Disclosure: The writer received a free download code of the PS4 edition of the game.
Volition’s Agents of Mayhem, the alternate universe successor to the Saints Row franchise, foregoes the gangland violence of the first three games and amps up the weirdness from the fourth to deliver conflicts of much more overblown proportions. Players control the titular Agents of M.A.Y.H.E.M. (Multinational Agency Hunting Evil Masterminds, there is no Y), an agency formed by reformed villain Persephone Brimstone tasked with defeating the diabolical L.E.G.I.O.N. (the League of Evil Gentlemen Intent on Obliterating Nations). Inspired largely by Saturday morning cartoons and super hero movies, players roam the streets of a futuristic Seoul in squads of three thwarting L.E.G.I.O.N. in their attempts at taking over the city. At your command are the motley crew of M.A.Y.H.E.M.: a movie star with an ego as huge as his gun, a roller derby girl with a drinking problem, a turncoat yakuza enforcer, and many more colorful characters.
This game had me at “G.I. Joe versus Cobra Megafight 2020.” There are just so many ideas to mine from the concept and with Mayhem’s wacky cast, sandbox setting and Volition’s trademark humor, there’s plenty to be excited about. But does it measure up?
There’s a clear love and passion for the game on the developer’s part—the art direction, the Evil Plots of the Week, the space lasers, the talking cars, the Mayhem Knows loading screens (Remember Knowing is Half the Battle?) and several other winks and nods to the game’s Saturday morning muses tell me the game’s theme is either very near and dear to the developers’ hearts, or at the very least they’ve done their research. There’s a distinct ‘80s feel in everything but with a 2017 sheen. Everything about the game’s look is how I imagine DreamWorks Animation of Voltron: Legendary Defender fame would have handled a modern adaptation of G.I. Joe or M.A.S.K., but with Volition’s trademark humor.
Unfortunately, most of its novelty wears thin rather quickly. Agents of Mayhem frustrates in its ability to amaze and underwhelm in equal measure as I often found myself finding something to be excited about and wanting to dig deeper only to find there isn’t much there.
Take the characters, for example. Mayhem features some really interesting characters not just among its playable agents, but also from its supporting cast. Notably, the team’s resident doormat and Girl with the Computer Friday complaining about not being invited to girls night with Daisy and the other agents, or the way she communicates with Braddock over radio comms hints at a lot of interpersonal dynamics beneath the surface, but surface is mostly all we get. For a game that aimed to place its characters front and center, it wasn’t really making the most of what it could work with. Games like League of Legends and Overwatch are universally praised for their world building and intricate character dynamics despite the limited space for explicit narrative games of their type allow. Mayhem’s single player format is actually conducive for more storytelling opportunities, but by the end of the main story and each agent’s side stories, the characters still felt one dimensional.
Setting the game in a futuristic Seoul was a brilliant idea: going for a non-American setting really sells M.A.Y.H.E.M. as a multinational agency and Seoul’s combination of historical and futuristic architecture is absolute eye candy. Think San Frantokyo from Disney’s Big Hero Six, except here you can zip along the streets on your car or hop around the city’s skyline on foot. My single gripe about the city is it feels too clean, as if the city isn’t lived in. For a city of its size, this Neo-Seoul does not have a lot of people, and the people you do see on screen seem designed not to possess much physical presence.
Less impressive is Seoul’s underbelly, which houses several of L.E.G.I.O.N.’s hideouts. I get that evil lairs lean utilitarian, but it’s pretty disappointing to see so much care was put into crafting the city and lairs are just the same five or so rooms shuffled around.
My second biggest gripe (I’ll get to my first later) with this game are its many glitches. At first it was just audio clipping out when another one started to play on top of it, or how the next bit of audio takes forever to play after the last one. I could live with this.
Another bug I encountered, however, comes at the end of a car schematics mini mission where upon arriving on the delivery area, my character disembarks from the car and stays stuck in place. This was annoying because missions like these meant you had a large number of L.E.G.I.O.N. troops right behind you and the only way out I found was to teleport back to base. Again, not a huge setback, but I encountered this problem more times in one sitting than I care to be comfortable with.
The worst bug, however, takes the cake. For whatever reason, there appear to be instances where portions of the game area fail to load properly. These sections of the map will look like blank spaces like in the screen shot below:
These dead zones are especially frustrating because they’re completely impassible and anything that tries to cross it is stuck in place. I tried seeing if respawning from the checkpoint would fix the problem, and it did not. I had to drop the mission (a mission I was at least 20 minutes deep into) and do everything over and pray it works the second time around. I’m generally cool with a few things not working as intended in a game, but when bugs like these actually get in the way of my moving forward with a game then that’s where I draw the line.
Mayhem‘s characters not only look and feel different, they play differently as well. Each character possesses a combination of basic attacks, special attacks, ultimates, dashes, jumps and specific quirks that’s unique to them. Joule’s gun, for example, is like a proton gun a la Ghost Busters that fires a homing beam on the closest target for low persistent damage that penetrates shields. Her special skill is the ability to build a stationary turret that provides support fire and her ultimate is dropping another turret that fires off electric pulses around an area for damage and a chance to paralyze its targets. Scheherezade, on the other hand, may not have a firearm, but can go temporarily invisible, air dash, or perform a teleportation attack that can safely put her in striking range or out of it when things get too hot.
Players who want to customize their characters further can unlock wearable tech mods by leveling up or finding schematics hidden around the city and crafting them in their home base, the Ark. These tech mods can provide subtle changes like increased health or ammo caps, include on-hit status effects like poisons and stuns to skills, or change the nature of skills entirely like turning Braddock’s laser beam into a rail gun or grenade launcher.
Thanks to the diversity in character mechanics, there’s a multitude of ways to play the game and while some characters are more effective in certain situations than others, there isn’t really a wrong way to play. Plus because players play with a squad of three they can switch around anyway, you’ll ideally always have your bases covered.
Par for the course of the franchise, driving is a prominent part of the game. While you can still hijack civilian cars in this game, you’ll likely spend most of your time driving around an Agent Car. Players start out with just one variant but more can be unlocked as you progress through the game and discover their schematics. Much like the Agents, each car varies in its look, its speed, its handling and durability. Some folks like driving fast. I personally prefer rolling over everything.
What I don’t like about the driving segments is how a lot of them are there for the sake of being there but don’t really do much as far as gameplay is concerned. It’s extremely annoying, for example, how when I want to start a mission, I have to drive to the a marker first, then activate it to start the mission, and then at the start of the mission I’m asked to drive toward another location. I didn’t have to be in the first location narratively at all, and the drive between these two points of interest did not lead into any meaningful gameplay moments either. I feel these segments could have benefited from a little more action, and perhaps more advanced mechanics for vehicle combat, like mounting weapons on the cars and being able to use them, for example. This is a game inspired by G.I. Joe, after all.
Confession: I’ve never finished a Saints Row or Grand Theft Auto game. The sheer amount of things to do usually paralyzes me. An involuntary sense of dread comes over me whenever I hear the words Open World Game. It’s not that I dislike the concept—there’s a certain charm in finding your own fun in games like these that’s unique to itself—but I’ve found the actual content of these games to be a mixed bag. Part of the time, you’re doing interesting stuff that pushes the game forward. The rest of the time? Menial side content that feels like something you’ve been doing for the last three hours for little to no payoff. Agents of Mayhem feels a lot like The Rest of the Time.
While there were some memorable game moments scattered around Agents of Mayhem, majority of these missions, particularly the missions that unlock new agents, always seem to be about breaking into a L.E.G.I.O.N. stronghold, clearing out the room of hostile units, spamming the Scan button to find the control panels that unlock the doors to the next room, and then clearing that room out of hostiles before finding the panels to the next room again. The fact that these bases all look alike doesn’t shake the sense of deja vu either. I just wanted to get to the interesting stuff like driving away from space lasers or hitting Hammersmith with his own balls. I sincerely groan a little everytime Friday tells me I have to infiltrate another L.E.G.I.O.N. hideout.
There is definitely no shortage of content in Agents of Mayhem—there are missions and side missions aplenty and enough unlockable things to make completionists blush. And the collectibles are great: there’s a little under a dozen agent cars you collect schematics for to unlock, these agent cars can be personalized using unlockable skins. Apart from unlocking tech mods, agents also have collectible costumes for themselves and skins for their guns. If you’re out to pimp out your squad, there’s plenty to do.
Apart from costume DLC, there aren’t a lot of extra features, really. I’ve yet to play either, but Agents of Mayhem does offer two DLC characters in Lazarus and Saints Row vet Johnny Gat. Purchasing their DLC adds their unlock missions as well as their personal story missions to the game.
The story is weak, the missions are repetitive, and it’s still a little buggy, but I sincerely had fun with Agents of Mayhem. This game just ticks a lot of boxes for me and I feel like this could’ve been a better product if they had a little more time to work on it. Saints Row did not find its stride until maybe the second or third game either, so hopefully Volition gives this universe another stab sometime down the line. I for one would love to see where they go with this.