Volume Review

There’s just a few hours before the elite soldiers of the tyrannical rulers of England will find Robin Locksley and put an end to broadcast, so he’s using what little time he has wisely. Unlike many versions of the Robin Hood myth, this futuristic retelling doesn’t have Robin directly stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, but broadcasting simulated burglaries to show the repressed populace how they might retake the country from Gisborne and his cohorts for themselves.

In order to be able to do so, Locksley repurposes an old and outdated ‘volume’, an AI named Alan with the ability to construct holographic environments for him to run around in. Its these projections which give Volume its distinctive look, with everything created quite simplistically out of polygons, but with a colourful palette of colours to choose from.

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It’s easy to see the inspiration of Metal Gear Solid’s VR Missions within this look, from the top down viewpoint and even some of the gameplay itself, but it also has its own identity at the same time. The guards that patrol are suitably angular constructs, replete with crossbows for that medieval feel, and the way that the environments pulse when subjected to audio disturbances or when you fail and are brought down by the guards is simply gorgeous.

It gives the game the feel of a virtual playground, which isn’t far off the military training simulator the technology was used for within the story, and as such, it gives you a great deal of visual feedback to work with. The guards, which come in various different forms, all have clear and obvious cones of vision, which you’ll need to avoid to stay hidden. Locksley’s walk is naturally crouched and slow enough to not make noisy footsteps, but attaching to low cover will allow you to duck underneath a cone of vision.

However, sometimes you will want to draw a guard’s attention, to disrupt their patterns or create an opening for you to skirt past them. If you’re close enough, you can whistle, but the various gadgets that you come across often offer a more effective solution. They start off with things like the Bugle, which lets you bounce a noisemaker off multiple walls and draw guards away to investigate, but they soon become quite a bit more advanced.

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You can silence your footsteps temporarily and run across the noisy boobytraps that would alert guards, or stun enemies – but never kill – for a short time with tripwires or more direct means. While some take a little getting used to and preperation, the only gadget I truly struggled with was the Figment, which sends a fake Locksley running past a guard to draw their attention. Too often, I felt like I was far enough away to do so, only for the guard to instantly swivel to spot the Figment, walk towards it and then catch me in its gaze as well, often causing me to restart from a checkpoint.

There’s a pleasing variety across the 100 ‘core’ levels in the game, both in their look – albeit with a slight fixation on dinosaurs – and their layout, as they’re always adding a new enemy, a new gadget or a some other element to keep things fresh and evolve the gameplay further over the course of four to five hours – though I’m sure a speed run could do them in a canonical three. In many cases, they come out feeling more like puzzles to solve, as you try to pick up the gems that activate the exit while dodging guards and making use of whatever gadgets are featured in that particular level to do so.

However, I found the checkpoint system to be overly lenient, and effectively let me cheat my way through some levels. As long as you hit a checkpoint before you’re shot or captured by the simulated guards, the time is rewound and you will respawn at that point with all of the guards back on their regular routines. It’s obviously been done in the name of accessibility, but with levels set against the clock, this can fudge the resulting times. The game is also missing little awards or markers for successfully completing levels without restarting a checkpoint or without being discovered, which could give you a little more impetus to revisit levels later.

It leads to something that’s surprisingly fast paced for a stealth game. Levels can generally be completed in just a few minutes, with some coming in under the 60 second mark, and with the clock ticking and your times being recorded, there’s always that impetus to try and finish as quickly as possible, if not an outright ‘just one more go’ compulsion. This high pace is helped by the manner in which guards investigate, heading to a disturbance and, if they can’t spot you, briefly looking around before returning to their post.

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The Robin Hood mythos has been successfully transposed to a futuristic setting, but the manner of the story’s delivery often felt a little disjointed and fell flat for me. Incidental plot points don’t make sense within the story’s three hour window of simulated burgulary, but the main problem I had stemmed from simply playing the game. Alongside a handful of cinematics, much of the story is dialogue and interactions that occur as you’re playing a level, but should you alert a guard, a given line of dialogue is stopped until you evade them successfully or are caught and restart a checkpoint.

While intentional, so that I wouldn’t miss some character interactions, it did mean that I heard the start of some lines five or six times as I blundered in and out of trouble and disrupted some of the dialogue’s flow. Perhaps I should have stood stock still, but either way, it’s a shame because there’s an excellent cast of actors and some lovely interplay between them. In particular Danny Wallace does a much better job as the AI Alan than a certain AAA game managed with a different AI, and the relationship and bond between him and Locksley is nicely played and nuanced, with Charlie McDonnell was very well cast for the idealistic, if naive young outlaw. Andy Serkis’ Guy Gisborne, when he appears in the second half of the story, is a suitably menacing antagonist through to the story’s climactic moments.

Quite necessarily, much of the background to this futuristic England is broken up into little snippets of information that are dotted around the levels. Some of these notes will be messages about a new gadget from Alan, but very often they hold development documents from the creation and advancement of the volumes, or are retrospective excerpts that look at Gisborne’s swift rise to power. History, as they say, is written by the victors, and it’s fascinating to look at what has been wrought upon England in this dystopian world.

Yet the end of the story is potentially just the beginning for Volume. The 100 ‘core’ levels will be added to over time by the inclusion of a set of level creation and sharing tools – if you’ve yet to complete it, you can actually trigger the story dialogue while playing custom levels, which is an intriguing decision.

Getting used to creating for the game’s specific camera angle will take getting used to and I would have liked to see even a light tutorial for this and things like creating guard patrol routes, but it’s still fairly simple to pick up how it works and start slotting together a layout from all the tiles and items at your disposal. For those simply looking for more levels to play, the Staff Picks section when browsing will come to bring the best creations to the fore.

What’s Good:

  • Distilled classic stealth game mechanics.
  • Wonderfully distinctive art style.
  • Great cast of characters and actors.
  • Relatively simple to use level editor.

What’s Bad:

  • Story can feel disjointed depending on how you play.
  • Overly lenient checkpoint system.
  • Using the Figment is difficult to judge.

Coming off the back of Thomas Was Alone, Volume is a much more ambitious and expansive project, and there’s little sign of this being a difficult second album. It can miss the mark in a few areas, depending on how you play, but this is a clever distillation of the classic stealth genre wrapped up in an excellent retelling of a classic English legend.

Score: 8/10

Version tested: PC

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7 Comments

  1. Great review, the game looks wonderful. The stripped back stealth is really appealing and I like that it’s not been muddled with weapons, just a few gadgets instead. Good choice of release date too, another Metal Gear game right round the corner only makes me want this more. I’m really looking forward to getting stuck into another Bithell story now, roll on the store update! F5-F5-F5-F5-F5!

    • I’d stop hitting F5 if I were you. Looks like it’s not out until tomorrow here. The new “update the store on a Tuesday” plan is still being weird. It’s more like “update the store on a Tuesday with some games, and but the others up on Wednesday. Or Thursday. Or Friday. Or possibly next Tuesday”.

      • Yep, European PS4 is on the 19th, and the Vita version has been pushed back a few weeks.

      • Really? Bugger, that’s crap news. I knew about the Vita delay but this is a genuine disappointment. Oh well, at least I’m off work tomorrow too, and thanks for the info guys my F5 key is breathing a sigh of relief.

  2. “a slight fixation on dinosaurs” – that should be on the box.

  3. Is it just one guy that did this? Like he did Thomas Was Alone?

    • Not this time. Bithell brought together a small team of people to work on the game, but it was still just a small team.

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