ABSTRACT shapes and themes defined early videogames by necessity. But now that computers can push around millions of polygons for near photo-realism, anything abstract stands out like a sore thumb, for good or ill.
Mike Bithell’s previous game, Thomas Was Alone, consisted of little more than fidgety rectangles but nonetheless proved utterly compelling, winning a BAFTA for its narration by British comic Danny Wallace.
Bithell steps up the visual presentation by an order of magnitude in his latest release, Volume. Yet it’s still defined by angular graphics and a strict, but gloriously unrealistic videogame logic.
The creator admits a huge debt to the stealth of Metal Gear Solid with Volume, in which a hacker-thief stalks the virtual corridors of a mega-corporation, pinching jewels from under the noses of patrolling guards, auto-turrets and dogs.
Bithell has gone to considerable lengths to shoehorn in a plot about a hacker broadcasting these virtual heists to an awed Twitch-like audience. But this underlying story feels detached from the gameplay despite the sinister voiceover of Andy Serkis as the boss of the mega-corp.
Yet the game can still be enjoyed just as a purist test of logic and puzzle-solving. Across 100 levels, Bithell teases and challenges with a growing set of rules and obstacles, as the hacker gains new skills and acquires a choice of distraction gadgets. You might throw a lure to attract the attention of a patrol and divert him from his path. Or simply flush a toilet to cause him to investigate while you slip past.
With a few knowing nods to Pac-Man, Volume is about learning guard patterns and improvising with the gadgets to ghost your way to the exit.
The 1.0 release made a nonsense of the stealth approach due to frequent checkpoints that allow players to cheese a solution to most levels. However, a new 1.1 patch has added two new difficulty levels in which the checkpoints either don’t exist or activate only when guards aren’t on alert. Don’t be tempted to stick with the original set-up unless you want to compete for the speed-run records.
Bithell generously includes a level editor to throw the doors open to the community’s creativity. It’s simple and intuitive but, like all such editors, only a few talented amateurs will produce entertaining, well balanced maps. Helpfully, the best will be highlighted via a Staff Picks filter in the menus.
Volume’s PS4 release still feels a trifle buggy, with save data corruption the worst offender during occasional crashes.
But don’t let it deter you from buying into a consistently entertaining puzzle world where stealth is king and the abstract staging adds rather than subtracts from Volume’s intelligent playability.