Volume is not a game for the impatient, nor is it for the action addicts. Instead its audience lies in the practicing ninjas and silent assassins of the game world. It is a carefully constructed homage to the stealth genre which we play in whispers rather than screams.
Developed by the incredible Mike Bithell, Volume is another beautifully carved notch in Bithell’s staff, and after the success of Thomas Was Alone I could hardly say I was surprised by the quality of its finish. I’m a big fan of strategy games but after witnessing the general decline in the genre’s originality since the 90s, Bithell’s inspiration behind Volume is what really caught my interest.
Having played Metal Gear Solid as a teen, Bithell believed in recreating the purity of the stealth genre by introducing techniques overshadowed by years of action-dominated games. Volume brings strategy back to the table, causing the player to think carefully about each move they make by using either a minimal approach, or using more high-tech equipment, when available, to complete the level.
Volume is a cyberpunk reinvention of the classic tale Robin Hood. Robert Locksley (voiced by YouTube star, Charlie McDonnell) finds a device called “Volume” which holds an artificial intelligence called Alan (Danny Wallace, narrator of Thomas Was Alone). Alan in turn introduces Locksley to his criminal sim and thus spends the rest of the game instructing, introducing and commenting on Locksley’s progress with all the charm and wit Wallace gave us in Thomas Was Alone. Locksley uses “Volume” to broadcast a series of simulated robberies across the internet, shoving it in Guy Gisborne’s face (Andy Serkis) as he towers over Britain, giving an initially two-dimensional strategy game a surprising political undertone. It contains a whopping 100 levels – all of which grow in difficulty as the number increases – and a level editor so the fun can go on even when the game reaches its end.
Initially, when I’d made my way through the first few levels I found myself questioning whether the game was going to be challenging enough considering you can see the guards’ field of view. But as you progress, what was originally non-threatening becomes a little ray of hope as you wait for the rusty cogs in your head to turn and dream up a solution to the virtual mess in front of you. Not only do they allow you this conical aid, they also provide check points in several areas throughout the level. Some hardcore gamers may feel a bit cheated by this general guide rail but I thought it served a purpose, especially as the levels become more challenging to finish in one go. Not only do checkpoints give you a little bit of security, they also save the game from becoming frustrating as we occasionally have to complete the same part over and over again, but thankfully not the entire level. No one likes doing that.
From the beginning Volume has just been well thought out, plain and simply. Though it doesn’t guide us in like a toddling infant, it gives us enough credit as players not to faff about for 10 levels before introducing the more challenging guards and equipment. Where at first we’re learning to walk, crouch and change cover whilst avoiding the guard’s field of view, it quickly brings new gadgets, better hiding places, and obstacles to compete with the levels’ growing difficulty. Volume only continued to excel with its diversity of foes. Not only is developing the right amount of antagonists more demanding, it is also a test of discipline in order to find the perfect balance of introduction and impact. Deciding what opponent to introduce and when, whilst keeping the game fresh and the players unburdened, is a massive challenge; so big thumbs up there.
I’m all up for a strategy game with substance but where Volume shines in its mechanics, it falls severely short in its logic. I don’t know whether I’ve missed the point or skipped a passage (or twelve) during one of the levels but there’s not really enough depth for me to understand what’s actually going on. If it were simply a game similar to the likes of Monaco I wouldn’t really mind its shallow breath, but where it has tried to pull together a “Let’s Play” scenario in which Locksley teaches people how to perform these heists it just stumbles over a blockade in my head. I get the gameplay; I get the story; I just don’t get it together. Bithell’s wonderfully witty scripts complimented with Wallace’s performance is a match made in heaven; I just wish I could love it all when mixed together with the game mechanics. Like strawberries and balsamic, I know it all goes together but I just can’t get my head around it.
But that’s a single droplet in the ocean of brilliance that is Volume. One thing I do have to mention – because it sent me absolutely giddy – is our found ability to interrupt guard patterns by whistling or making noise. The amount of games I’ve played where the A.I. is drawn to the point of said noise before falling back into its predetermined pattern is frustratingly high, and after witnessing one of Volume’s guards slipping back into formation but out of sync, I’d made a noise I’m fairly sure only dogs could hear.
Fantastically moreish due to its bite-sized levels, it’s the type of game that leaves us hopping on for one or two levels and finishing after a few hours of saying “just one more”.