As its title implies, Agents of Mayhem aims to be defined by its characters. When I think back on the time I spent with the game, minigun-armed, roller-derby bruiser Daisy drunkenly screaming her pizza order into the speaker at a fast-food sushi restaurant is the first thing that comes to mind. Second is the “Mayhem Ability” belonging to the agents’ vainglorious and unofficial frontman, Hollywood, in which the actor/reality TV star dons sunglasses as lethal explosions appear around him. While some the game’s characters are less in-your-face than these, clearly Volition wants their title to lead with its biggest strength: over the top personality.
Agents of Mayhem is Saints Row developer Volition’s forthcoming open-world, third-person shooter that stars a colorful cast of twelve distinct characters (nine of which were playable at a recent preview event). If that description screams to you “Saints Row by way of a hero shooter”, you’re not far off. Speaking to Lead Agent Gameplay Designer Ryan McCabe, he seems reluctant to use the term “hero shooter,” but admits to conceptual similarities. “People attach to these characters in other hero games, but they don’t have a single-player outlet for this kind of stuff because all of those are multiplayer focused,” he explained. “Obviously, there’s an interest to fill.”
In tone, Agents of Mayhem isn’t a huge leap for a studio best known for their irreverence. In the demo, “dick” was spoken more by the agents of M.A.Y.H.E.M (The Multinational AgencY for Hunting Evil Masterminds) than any other word. In fact, the near-future Seoul setting exists in the larger Saints Row universe; the title’s logo is a barely-modified purple fleur-de-lis. The developer describes the story as one of “bad vs. evil;” M.A.Y.H.E.M’s mission is to thwart L.E.G.I.O.N. (League of Evil Gentlemen Intent on Obliterating Nations) by any morally ambiguous means, not unlike the Third Street Saints.
At its best, the game’s action is light years ahead of its equally foul-mouthed predecessors. Saints Row IV might have added superpowers to the series, but Agents of Mayhem’s combat was built from the ground-up to feel more fluid and tactical. Players are encouraged to switch frequently between three selected characters and their signature moves. You might use the cloaking ability belonging to archer Rama and Yakuza boss Oni’s to slip away before blasting clueless targets with Hollywood’s grenade launcher. Or maybe you’d use Hardtack’s teleporting harpoon to draw enemies close, then switch back to Oni, clawing their face before switching back to Hardtack to deliver a shotgun blast. Swapping characters feels impeccably fluid. Add triple-jump and dodge abilities and Agents of Mayhem has speed and verticality that Saints Row never saw.
These multi-character sections were the best I played. Unfortunately, two of the five demoed levels limited players to a single character. These unlock missions, starring Daisy and ultra tough marine sergeant Braddock, noticeably lacked the frantic character-swapping combos from minutes earlier. They were replaced by repetitive, mostly stationary shooting paired with linear sets of waypoints. Assuming all initially unavailable characters require unlocking (Hollywood, Hardtack and ex-sky pirate Fortune were available from the game’s intro mission), there should be at least nine of these flat, one-agent missions in the game’s critical path. Since I can’t speak for much of the side content or other open-world activities, I can only hope the experience improves from there.
To its credit, when the combat is stripped of its gimmick, personality remains Agents of Mayhem’s selling point. In these less engaging moments, much like in Saints Row, charmingly crass dialogue compensates for flimsy gameplay. The writing in Braddock’s unlock mission, in which she hunts down a former fellow marine over an old boot camp grudge, was surprisingly introspective.
As our conversation drew to a close, McCabe and I shared with each other our favorite characters. Mine is Hardtack. His tele-harpoon is awesome. McCabe’s is Fortune, since she was one his first creations. He proudly recalls, “She started off as a post-it note that said ‘high-tech pirate.’ That was all we had.”
Today, Volition and Deep Silver are revealing five characters. Along with Fortune, Hollywood, Hardtack and Rama, I also spent time with Daisy, Braddock, Oni, Kingpin (a stereotypical “gangster” holdover from Saints Row) and Red Card (a “psychotic football hooligan” with an underbarrel shotgun on his rifle).
The gameplay of Agents of Mayhem encourages players to become attached to their favorite team, leveling and customizing that trio with different outfits and weapon skins. So long as the multi-character action isn’t too broken up by lackluster solo missions, I can see a fun loop growing out of what I played.
But in its weakest moments, the gameplay leans on Saints Row’s familiar crutch: second-rate action and mission design is kept afloat by dynamic dialogue and characterization. Here’s hoping those lesser missions are kept to a minimum, and that the crutch at least remains comfortable.
Agents of Mayhem launches for Xbox One, PS4 and PC on August 15.
_Peter Amato is an intern for Paste Magazine. He’s on Twitter @Peter_Amato._