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.