PC, PS4, Vita


Su­per­fi­cially, Rob Lock­sley (YouTu­ber Char­lie McDon­nell) looks like – and he’s fic­tion­ally pitched as – a stealth-game star. He moves al­most ex­clu­sively at a crouch-walk, and his two in­trin­sic skills are to whis­tle and flat­ten him­self against walls; abil­i­ties he puts to good use by swip­ing all the nearby valu­ables from un­der rov­ing guards’ polyg­o­nal face pro­tru­sions and then slip­ping away to the exit por­tal. Ap­pear­ances, how­ever, are de­ceiv­ing: Lock­sley’s more a speedrun­ner, thanks to per-level leader­boards that rank him on com­ple­tion time, and his en­vi­ron­ment is a puz­zle game as much as a stealth one. It merely ap­pro­pri­ates pre­dictable drones with short mem­o­ries and clearly tele­graphed vi­sion cones to add pres­sure to the cog­i­ta­tion and com­pli­ca­tion to en­act­ing the so­lu­tions.

It’s an en­gag­ing twist on the genre’s foun­da­tional ideas for the most part, giv­ing Mike Bithell and team a fresh-feel­ing toolset with which to con­struct the 100 gor­geously stylised rat runs that make up the core story of­fer­ing. The ar­ray of powerups is an in­stru­men­tal part of that toolset – one, Fig­ment, al­lows you to fire out a pro­jec­tion of your­self, alert­ing your en­e­mies but caus­ing them to give chase to a phan­tom as you push through now-un­watched spa­ces. Al­ter­na­tives might send a re­bound­ing pro­jec­tile to dis­tant corners and then trig­ger a sound, or grant you sound-damp­ened su­per­speed with which to cross a rigged floor of noisy pan­els. It’s a shame, how­ever, how in­fre­quently you are given a choice of gizmo, es­pe­cially when the lev­els that do of­fer this high­light how much un­tapped po­ten­tial there is in al­low­ing play­ers their pick of ap­proach.

Still, what’s re­ally smart about Vol­ume is how its level de­sign pulls in pre­dictably dumb AI and well-worn stealth genre no­tions to cre­ate liv­ing, shift­ing puzzles. Some­times you’ll need to dis­rupt a neat pa­trol route by de­lib­er­ately get­ting seen and then sidestep­ping onto a tile of im­pen­e­tra­bly sable shadow. At oth­ers, the level de­sign­ers will fold you back through old spa­ces hav­ing de­ac­ti­vated se­cu­rity force­fields (which per­mit your en­e­mies to pass, but not you) and with new pow­ers. Guards op­er­ate on a line-of-sight prin­ci­ple, too, a tick­ing clock count­ing down from the mo­ment they see you to the point at which they end you, so if you can break their view, you can buy your­self more time – a de­vice used to great ef­fect when sen­try-bam­boo­zling tele­porters en­ter into the mix, even if the game is oc­ca­sion­ally too lax about what blocks shots and sight lines.

It’s not al­ways the sim­ple­ton en­e­mies’ rou­tines that are open to abuse, though. In Free­dom mode (the only op­tion at launch), make it to a check­point, even mid­death an­i­ma­tion, and you’ll spring back to life with your progress logged, pur­suers re­set and no time penalty. This tac­itly en­cour­ages you to cheese the routes, shav­ing sec­onds through trick­ery rather than due care. While there is an il­licit thrill in dis­man­tling the game logic, it harmed the in­tegrity of leader­boards for play­ers un­will­ing or un­able to com­pete in that way. The two new modes (each with their own dis­tinct leader­boards) re­dress the bal­ance back in favour of stealthy play. New de­fault Lock­down re­moves all check­points dur­ing an alert, and while it seems ar­bi­trary that the rule ap­plies even to in­ten­tional dis­trac­tions such as Fig­ment, it does much to en­cour­age you to play with some re­spect for pa­trols. Ex­e­cu­tion, mean­while, re­moves all check­points, mak­ing the threat of be­ing caught truly some­thing to fear. Since more than a few of the lat­ter mis­sions force you to be in some peril, dodg­ing reprisal rather than avoid­ing it, this can oc­ca­sion­ally frus­trate, but it caters ex­cel­lently to genre purists and those who’d oth­er­wise find these rel­a­tively sim­ple lev­els too easy.

Thomas Was Alone could be ar­gued to have faced a sim­i­lar prob­lem with its dif­fi­culty curve, but it had its story and the nar­ra­tion of Danny Wal­lace to prop it up. Yet how­ever charm­ingly told the fic­tion is un­der­pin­ning

Vol­ume’s six-hour cam­paign arc, that can­not cover the fact that it is rid­dled with in­vest­ment-drain­ing holes, and nor can know­ing ad­mis­sions of its con­trivances. It’s a bet­ter game than story, then, even if there’s lit­tle wrong with the premise: Rob has ap­pro­pri­ated the game-like en­vi­ron­ment of an AI Vol­ume (Wal­lace) to stick one in the eye to despot Guy Gis­borne (Andy Serkis) by stream­ing lessons to Bri­tain’s un­der­class about how to steal back their valu­ables from the priv­i­leged. In other words, it’s a very con­sciously broad­band age retelling of the Robin Hood fa­ble, com­plete with meme nods and a knock at com­ments thread pos­ing. But where Rob’s re­mote vir­tual setup can ex­cuse in­ven­tive fun with a pickup that sum­mons a short-lived dis­guise or van­ish­ing into a beam of light while un­der hot pur­suit as a get­away, it’s hard to see how such ‘so­lu­tions’ are go­ing to help the out­side world.

Which is cu­ri­ous, since the out­side world is in­stru­men­tal to Vol­ume’s on­go­ing ap­peal. With a pow­er­ful level editor and a list of the best com­mu­nity maps up­dated ev­ery Fri­day, there’s an ever-ex­pand­ing se­lec­tion of tests that tap the nu­ances of Lock­sley’s toolset. While a player­base frag­mented over three dif­fer­ent playstyles rarely presents much in the way of com­pe­ti­tion for leader­board places, some al­readyin­ge­nious user-made lay­outs – the Mil­len­nium Fal­con, the nar­row aisles of a con­cert hall – and that reg­u­lar cu­ra­tion en­sure there will be many new puzzles to solve long af­ter the cam­paign’s teas­ing end­ing.

There’s plenty of vol­ume to Vol­ume, then, and some play­ful twists on genre norms be­sides, at least now there’s a fader knob to deal with for­merly trou­ble­some check­point­ing. Yet as gen­er­ous and beau­ti­ful a pack­age as it is, it’s not al­ways as co­her­ent or flex­i­ble as ap­pear­ances might lead you to be­lieve.

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