It's hard to get stealth right. Within the confines of a stealth game, the power comes not through overwhelming force, but through the number of options available to a player. Real stealth is a puzzle game; if you're seen, that means you didn't find the right solution to the puzzle. One key of great stealth is feedback, letting the player know that they're in cover, shade, or darkness. Vision cones, light meters, sound indicators; these are all features added to let players know if they can or cannot be seen.
As our stealth games have gotten bigger and trended towards more realistic environments, visual clarity in stealth is something that is sometimes lost. Some developers stick to a fuzzier stealth paradigm, forcing players to understand the specific rhythms of the game to stay hidden. I understand the intricacies of Splinter Cell or Assassin's Creed's implementations of stealth, but you may have harder time just getting into the series. If you're hiding inside that very realistic bush or shrubbery, can you be seen by your enemies? Maybe. If you're in that dark corner, is it dark enough that you're truly hidden? You'll find out when that guard turns the corner.
Volume is not one of those games.
Volume is the latest title from Thomas Was Alone developer Mike Bithell. Volume stars Robert Locksley - based on loosely on the literary Robin Hood - a small-time thief who finds an artificial intelligence that allows him simulate high profile heists. Within these virtual heists, Locksley has to collect glowing crystals and make it to the exit point without being seen.
It feels a lot like the old stealth missions in Metal Gear Solid: VR Missions, with one stark difference. Our boy Rob is a thief, so you lack the ability to fight your way out if you're seen. Instead, Volume is all about non-lethal stealth action. Hide behind cover, navigate corners, hide in closets, hack terminals, and stay out of sight.
The best part about the demo of Volume I played last week at E3 is that the stealth indicators are 100 percent clear. An enemy's vision cone is the extent that they can see you. Even if you're in line of sight, if you're not within that cone, you're in the clear. You can make noise - there's even a throwable bugle device that allows you to do so remotely - and the sound bubble is a stark indicator of what your enemy can and cannot hear. If they're within the sound bubble, they'll hear the noise and investigate it. The top-down camera gives you information you'd lack if the game had you playing in the traditional behind-the-back third person camera. (It's one of the reasons modern stealth games require Eagle Vision/Detective Mode, otherwise you lack that information about your surroundings.)
Within a few minutes and deaths (you can hold down a button to reset to a previous checkpoint at any time), I had the game's basic flow down. Getting into Volume is easy and my only moment of confusion was in dealing with one of the later gadgets Robert gains access to. That's great, because I spent less time testing boundaries and more time trying to beat each level.
All of this action plays out of these beautiful monochromatic levels. The simplicity in the level design has an added bonus: while Bithell himself will be hand-crafting around 100 levels for the game's primary plot, the real focus of Volume is in user-generated content.
After I played a few levels from the game itself, I was briefly shown the level creator. Even with the Dual Shock 4 controller, laying down floors, walls, terminals, and sentries was easy. You could probably bang out a solid level that would fit right into the early parts of the game in 10-15 minutes. Once you're done with your level, you can upload it, so others in the community can play and rate it. I'm always excited for a solid, simple stealth experience - Assassin's Creed Chronicles being the last one I've played - but I'm pumped to see what will come of the community's efforts. The level editor here doesn't seem to require a ton of learning, so I'm expecting something special a few weeks out from launch.
Speaking of launch, Volume isn't coming in 2016. The game will be out for Steam (PC and Mac), PlayStation 4, and PlayStation Vita on August 18, this year. If you're fiending for a smooth stealth experience, Volume is in your near future. I suggest you pick it up.