Show, don’t tell. It’s a rule of film making you might have heard of, and it applies to videogames just as effectively. Basically, it means that if you’re having to tell your story entirely in words, then you’re not doing a good enough job of conveying it through the images on screen. Mike Bithell’s Volume is an attractive, sometimes charming sneak-em-up, but it has no idea how to tell its story, other than through awkward, disconnected voiceovers. It’s got its share of gameplay hiccups too, but if you can look past those, the stealth fans among you will enjoy the gameplay on offer here. Just don’t hold your breath for the story.
The game has a simple premise. You break into an old military training simulator, and start broadcasting your antics to the web. Britain’s languishing under the grip of an evil dictator, played to sinister effect by Andy Serkis, and you plan to usurp his rule by showing people how to steal. A modern day Robin Hood – you’re even called Rob Locksley. So far so good. However, the fact that the gameplay is almost totally abstract and has limited grounding in real world logic sadly hamstrings the concept before it gets going. There are other complaints to make, but really, that’s the kicker. There’s a fun cyberpunk story here, and a neat little stealth game… But the two simply don’t connect. Now let’s talk gameplay.
Stealth games are all about suspense. You try a route through the level, you’re caught, adrenaline kicks in as you try to fight or flee. That’s the reason the best stealth games involve combat, but make it prohibitively hard for most players. Alarms are the absolute core of the genre. You’re constantly trying to avoid that blaring siren, dodge the attention of a guard, find a path through the trials ahead of you. Volume’s inability to understand the importance of suspense is its first big stumbling block.
The flat polygons of the games retro VR spaces do a great job of telling you what you can and can’t do. Guard vision is a clear cone, traps are easy to see. That’s good. However, when a guard spots you, it’s incredibly easy to simply run around a corner and crouch inches from them. Considering the story starts with you booting up an old AI to run stealth scenarios for you to explore, it’s ironic that the guards’ behaviour involves no intelligence whatsoever. Dumb patrolling guards are fine, but once you’re spotted, it should be a real problem for the player to escape. In Volume however, checkpoints are scattered everywhere, and if you’re being chased, it’s usually easiest to just keep crouching behind walls to break a guard’s aim, and head for the nearest checkpoint. Get caught, and the checkpoint sends the guards back to their normal patrols. Combine this with the fact most guards take time to charge up a shot when they spot you, and brute forcing levels becomes far too easy. There’s no suspense.
That’s a pity, because when the game finally gets going, some of its levels are really charming. The later standard enemy, the Knight, is genuinely threatening, and forces you to think your way through attractively laid out, starkly coloured spaces. There’s an array of powerups to use, some of them very satisfying, if a bit overpowered, and your goals are clear. It’s just a shame the game takes a good seventy levels to reach its stride. Volume tries to do too much. It’s got a lovely art style, a few great voice actors and some robust stealth gameplay. It just loses itself in the details of tying the whole experience together. If you’re going to make a game about a dark, dystopian future; laden with imagery of police oppression and caste systems, maybe don’t have a protagonist who cheerily parrots the line “You’re welcome, Internets!” every dozen levels. Just a thought.