Available on PS4 and PC
Although this is a golden age for indie games (especially British ones), precious few of them enjoy any degree of hype before launch. But Volume is a rare exception to that rule, since it is the second game made by Mike Bithell, who shot to fame with the BAFTA-winning Thomas Was Alone. The genial Bithell also solicited input during Volume’s development from a sizeable social media audience, so it has a crowd-sourced feel to it. But as with music albums, that second game can be a difficult one, so does Volume live up to expectations?
If you’re a fan of stealth games, you’re in for a treat. Wisely, Bithell has opted to base Volume on one of his great loves as a gamer. It’s very reminiscent of old-school Metal Gear Solid games, at least as far as its gameplay is concerned. It’s also possible to discern echoes of Portal and a dash of Deus Ex in there – and everything has been given a very British spin.
Plot-wise, it offers a retelling of the Robin Hood myth in the near future. You play Rob Locksley, a hacker who purloins an Artificial Intelligence and uses it to rob the homes, offices and so on of the rich and famous – in a dystopian Britain dominated by the oligarch Guy Gisborne, who runs the country on more or less fascist lines. So you’re robbing from the rich, but trying to swing the balance away from the 1 per cent to the 99 per cent, giving power rather than money to the poor.
However, Volume’s plot is its least important aspect – you’re only able to glean hints of what is going on, via documents that you find, intros to each level and banter with Alan, your AI, and it often feels like a curiosity rather than a central pillar of Volume’s experience. Obviously, Bithell is a one-man band (although he drafted in help in the latter stages of Volume’s development), so it would be ridiculous to expect motion-captured cut-scenes and the like, especially in a game that costs less than £15. But it’s a bit too easy to let the story, despite the exemplary voice-acting (whose cast includes Danny Wallace, who narrated Thomas Was Alone, and Andy Serkis) wash over you.
The gameplay, though, is beyond moreish. Each level is honed to perfection, and Bithell keeps proceedings as minimal as possible. The result is the achievement of the sort of gameplay purity for which the earliest games are still praised. Locksley can move, crouch behind low walls, whistle and hide in cupboards and the like. Plus, he is often given gadgets (sometimes even reaching a gadget presents a puzzle in itself), which are pretty cool.
A bugle, for example, lets you bounce soundwaves off interiors so you can send sentries off in specific directions, and you can also trigger those soundwaves in mid-air. An “oddity”, meanwhile, can be placed so as to keep a guard distracted for a finite period, while you sneak around collecting the jewels that represent the information and objects you’re stealing.
See also: Best PSN Games 2015
Volume introduces each of Locksley abilities gradually, and each level is a self-contained puzzle with a distinct flavour of its own. Things really become interesting when emergent behaviour kicks in – you can, for example, disrupt seemingly impenetrable patrols by distracting one member. Timing is all-important, and a leaderboard showing the quickest run through each level provides plenty of replayability. There are over 100 levels and more to come. Plus, Bithell has released his level-creation tools, so you can design your own.
If you had to quibble, you might point at the control system on the PC. Those used to playing first-person shooters via the W, A, S and D keys will take to it instantly, but others may well want to remap the movement keys, and especially the crucial crouch button. Given the need to move with extreme precision, Volume is much easier to play with a gamepad on the PS4, rather than the PC’s keyboard (the mouse is used for operating gadgets).
However, such considerations are minor, and there’s an awful lot of pleasure to be had from Volume. Its uncluttered gameplay emphasises the puzzle-solving aspect of stealth, the level design is brilliant, the gadgets are sometimes clever enough to make you chuckle out loud and the whole experience is both surprisingly meaty and absorbing to the point of distraction. It may not be as wildly inventive as Thomas Was Alone, but it’s a wonderful homage to what constitutes the very essence of stealth games.