they were none the wiser. But you need that for the game to work, add in real life AI and this becomes too difficult to be fun.
From that angle, the levels have been designed to give a realistic challenge without being so impossible that your controller gets hurled at the cat. Everything has been meticulously planned out with gameplay in mind, with controls which are simple enough to get to grips with very quickly, offering the very basic in stealthy movement such as ducking behind a wall and sliding round a corner. Other than that, there aren’t really many other things to worry about. Some pretty cool gadgets and techniques get introduced bit by bit, starting with the idea of turning on taps and flushing toilets (which, incidentally, are just plonked in a normal office for no real reason) but moving on to the bugle – a throwable device which makes a honking sound and attracts guards – through to other sound and vision based things which all serve the same purpose of distracting the guards. They come into play slowly, so you’ll get fully to grips with them before the game expects you to work out which one to use on the next level. It all helps you to meet your main aim of collecting all of the gems in the level before escaping through a glowing panel on the floor nearby. levels have a limited size too, meaning you’ve never got to travel any huge distances – each level is satisfyingly small and compact.
If this still concerns you about being so unrealistic, there’s a very good way for the game to get round that: everything is virtual. You’re taking control of Robert Loxley, a name which holds no coincidence I nits similarity to the Robin Hood namesake. Loxley sees himself as something of a motion-starter against Gisbourne (yup) who has taken over Britain and is gleefully running it as a business for his own needs. Loxley has managed to get hold of Volume, which is this virtual reality military training device which he streams live to people with the intention of getting them to rise up against Gisbourne. It’s a storyline which has its interesting and amusing points, but by sharing its voiceover style with Thomas Was Alone it means you’re trying to focus on the action at the same time as listening to some often lengthy dialogue, and if you’re playing with the sound low for whatever reason it makes it even tougher to keep up while reading the subtitles.
The voice work itself is pretty good though, with Andy Serkis (or Gollum as you might know him) providing a brilliant Gisborne performance, and Danny Wallace continuing his role with this developer as Alan, Volume’s AI who chats with Loxley throughout the game with very impressive and often very funny effect. The only question mark is over the voice of Loxley, acted by Charlie McDonnell who, I’m told, is a famous YouTubist. It’s a weaker performance, although how much of that is due to being surrounded by more practiced and high quality actors is difficult to pinpoint.
What makes Volume more refreshing than other stealth games though is the fantastic mix of care and speed. Each level has a par time to beat, so you can’t hang around and wait too long if you want to achieve the target times. Not only that, it’s the time as much as anything else which gets compared against other players on the leaderboards, so the emphasis of speed is very much in existence. But of all the cool stuff so far, the ace in the pack isn’t any of this. It’s the user generated levels, letting you create your own levels to share with the world, or just letting you download others that people have made themselves. It’s tricky to get the hang of, but entirely possible to make some very impressive levels quite quickly.
So all this pulls together to be a very impressive game. While there are strong influences from Metal Gear, this isn’t trying to copy it. Volume is very much its own game, focusing on the design and the playability in a way which makes it incredibly tight and fun to play. The difficulty is just where it needs to be, and the user generated levels will give you an almost unlimited number of challenges to try out. With a Vita version on its way (and believe me, this game will be fantastic on the handheld) anyone who’s ever tried a more arcadey stealth game and want to know how it can be done should leap at the chance to play Volume.
Reviewed on PS4