Foul things are astir in England.
A calculative arms dealer has come to absolute power with the help of his cyber army and a band of corrupted politicians. Under his rule the rich stay rich, the poor stay poor, and free thought is actively suppressed by AI-controlled information channels. What’s to be done for this grim dystopia? If only we had a guy in a hood, or like a mask, to strike from the dark and slowly bring this evil regime to the ground. Oh, we do. Great! Let’s get on with it, then. Does this sound familiar yet?
Such are the narrative essentials of Mike Bithell’s Volume, a futuristic retelling of the Robin Hood legend, except instead of a guy with green tights and a bow (and probably a mustache), society’s bright future depends on a masked teenager with an extremely fancy video game console. And a webcam.
This teenager is Robert Locksley (voiced by Charlie McDonnell), who, however bored he might always sound, embarks on a systematic sabotage of the ruling class to realize his Dream of a peaceful, equitable England. He goes about this by sneaking around simulations of important dictatorial bases and stealing 3D gems, all of which is rendered by his AI friend, Alan (Danny Wallace). The whole operation’s broadcasted throughout England, with the idea being that the common folk can then perform Rob’s simulations in the real world to reclaim what’s rightfully theirs.
With the exception of a few (very blurry) cutscenes, the tale unfolds through overdubbed dialogue and recovered scraps of newspaper or email. It’s mostly predictable and uninteresting, offering little more than vague, undercooked ruminations on modern societal imbalances, but it does pose a few potentially important (and increasingly relevant) questions about human-AI relations. By the end of Volume’s roughly eight-hour core campaign, I hadn’t stuck around out of any narrative momentum, or for any of the characters (though Andy Serkis killed as the icy, conniving Gisborne). I’d stuck around because sneaking through Volume’s polygon-y corridors is pretty fun.
And if that sounds lukewarm, it’s meant to. As Volume’s story offers little in terms of narrative inventiveness, there’s also not much new on the gameplay front. The easy comparison here is Metal Gear, particularly VR Missions. You’ll sidle and jump around trap-riddled maps that grow incrementally more challenging as your obstacles—and available spy gadgets—become more and more diverse. Things start simply enough: easily distracted pawns (must’ve been the wind!), empty lockers to hide in. Then things get a little hairier (as they tend to do). Attack dogs with wider vision might join the pawns, while you gain a projectile noisemaker for long-range distraction. Or, later on, a gigantic knight with a gigantic sword might stand a step away from your end objective, demanding you kite and evade with the help of your shiny new trip wire.
Circumventing a newly introduced obstacle can be satisfying and fun, as can using a new gadget the first couple of times. But the novelty of such moments is offset by the game’s overall lack of challenge. Through Volume’s hundred core maps, the solutions were routinely pretty straightforward and easy to discover, thus I rarely (if ever) felt any sense of true accomplishment. This problem is only exacerbated by the game’s generous array of checkpoints, which not only save any objectives achieved by then, but also incur zero penalty on completion time. Thus a map could easily be solved with an element of planned failure: nab the diamonds by that sniper, then hit the checkpoint just before he pulls the trigger. Considering completion time offers the only real reason to replay Volume’s core content—and, more importantly, the only means of online competition—checkpoints seem to undermine one of the game’s more compelling facets of challenge.
Luckily for those taken enough by this particular take on stealth platforming, there’s virtually endless opportunity to test your guile past the core campaign thanks to the built-in map editor. The editor itself is easy to use, but complete, placing every variety of prop, enemy, and cosmetic adjustment in creators’ hands. Players who found the 100 base maps insufficiently challenging can then look to an ever expanding market of user-created maps, which are filtered and ranked according to difficulty. Especially creative or high-quality designs, meanwhile, might make a rotating list of Staff Picks.
Indeed: such replayability (or maybe extendibility? Is that even a word?) might be Volume’s greatest virtue, but only for those willing to overlook its flaws. If I were to summarize Volume’s design elements in a word, it might be appropriate: the sharp, low-polygon virtual reality aesthetic feels appropriate for any virtual reality stealth game; David Housden’s dramatic, electro-orchestral score feels appropriate for any futuristic espionage thriller. And, for my money, crawling, sidling, and dashing around as Rob only follows suit in this way, delivering an experience appropriate for the stealth platforming genre, but one devoid of surprise.