How much entertainment volume, does Volume hold?

Thomas Was Alone, so he playfully turned up the VOLUME /WallaceNarration
Thomas Was Alone, so he playfully turned up the VOLUME [/WallaceNarration]
Making a game is easy. Making a good game is not easy, let alone a good game by a one man production company. That is about as common as passing 24K gold kidney stones. Mike Bithell has already struck such rare gold with his first solo project, Thomas Was Alone. It’s fair to say, that Bithell really didn’t do it alone, some would argue that without the clever narration of Danny Wallace and the inspired soundtrack of David Housden that game would not have had the impact and fan connection it had upon release. Bithell Games second effort has come in the shape of Volume, a more complex game than Thomas Was Alone. Volume is not as two dimensional as it’s predecessor; Volume is an isometric stealth action game with higher production values and more thrills all around.

The main story is a distilled Robin Hood plot with a totalitarian modern setting. You play Locksley, a thief running through numerous simulated VR heists of rich people’s assets. Later in the game you discover that these simulations are being recorded, and are being watched by others (VR holographic rooms must be hooked up to twitch.tv) so that they can execute these thefts against England’s “filthy rich.” Alan, the friendly AI that sets up your virtual reality playgrounds, is voiced by the talented Danny Wallace. From the onset of the first dozen levels, Alan and Locksley (voiced by the outclassed Charlie McDonnell) enter into a political and moral conversation about the purpose of your in-game actions. Locksley explains that the reason they are performing and broadcasting these virtual heists is to take from the evil rich and give back to the people. As Alan questions the moral implications of these actions, Locksley replies with more or less “no it’s cool, trust me dude, these guys are really, really, bad‘. How bad are the conditions of the ‘people?’ I don’t know, the game never explores their plight. How evil are these rich people? Again I do not know. How can the recording of these virtual heists help the conditions of totalitarian England? Your guess is as good as mine. If you open up these doors, you are inviting others to comment on them, problem is when you open the door titled “Moral Dilemma” there’s absolutely nothing there. Either dedicate further time into developing the conditions and backstory for what you are trying to convey, or don’t bother. As it stands now, the story mostly rings as hollow as the nondescript corridors and walls you navigate through.

Minimal modern design of levels, not a lot of flash, but it works for using the environment to your advantage
Minimal modern design of levels, not a lot of flash, but it works for using the environment to your advantage
At times the sheer number of overlapping enemies can lead to some daring chases, not enough of these moments!
At times the sheer number of overlapping enemies can lead to some daring chases, not enough of these moments!
Evil rich people in England have very weird houses.
Evil rich people in England have very weird houses.

 

There are additional tidbits of superfluous story elements in text boxes throughout the game, but they don’t add much. The voice acting in this game is very hit or miss. Hits are Danny Wallace and Andy Serkis. Locksley is a clear miss, and that’s being kind. Nearly every line McDonnell delivers is nasal, shrill, and irritating. I’m not one for the YouTube generation of celebrity Youtubers, maybe McDonell is more entertaining on his channel, but as a voice actor this should hopefully be his one and only attempt. Actually, I’m surprised his voice acting passed any kind of Q&A process known to man. It’s clear Bithell Games spent considerable efforts securing voice talent for Volume.  If one known voice actor brought Thomas Was Alone to life, then three should be three times as amazing, right? No, not exactly. I thought Serkis delivered a brooding dark portrayal of Gisborne; could a lesser known voice had done the same or better job? Probably. I think it’s downright universal that anyone could have done a better job as Locksley. Quality should take precedence over the name, it almost seems as if after securing time with Charlie McDonnel, Bithell felt stuck with his shoddy performance, to the  dismay of many ears around the world. At the time of this review, an update allows you to turn off all story elements, due to the huge aural outcry. However I would have favored a No-Locksley option. Or better yet, a voice-your-own-Locksley option. Think of it! It could be Madlibs meets stealth action meets emergent voice-play.

Musical tracks take you from the tension of stalking through mobile puzzles, to the frantic race to escape detection. The musical mixes range in complexity but fit each portion of the game nicely. I love the cascading voices that highlight the more dramatic moments, particularly when you are spotted and the chase ensues. Housden delivers consistent work for these games. In contrast the visual style for Volume is minimalist throughout, but that isn’t necessarily a bad trait. This minimal look places the focus not on the decorations in the rooms you pass through, but on the dangerous elements you are trying to avoid. Cluttering up your isometric view could hinder the darting back and forth towards your goals. There are nicer touches to its visual style such as accurate shadows, some perspective blurs and and other detailed flourishes.

The stealth action is really the meat of the game, and Volume serves a generous portion for gamers. Controls are responsive and quick and blended to fit the action perfectly. Keyboard and game controllers have excellent responsiveness. Each level requires you to navigate through a series of enemy detection layouts collecting every gem before exiting through a predetermined point. At first you are taught to use the environment, crouching behind low walls, whistling, or other means to distract guards long enough to creep past. Later you are introduced to tools to further lengthen the amount of time or how the guards are distracted. These guards, sadly, are not very bright. They make up for it with how fast they can lock on their weapons and shoot you. With practice one or two guards can be eluded easily between columns and short corridors. As the game and complexity progress however, the mixture of enemies with long, short, and wide vision cones leads to impossible escape scenarios for those who want to plow through levels.

 

 

Volume introduces you to a variety of gadgets that can aid your missions. One device gives you a slight boost to speed while moving silently. Another can be bounced off walls and creates a diversionary noise. Sadly some of these gadget effects are not going to make you want to call John Carmack and ask him to put down his OpenGL handbook. They are simply a glowing box on the floor. A scribbly line and a white circle denoting its area of effect. Some are also explained in goofy terminologies. Take the oddity gadget. I supposed it’s something that when these AI robots look at it, it scrambles their detection software, fixating their sight on the device. This strange gadget looks like a glowing square when deployed. Textual instructions just say “it’s an oddity!” which is trite. This device  allows you to sneak by guards and turrets banging cymbals together and they will barely notice. Which brings up another question, if these gadgets can help you steal from the rich, why do the rich litter their homes with these devices? Or better yet, if you are a professional thief, why not carry an array of these gadgets wherever you go? Another reason why the premise of this game should have been refined.

The diverse layouts of guards, traps, turrets, and more will have give you plenty to think about, and plan for.
The diverse layouts of guards, traps, turrets, and more will have give you plenty to think about, and plan for.

 

There is plenty of game to playthrough, with lots of puzzles to solve There are levels that simply shine in various ways. Some are geared towards purposely generating alarms and pulling guards towards one area. Others require rigid precision and clear steps to solve. I enjoyed the variety. My favorite levels where the ones that had multiple gadgets, a variety of paths, and you were simply left to your own devices. Volume keeps track of your time, and compares it to other gamers, I did not feel that was a compelling reason to replay any of these levels. Volume also comes with a level editor, for further pushing this game’s boundaries with your own creativity, and sharing it with the world.

Overall Volume does in fact entertain. While not an original game, it is a solid, well made title. I wasn’t fighting controls. I enjoyed experimenting with multiple routes and the quick paced tactics required on mostly every level. Bithell Games has already released multiple updates to this title; it’s always encouraging to see a developer respond quickly to technical issues or fan suggestions. The main gripes I had with this game have not gone away. A bigger cast of known voice actors does not necessarily mean your story is better if their quality of acting is poor. Most of the plot required refinement and perhaps a copy editor. These things are superfluous, and it does not answer the fundamental question “is it fun?”. Yes, yes it is.

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Volume - How it rates?

Score - 8

8

Fun

Much higher production values than Thomas Was Alone, not all aspects are perfect, or even warranted, but it's a fun game.