Turn It Up
Thomas Was Alone is the previous Mike Bithell game, and it was a cute, minimalist platformer that I enjoyed but would probably never play again. It was fun and all, but it's really a once-and-done kind of experience. Unless you forget the storyline (which forms the bulk of the appeal of the game), there aren't a lot of reasons to keep playing. Volume isn't like Thomas Was Alone much at all. It's better.
Volume is a top-down-ish stealth game. The plot is an anti-authority tale that is irrelevant, because it's not the game's strong suit and it's almost incomprehensible. It's an awful lot like Metal Gear Solid, in that you sneak around and avoid the enemies' vision cones as you make your way through 100 core levels. Each level takes no longer than 5 minutes to play from start to finish, but that's assuming you never fail. You will fail, but the game is extremely generous with checkpoints. The punishment for failure is a matter of seconds lost, not minutes. Each level has a par time. It's almost encouraging speedruns. It took me about 6 hours, 20 minutes from game start to game finish.
The stealth feels rock solid. If you're not in a vision cone or making noise, you are absolutely invisible. Unrealistic in a way, but completely unambiguous. The game has a crisp, clean design with an abstract, minimalist style. Everything is sharp polygons, which is appropriate as the game takes place inside a simulation. There are a half dozen enemies with their own strengths and weaknesses. Each level is almost a puzzle to be solved with your sneakiness and tools. The tools are doled out most of the game, so even late game is introducing new mechanics.
The whole 100 level core game could be considered an extended tutorial as the game comes with tools to build levels yourself right in the game's interface. No need to download sketchy mods or juggle programs; you can browse user-made levels from within the game as well as create your own. The user-made levels also feature a rating system, and there are "staff picks" if you don't trust the judgment of other Volume players.
Where Volume stumbles is in its story and controls. As mentioned earlier, the story is a muddled mess. It's obviously of the "people rising up against The Man" variety, but it's dribbled out across level descriptions, in-game notes, and three cutscenes. It's not great. And the controls, when played with a standard Xbox 360 type controller, are a little weird. The game fully supported the controller, but all of the button prompts were for keyboard + mouse controls, so I had to fumble a little to find the right buttons. Even with the correct buttons located, the controls seemed to eschew the face buttons in favor of the triggers and bumpers. It's a very minor quibble, but still a little jarring in an otherwise extremely well-made game.
I had a hard time putting Volume down. I spent most of the holiday weekend playing it, and it very much invoked a "one more level" feeling in me. It's not a particularly difficult game, but in the more challenging sections, I truly appreciated knowing that it wasn't an unfair game. It's just that I hadn't figured out how to "solve" the particular challenge yet. It's not going to set the world on fire, and it has a couple of minor flaws, but it made me happy for being such a straightforward and enjoyable game. It's well worth your time for a weekend.
Baseline Assessment: 8/10
Bonuses: +1 well designed and consistent gameplay
Penalties: -1 weak plot
Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 (well worth your time and attention)
POSTED BY: brian, sci-fi/fantasy/video game dork and contributor since 2014
Reference: Mike Bithell Games. Volume [Mike Bithell Games, 2015]