Volume Review: Charming MGS-inspired Adventures Of A Futuristic Robin Hood

There are two types of Metal Gear Solid fans. Some love the game for its increasingly dense plot, rich with oblique references to philosophy, information science, and conspiracy theories, as well as developer Hideo Kojima’s off-kilter sense of humour and love of easter eggs. For those people, September’s Metal Gear Solid V is likely to scratch that itch.

The other type of Metal Gear Solid fan loves the series for its self-proclaimed “tactical espionage action”. That’s the aspect of the series I’ve always loved: stealth gameplay which verges on pure puzzles at times, throwing the protagonist Snake into a room full of cameras, guards and mines and tasking the player to get to the other side without being seen.

But it’s an aspect of the game that the MGS series has increasingly shied away from, as the environments have become more expansive, the gunplay more refined, and the AI less mechanistic, and so for some – for me – the series peaked with the first game.

But for the real connoisseurs, there was a follow-up that scratched that itch even better: 1999’s Metal Gear Solid: Special Missions, an expansion pack which took the VR training environment of the first game one step further, and presented a whole disc of stealth puzzles to mull over.

Some of us have been waiting 16 years for a worthy follow-up to that game, and we’ve finally got it.

Volume is the second game by Mike Bithell, the indie developer behind 2010’s breakout hit Thomas Was Alone. Ostensibly a simple platformer, starring Thomas, a red rectangle, it soared on its witty script, performed by comedian Danny Wallace, which addressed topics such as identity, friendship and artificial intelligence.

With Volume, Bithell has recaptured that charm, but this time built around the loose framework of 1990s era Metal Gear Solid, rather than 2000s-era Flash platformers.

Volume wears its influences on its sleeve. Volume wears its influences on its sleeve. Photograph: Volume/Alex Hern

The game stars Rob Locksley, a young hacker doing his best to fight back against an oligarchical dictatorship in a future England, ruled by the villainous Guy Gisborne. If the names don’t spark recognition, the fact that Locksley robs from the rich to give to the poor should: Volume presents a futuristic retelling of the Robin Hood mythos.

Its world suggests a future in which the commodification of artificial intelligence has led to an astronomical divide between rich and poor, and ultimately a strengthening of Britain’s class system, with the world split between those who protect (the aristocracy), those who serve (artificial intelligence) and those who feed (everyone else). Like the best science fiction, at times it feels ripped from the headlines: there’s no doubt that Bithell wants to tell a story about our world.

Of course, weighty polemics about inequality don’t lend themselves to charmingly witty scripts, and so the whole thing is viewed through a neat angle: Rob (voiced by YouTuber Charlie McDonnell) is essentially the world’s first Twitch terrorist/freedom fighter. Using a military training AI pilfered from Guy Gisborne (Andy Serkis, in a casting coup by Bithell), he loads up simulations of the homes of the rich and famous, and proceeds to rob them, broadcasting his techniques for all to see – and mimic in real life.

Fellow streamer Tuck lays into Rob on their first encounter. Fellow streamer Tuck lays into Rob on their first encounter. Photograph: Volume/Alex Hern

The conceit plays out nicely, with Rob’s growing fanbase giving him increasing power to battle Gisborne, while they also egg him on to crack tougher and better protected targets. But the heart of the story lies in the interaction between Rob and Alan, his pilfered AI (voiced by Wallace, back for more – and suggesting a potential link between Bithell’s two games). Alan’s not happy about being nicked, and certainly not happy about having his memory wiped, but he grudgingly comes to support Rob’s campaign.

Related: Metal Gear Squalid: has Kojima gone too bloody far this time?

The heists themselves wear the VR Missions influence on their sleeve, from the mechanics to the aesthetics, but they also innovate in their own way. Crucially, Rob is clear from the off: “no guns”. The virtual soldiers he’s training against may be just programmes, but the people he’s inspiring are very real.

That emphasises the puzzle aspect of the game over the action side, with the hardest levels feeling like there’s just one correct solution. But it also means that the forgiving nature of the game’s alert system – which sees guards forgetting you and going back to their patrols if you make it out of their eyeline – can counterintuitively make it harder to play. The temptation to play sloppily, darting in and out of sight, means that the actual solution to the levels’ puzzles gets obscured. Rather than rethinking your approach, you end up throwing yourself at the wall again and again until you give up in frustration.

For me, that reached its nadir in a level which sees the player take on a combination of guards with 360? visions and lasers, with just a gadget called an “oud”. Try as I might, I couldn’t do it without tripping a laser, and always ended up getting shot tantalisingly close to the finish. Only a well-placed hint over email from a fellow journalist prevented me throwing my laptop at the wall.

But then, I’m really bad at games. And the atmosphere, voice acting and plot had me coming back for more even when the puzzles overwhelmed me. Now, if Bithell’s next game could revive the mechanics of 1997 pirate adventure Overboard!, my nostalgia will be complete.

Volume is out now for PS4, PC and Mac (version reviewed). The PS Vita edition is forthcoming.

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