Agents of Mayhem has been spawned directly from the Saints Row series, and despite not bearing its name in the title it takes place within the same universe, although this time developer Volition have chosen to take a real city (Seoul) and then chuck some sci-fi paint all over it. The game we’ve gotten out of this looks and feels a lot like the newer, crazier Saints Row games, but with a twist.
The game begins so promisingly with a 90s cartoon vibe complete with a vibrant color palette and a guitar riff that sounds so much like my Saturday morning viewing as a kid that my nostalgia gland (totally a real thing) briefly went into overdrive and nearly killed me. You’re going to be working for Mayhem, an over-the-top task force led by femme fatale Persephone who is going up against Legion, helmed by the nefarious Doctor Babylon along with his cast of barmy lieutenants, including the obnoxious popstar August Gaunt who deserves to be eaten by piranhas. Initially, quite lovely cartoon-esque cutscenes set the stage for something that could be a whole lot of fun, but a lot like the rest of the game these sequences seem to go downhill over time.
Firstly the game goes for the Saints Row style of crass humor that Volition did so well before, tossing in a load of cursing, swearing and violence while still trying to keep that Saturday-morning cartoon vibe. Ultimately it doesn’t really work as it sits in a strange middle-ground between the cartoons of old and the Saints Row games. The sparkling wit that lay underneath the crude surface of Volition’s prior games is mostly absent here, with characters that are fun at first but grow old due to them being nothing more than a collection of snarky comments and skin-deep quirks. The rest of the humor relies on things like Uranus jokes or just referencing something. What is it with writers thinking that just pointing at something and going, “look, look, do you remember that?” is somehow funny? Worse still are the meta jokes were a character makes an off-hand comment about a cliche or a problem with game design while the game makes you do that exact thing over and over.
Part of the problem in the humor make actually stem from one of the game’s strengths: it’s swappable characters. At the start you’ve got three agents to play as: Hardtack, the burly close-quarters guy; Hollywood, the vapid action hero, and Fortune who sits between them as a thief turned good guy who wants to play with all the shiny tech. At a whim you can swap between your three chosen agents at any time to take advantage of their unique abilities, weapons, and specializations. Best of all, though, these three starting characters are part of a roster of twelve playable agents, all of whom boast their own powers and strengths. Take my favorite as an example; Yuri is a hulking, intelligent Russian soldier who was part of an experiment that turned him into a frozen warrior with a lot of health. He has a freeze gun that slows enemies or can freeze them entirely, and hitting a frozen enemy with a melee attack results in big bonus damage. His weapon eventually freezes over and can be unfrozen using a special melee attack or his special ability, a stomp that does serious damage to frozen enemies in the area. All of these guys and girls also come with Mayhem abilities, like Hollywood who enters full-on action hero mode where he dons some shades and then random explosions just start happening. Because why the hell not?
In the more difficult combat scenarios later picking the right agent is key to coming out the other side, although the game is a little annoying in how inactive agent’s will ask to be tagged in because they can handle the current enemy better. Still, it’s a lot of fun to bounce between characters on the fly, employing all of their abilities.
So why is this is a problem for the writing? Well, admirably the guys and gals at Volition attempted to craft unique lines for all twelve characters for when they’re bantering mid-mission with the staff of the Ark, which is Mayhem’s homebase that you can jump back to in order to get new tech and other things. By trying to write so many individual jokes they’ve spread themselves too thin, writing multiple “meh” gags instead of one good one.
It’s the combat where the game really shines, although a few problems do hold it back. To start with the controls feel tight and responsive, and all characters come equipped with a triple jump and dash so there’s a good amount of movement during firefights. Weapons feel nice and meaty to fire, too, even if they lack a sense of impact who enemies who are a little too bullet-spongey for my tastes, some of them able to absorb piles of damage without flinching or showing any effects from it. The same can be said of your own characters who soak up bullets and stabbings with zero visible effects, so you’ve got to keep an eye on the health bar otherwise it’s very easy to find yourself having to swap agents while one recuperates from a beating or is even taken out entirely until you grab a resurrection token.
Once you get into a proper big fight the game loves to dazzle you with piles of particle effects, explosions, and other nonsense. While the game isn’t technically brilliant combat can actually look rather pretty, so when you combine that with how solid the gunplay feels what you’ve got is satisfying third-person mayhem that succeeds in distracting you from its issues by using lots of shiny lights and pretty colors.
Some light RPG mechanics get tossed into the mix, as well. Characters can level up and earn new equipable gadgets that alter their weapon, special ability, and passive skill. Braddock, for example, starts with armor piercing rounds as her special ability, but later you can swap those out for cluster grenade rounds if you like. There are also other upgrades that do things like increase base health or that provide buffs in certain circumstances. Plus there are points to be invested in bumping up some stats. On top of that you’ve got upgrade cores that can be spent to purchase one of three core upgrades for characters, such as giving Hollywood the ability to leave behind bombs when he dashes or vastly increasing the power of Braddock’s orbital laser bombardment Mayhem ability. But wait, there’s even more as you can also spend gathered materials and cash on a variety of equipable Gremlin tech, and then there’s Legion technology too that you slot into your various gadgets. It’s a surprisingly large amount of upgrade options, and while it’s not an in-depth system in the sense of allowing you to radically alter how an agent looks or plays it’s still quite satisfying to tweak them to match the way you like to play.
Outside of the excellent third-person combat and solid leveling mechanics Agents of Mayhem struggles in a variety of other ways. The biggest of these issues is its incredibly repetitive and mundane mission design that sees you doing the same thing for the vast majority of the story. You head to an area, battles loads and loads of enemies, hack a few terminals via a basic mini-game or maybe blow up a few things. Or both. And that’s it. Legion Lairs are by far the worst as they underground complexes look the same, are typically made up of the same room layouts and some of them are just so horrible in their mission design that it’s insulting. One of them literally had me go in, clear out a room, go to the next room and interact with a terminal, go to the next one and locate a case, then another room where something had to be shot and then another room with nothing other than baddies. Only occasionally does Agents of Mayhem attempt to shake up its missions, but even then they lack anything really interesting or exciting. Say what you like about Call of Duty and repetition, but at least those games generally try to dress that repetition up in fun set pieces.
Speaking of the city the open world does seem to come at the cost of inconsistent performance. Random framerate drops are common and sometimes severe enough to annoy, so there’s certainly some updating to be done in order to smooth everything out.
Bugs are present, too. Players on Steam have encountered things like getting stuck onboard the Ark, while I’ve personally run into missions not correctly triggering the next stage or even realizing they’re finished, plus a host of small glitches like A.I. behaving weirdly or a character’s gun sticking through the windscreen of a vehicle.
Here’s the thing, though, despite me having a lot of complaints about Agents of Mayhem I also had a lot of fun with it. It’s a mindless barrage of action that is easy to lose yourself in for a few hours. It’s popcorn entertainment, the kind where as soon as you stop to examine it everything starts to fall apart but as long as you just roll with it you’re going to have a blast, even if you do forget about it shortly after.
In the end maybe Agents of Mayhem’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t take its own ideas far enough. It never fully embraces its own cartoon aesthetic and goes full-on insane. The premise is full of possibilities for ludicrous scenarios and yet the developers still to a formulaic, lazy design template for missions that drives the fun combat into the ground through sheer repetition.
It’s also odd not to see co-op. The way agent’s abilities could be combined seems to heavily indicate a co-op system that got weirdly repackaged into the player being able to jump between any three agents at any given time. I feel like Agents of Mayhem could have really done well with three players running around. Oh well.
In other words, I can’t completely recommend this. Once you see it on sale at a well reduced price it may be worth picking up, but for the moment this a slightly disappointing title from Volition that is nevertheless an enjoyable romp.