I have something to confess…I have never played Thomas Was Alone. I just knew what I read about it. Still, when the opportunity to interview Mike Bithell on his new game came along, I didn’t miss the chance. And I believe my lack of knowledge on his earlier work let me focus entirely on the new game, which is pretty damn cool!
Before that happened though I took the time to play the game, Volume. Set in the not-so-distant future, England’s been taken over by a corporation and its evil CEO Guy Gisborne (voiced by the extremely talented Andy Serkis), who rose to power by training agents using the Volume system, VR military simulations.
Your character is Rob Locksley. Having stolen a Volume unit, he sets out to run simulations for crimes against the rich and powerful, spreading his virtual accomplishments online. Mike described it as “Let’s Play for crimes.”
This is an isometric stealth game, where the aim is to collect all the treasure in a level before heading off to the exit. On the way you’ll use gadgets to distract or bypass the Volume system’s security guards. For the demo levels there were three types: Pawns, the basic patrolling guards; Archers, snipers with a long but narrow field-of-vision cone; and Rogues, static guards with a large circular detection zone. But according to Mike, there are even more, including dogs who will sniff you out and bring guards to your position, turrets and even a Knight coming after you with a freaking sword.
Of all the guards in the demo, I had the most problems with the Rogue. I managed to get past its humongous detection circle once, but then, almost as if it had learned from our encounter, it would shoot me at once, not letting me make a single move! I can’t even imagine how fun it’ll be with dogs running around!
As a fan of sneak-em-ups like Thief, I had a ton of fun with Volume. But the best moment for me was when I made my way through one of the stages without collecting the gadget, much to the team’s surprise. They were amazed I’d made it so far, and Mike said he loved when that happened, when people ‘broke’ the game. He feels it gives players a sense of ownership, of having done something unique. On the gadgets, the demo had two, a mask to make you undetectable to guards for a limited time (aka the one I didn’t pick up), and a small ball you can throw and detonate to draw the guards’ attention. Mike mentions there are even more gadgets in the full release but you can only equip one at a time, even if there are multiple in a stage. The one you pick up replaces the previous one, though you can always go back to that one’s spawn point and pick it up again.
I wondered about the Enemy AI, as at some point I was right next to a guard and he didn’t detect me, and Mike said that was intentional. The guards detect you if they see you within their field of view, if they hear you, or if you crash into them. I never had a problem with the last one. I’m a stealth master…and I died quite a bit to getting shot.
If they detect you, the Volume guards will fire and one shot is enough to kill you. But it’s not the end because you’ll reset almost instantly. I asked if there was a limited retry system and Mike said there wasn’t because the point was to experiment and he didn’t want to frustrate players with continues or loading screens.
As this is a Robin Hood adaptation, I had to ask, would we see the merry men? His answer was both yes and no. Mike said there would be references and nods and you would hear about familiar characters but that the central ones would remain Rob and Alan, the Volume AI.
Over the course of the game you’ll learn of the world and plot through Locksley and Alan, but what Bithell and his team have done with that is extremely cool: the story isn’t tied to the challenging 100 levels the game will ship with. You can still get the full story and their conversations even if you only play community created levels. I experienced this during my time with the demo. I ended a level mid-conversation and thought I was going to miss it, but it picked right back up the second the new level loaded. So no matter if you’re clearing levels like a pro, you’ll never miss the story and that is outstanding.
Community levels are what Mike and his teams are most excited about. He wants to see what the community can create. When I mentioned impossible levels though, he assured me there was no chance of that. One of the rules they’ve established explicitly bans that and requires that there’s evidence it’s possible to complete the level before submission. I think that’s fair enough, don’t you?
With how the game works, I mentioned if they had thought about touch controls, but he said that was something they would look at down the line. For now, they preferred a gamepad or a keyboard because they offered tighter controls and to be honest the game does requires tight controls, especially when you’re escaping from the guards.
In terms of development and having spoken to so many developers about it, I found Mike and his team were also working on Unity 5, and he sounded excited about it, telling me how it allowed them to completely overhaul the game’s lighting system, making it look even better. Sadly, he mentions, they’re right over the limit where they need to start paying for the engine, but he does like the fact that it’s gone free.
I had a great time talking to Mike—and it was awesome to do so in the press lounge—and I had a lot of fun playing the game. I can’t wait for its release later this year and give the level editor a chance and make a nigh-impossible level, just possible enough to make it through their checks! I am after all an evil man!
The game will be released on PS4,Vita and PC.