Platforms: PS4 | PS Vita | PC (tested)
Developers: Mike Bithell Games
There's a moment in the first few seconds of the Volume tutorial level that kicks off my Eurogamer Expo Friday morning where some disembodied text praises you for working out that the game responds to WASD inputs as you might expect. It's written in such a gently teasing manner that I feel I can almost hear Danny Wallace's voice in my head (there's no voice, Volume does not as yet have voice acting), and it makes me smile, instantly reminding me of the dry, subtle humour that was to be found in Mike Bithell's previous game -- Thomas Was Alone.
But Volume is a very different game to the acclaimed platformer that made us care so very much about a red brick. It's a top-down, fast-paced stealth title with a strikingly clean visual aesthetic and mechanics based almost entirely upon sonic manipulation.
"Volume is a stealth game," Bithell tells me after my hands-on with the game. "It's a little bit retro-leaning, and it's based and inspired on the kind of games I loved when I was a kid. There's a little bit of Metal Gear Solid in there, I'll be honest with you. But it's an attempt to do an arcadey stealth game, hopefully in a cool way that's kind of fun, and then expand on that and do some of my own things with it."
The Metal Gear Solid connection is well made. At this stage, we don't know the story -- though Bithell has announced such details are coming in a matter of weeks at GameCity -- but the setup for each level is immediately clear: collect a certain number of glowing items and do so without getting killed by the patrolling guards. You might not have guns, but they most certainly do. So outmanned and outgunned, and set in well-lit angular surroundings, Volume is about sneaking past more powerful figures than oneself, using whistles (and other sonic tools) to distract guards from their patrols, and ensuring that you stay out of their field of vision.
"The pretentious term I'm using is occlusion stealth -- the idea of hiding around corners to avoid bad guys," explains Bithell. "I think that enough people are doing shadow stealth. I mean, I love shadow stealth, I love waiting in the dark, just seeing the lights on Sam Fisher's back, waiting for that guard to walk past, terrified over whether he'll see me or not. But there's something beautiful about that old-school stealth where you're either in their vision cone or you're not, and it's kind of that nice, clean system. So that's the thinking -- to do something that goes back to that simplicity, I guess, because it makes you feel cool and clever."
So you learn to snap into cover so you can sneak around rooms that guards are watching. You learn to make use of the blocky, solid surroundings to shield you from view when you attract a guard's attention. You learn to make use of the sporadic, man-sized lockers that are occasionally dotted about levels, always bearing in mind that it'll take a second or two to get in and out. You learn that to be seen is to be shot, but that you can lose guards if you make your escape fast enough, and locate a decent spot to hide.
And then you come across the Bugle.
The Bugle is a device that allows you to bounce soundwaves off of walls, a little like throwing one's voice, only with angles and stealthy subversion. Volume is a game that thrives on giving the player visual feedback, so just as the enemy field-of-vision cones are visible, so too is the projected trajectory of your Bugle shot. Hold down the left mouse button to fire, and your aural distraction will zip away, pinging of whatever surface you've directed it towards, and pique the attention of nearby goons. Later on, the game introduces the Blackjack -- essentially an aural stun gun that will knock enemies out for four seconds, and bring their compatriots running.
But you don't have long. Guards will hunt for you, the Blackjack's knockout power lasts shorter than you might expect. Speed, it would seem, is a massive component of this game in a genre that's been frequently known for its slow, patient pacing. But it's a mix and match of waiting for the right moment to strike or creating one yourself with the tools at your disposal, before moving quickly and decisively.
As for the lack of guns (or indeed any real violence) from a player standpoint, Bithell's reasoning is once again that which sets him and many indie developers apart from their larger development peers: he wants to do something a little bit different.
"I think there are enough games with guns in them, and when I play stealth games, often it simply comes down to room clearing," Bithell says. "So I'll play Metal Gear Solid, I'll break five necks, and then I'll move onto the next room. And that's fun and I love that sort of thing, but it's not really stealth, it's more of a power thing; I'm just taking over the room bit by bit. Whereas, because nothing dies in this game, you're always on the edge of being caught and there's that survival thing pushing you forward, which hopefully is something different."
He's captured it brilliantly. I'm a fairly expressive gamer, whether I have an audience or a camera or not, I'll yell at the screen; I'll lean into corners in driving games and brace for collision; I'll wince when I get shot in first-person shooters. In Volume, my breathing pattern ties directly into the movements of Bithell's as-yet-unnamed protagonist and the proximity of the guards. Deep exhalations of relief at the ends of levels, mutterings of NonononononononoNO! as I fear I've been rumbled, whispered-then-yelled instructions to myself and the player character. I get some strange looks.
But this is the beauty of simple mechanisms explored by creative minds looking for new and interesting perspectives. There's no delay in the respawn, encouraging players to try out different approaches to the levels in a way that makes trial-and-error an exploration of the game's systems rather than a laborious chore. There are a spectrum of thrills to be found in the range of approaches between breakneck, near-reckless speed, and a more familiar, cautious approach. The enemies are punishing entities, but the reward for making it through is a feeling of palpable accomplishment, and that tastes good.
There's much more to come, of course. User-generated content is to form a huge part of this game, and Bithell has pencilled in a vague mid-2014 target for Volume's release. You can find out about all of that in the video coming later that showcases our full chat about the game along with much more information and reflections on indie funding, the next-gen battle, and how Bithell's found becoming something of an industry luminary following Thomas Was Alone. But Volume itself makes a great first impression, especially if you're a stealth fan, especially if you grew up on a diet of Metal Gear and Splinter Cell, especially if you value systemic, rewarding experiences. We can't make value judgements at this early stage, of course, but we can say that we're excited. Really, really excited.