Volume [official site] is a third-person, sci-fi stealth game, in which you direct a little dude around VR-styled, maze-like levels, dodging guards with wits and with gadgetry, with the aim of grabbing all the loot and getting out again. It’s out now.
I hope Mike ‘Thomas Was Alone’ Bithell’s new game wasn’t hoping to pre-empt any ‘turn down the…’ gags by hiring a celebrity voice cast, because sadly it wasn’t long before I started muting things.
I’m going to get the complaints about presentation out the way first, then move on to the stealth side of things afterwards, unencumbered by arguably superficial griping. The core of this action-stealth title is strong for the most part, but tonally it tries to be far too many things at once: funny, dramatic, intimate, political, irreverent, timely… It’s the small game that wants to be REALLY BIG, but I wish it would allow itself to be small. The celeb voice cast is one way this dichotomy shows: you’re pairing Andy ‘Gollum’ Serkis with YouTube’s Charlie McDonnell, who might well be the sweet-smiling lad that several hundred thousands girls and boys would love to take home to mother, but an accomplished actor I’m afraid he is not.
His pleasant but distractingly weightless irreverence seemed a poor fit for Volume protagonist Locksley, a hacker/thief/revolutionary determined to bring down Serkis’ character’s totalitarian cyber-state, and while he’s clearly enthusiastic, far too many lines come off as flat and unrehearsed. In his defence, Serkis, as evil overlord Gisborne (yes, this is all very Robin Hood-inspired), doesn’t do much better: he’s in full hissing panto villain mode, but despite making his presence felt he often sounds as though he’s killing time before a brunch date with JJ Abrams. Pauses and enunciations fall in the wrong place, as though this were his first and only read through of the scripts.
Perhaps the unsurprising stand-out is Danny Wallace, the laconic Yes Man author who also played the narrator in Thomas Was Alone, as well as Snarky Hacker-Man in assorted Assassin’s Creedses. He’s experienced in this particular kind of thing, and it very much shows in his performance as increasingly heroic (or is he, etc) AI/narrator/tutor Alan.
Initially, I’d thought otherwise: he starts off sounding sneery and bored, as if determined to prove everyone’s suspicions about a guy who has a haircut like that, but increasingly he finds his groove and adds much-needed humanity to Volume’s least human character. It’s very much The Danny Wallace Performance, but he’s the only actor who doesn’t feel as though he’s been airlifted in from some other context.
Of course, it’s all highly humour-driven, which makes the achingly dramatic, look-at-me-I’m-like-Deus-Ex soundtrack all the more incongruous. I turned the music off after half an hour and never looked back, not because it was poor (it’s fine as these things go), but because the rapid switching between British guys trading self-effacing quips and the sort of music you’d usually associate with Tom Cruise piloting a rocket into the sun made Volume feel faintly ridiculous.
In its story, Volume’s similarly trying to do everything at once. It wants to be the small, sweet story of Alan’s growing sentience (very much hankering back to Thomas in some respects), it wants to be commentary about the views-mania of the YouTube generation, it wants to be dystopic science fiction about an AI war and it wants to be British Comedy TM.
The writing is decent and sporadically funny, if sometimes functional, overly prone to tepid fourth-wall breaking and with a few distracting grammatical errors on mission briefing screens. Unfortunately, trying to do so much thematically leaves little room for justifying its central conceit, which is sneaking around stealing gems in a VR simulation of rich folks’ homes. There are Reasons, but they rang false to me, and that the presentation is forever pseudo-hologrammatical with muted colours and angular robomen means the game itself struggles to support the mooted wider human concerns.
My biggest criticism of Volume is that it feels all the story and character aspects were draped around a pre-existing stealth game setup after the fact, without any meaningful meshing. In a way it’s not fair to compare it to Thomas Was Alone, because they’re so very different, but that was a case of narrative lifting the mechanics into something more than they were, because they were so key to the whole experience. Volume’s minimalist art style is clearly trying to achieve something similar – i.e. our imaginations, rather than our monitors, fill in all the details and project character onto the abstract – but again, it’s trying to do far too much, and the protagonist (or at least his actor) seriously struggles to carry it all on his spiky shoulders.
And so, with music and voices selectively muted or at least ignored, I had a better time. I felt free to play Volume for what it really is: a stylised, simple yet sometimes flexible stealth game in which you navigate mazes, avoid all conflict, grab every jewel on each level then make your way to an exit. Each of the several dozen missions takes just a couple of minutes to complete if you do it right, but unless you’re well-practiced expect to spend 10 or so minutes on each one, respawning at relatively generously-placed checkpoints whenever you get hunted down by a guard or turret. This isn’t Hitman: there’s no need for perfection or penalties for getting spotted. The only goal is to get everything and get out, by hook or by crook, but if willy-waving is important scoreboards show how quickly you pulled off the caper compared to the rest of the world, or just your mates.
I made it into the top 5 on a few levels, only by virtue of the pre-release playerbase being tiny, and I say that not to brag but to share my pleasure at having done so more from panicked but instinctive sprinting than mechanical precision. It’s that which most endears me to Volume: taking advantage of the routine behaviour of its robotic guards and strategically-placed checkpoints to pull off breathless suicide runs. For instance, as long as your foot crosses the savepoint line even as your back’s being lasered to mush, it counts. When you respawn, the guards will be back in place, but you’ll be ahead of them. Or setting off an alarm results in all the guards sprinting past you just as you desperately duck behind a pillar, leaving an open goal to the exit. Lovely.
In levels which allow flexibility, rather than purely key-in-lock solutions, Volume is exciting and satisfying, like the fun-first, precision-second stealth toy I think it’s meant to be. It doesn’t really become like this until about a third of the way in – a good five hours or so in my experience, depending how much you’re mainlining it and how good you are at it, and the extent to which you can stomach hearing the same few canned whoops-a-daisy lines from Locksley and Alan time and again.
When it’s less flexible and more determinedly puzzley, as it was frequently in the first third and more sporadically later on, I liked it far less. Having to time runs exactly or use a noisemaking gadget just to send a guard to the right place for just long enough, that sort of thing. These levels are mana for perfectionists, but they’re not the kind of thinking on your feet I personally prefer from stealth, be it the violent crouch-running of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the comic experimentation of Gunpoint or the hold-your-breath strategising of Metal Gear Solid.
Again, to its great credit Volume alternates regularly between puzzle-stealth and adaptive stealth, but there were many times I hissed through my teeth at it because I was repeating the same sections again and again (which can also mean you hear some grating dialogue sections several times). I’d be trying and failing to identify the exact sequence of movements and actions needed to make it to the next checkpoint, or accidentally stumbling across the corner of noisy terrain because the fixed camera screws with depth perception. The good news is that one frustrating, fiddly level may give way to a half-dozen far more satisfying seat-of-the-pants affairs. There are dozens of levels here: it’s a sizeable undertaking, and one which in the main grows more inventive as it wears on, while sadly being somewhat hamstrung by the inherent repetition of its rather plain appearance.
Helping you along are a half-dozen or so gadgets to play with, which are primarily variations on creating distractions, but you get a silent sprint one and a blackjack too. The puzzley nature of the levels means there’s usually a degree of arbitrariness over what’s available: these gizmos are usually placed to fit a solution, rather than as a buffet of toys to choose from. Not always though: again, the stand-out, most satisfying levels are those with choice of both route and gadget, where you cobble your plan together from heat-of-the-moment reactions and risk-taking, rather than having to ascertain the map-maker’s exact thinking. A noisemaker fired in desperate reflex just before a guard rounds a corner, allowing you to peg it past their turned back? Those moments are thrilling.
There’s a slight jankiness to the aiming-based gadgets, alas: all these thin lines and angles which show their paths and rebounds, and every device distilled down to samey glowing spots. While it’s clearly made in a minimalist spirit, the gizmos look and feel a touch inelegant. They get their job done, but they’re not sexy. Which would be OK if I didn’t have this gnawing suspicion that Volume thinks it’s very, very sexy indeed. Thomas Was Alone did well enough that Volume benefits from resources most ‘indie’ games can only dream of, but clearly it can’t realistically compete with titles from a large studio. I think it’s a mistake to carry itself like it can, and I certainly don’t feel the sleb voices raise it to some higher echelon. Rather, embracing its own smallness would have upped its charm significantly. The top-down Pac-Man adventures of tiny, spiky mask-man suits Volume, because that’s what Volume really is, underneath the awkward attempts at melodrama and a little too much meta-humour.
I felt it was too long for too long’s sake as well, including falling into the Assassin’s Creed trap of being frontloaded with an egregious amount of tutorial. I wish it had given me all the gadgets earlier, let choose and let me experiment, let me learn what does and doesn’t work where rather than be drip fed and stutter through its more mechanical early missions. In many of the later ones, bigger and more multi-path, I was reacting instinctively, taking risks and having them pay off, finding a groove. There was flow and joyfulness. The good game at the heart of all the frequently irritating bluster and padding shines through.
I’m looking forwards to seeing what players can do with the included level editor, which is dead simple to use and will produce missions encumbered by neither the necessary escalation of a campaign structure or any kind of plot. There’s a clever stealth game here, without question. I’d just like it so much more if it ramped up faster and cooled it with all the chest-thumping.