Agents of Mayhem is a very odd game on paper. It's a game from Saints Row developer Volition, but it represents the studio's attempt to move away from its popular Saints Row universe while still keeping one foot in the pond. AoM takes place within the Saints Row universe post the canonical events of Saints Row: Gat out of Hell, but outside a few references, characters, and the purple fleur-de-lis motif, it's not really a Saints Row game. So how goes the spin-off attempt?
Mayhem tells the story of a grand conflict between quasi-military organization M.A.Y.H.E.M. and armed terrorist group L.E.G.I.O.N. The basic premise is played almost like a Saturday morning cartoon, with your team of stereotypical Agents from around the world banding together to destroy L.E.G.I.O.N.'s Ministry of Truth, an equally colorful cadre of villains. It's very much G.I. Joe vs. Cobra, framed through the Saints Row lens.
One thing that interests me is how hard and edgy the marketing for Agents of Mayhem was and how mostly conventional the actual game is. Some agents lean harder on the quirky and weird side, like Hollywood, the former actor turned hired gun and Mayhem spin doctor; Daisy, the roller derby queen and heavy weapons expert; or Red Card, the soccer hooligan using his incredible love of violence for good. But those characters are balanced by the more conventional options, whose backstories and personalities are largely played straight, including the bow-wielding Rama, who simply wants to find the cure to the plague ravishing her home; Oni, former Japanese yakuza; or Fortune, a thief and sky pirate who can hack into any computer.
There is definite weirdness here and some of the missions dive headfirst into the madness, but the entire game isn't dialed to 11 all the time. Yes, you will take on a Justin Bieber lookalike as he uses virtual reality technology to turn his fans into zombies, but you'll also engage in some straight-up action and revenge. In fact, most of Agents of Mayhem hovers around a 6 or 7, making the bits where the game really turns things up hit with more force. Like Saints Row, AoM throws a lot of humor your way. It doesn't always land and some of it is rather crude, but it still got a smile out of me more often than not. And I hope you like 80's references...
Mechanically, it feels like Volition tried to pull back after the wild and super-powered Saints Row IV and Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell. Agents of Mayhem is much closer to Saints Row: The Third in terms of combat, with third-person run-and-gun being the flavor of the day. (Another comparison would actually be the original Crackdown.) Characters have interesting abilities, but it's nothing like the super-speed, high-jump action of Saints Row IV, where you were like a super-hero. You're more of a powered soldier here.
Agents of Mayhem features a total of 12 different Agents to control (13 if you get the downloadable content which unlocks Saints Row favorite Johnny Gat). You'll begin the game with Hollywood, Fortune, and Hardtack, the beefy love letter to G.I. Joe's Shipwreck and Roadblock. Other agents are unlocked via character-centric missions that give you some backstory and a feel for the character's mechanics.
What we've lost from the Saints Row games is the free-form character creator, in lieu of the previously mentioned Agents. It's best to think of the Agents as unique weapons in and of themselves. Each character features their own weapon, Special ability, and ultimate Mayhem Ability once the Mayhem meter is charged. Every time you leave the Ark, the Agency's base, you have the option of choosing a squad of three from your unlocked crew. You can switch between the three at anytime simply by hitting left and right on the directional pad.
Agents of Mayhem will throw a lot your way and you'll frequently need to switch to keep an agent alive or call upon their specific abilities. Every agent can triple jump, but certain agents can air dash and others have a brief wall climb maneuver. Some agents, including Fortune, Joule, and Rama, can hack targets. Agents have specializations: Shieldbusters do more damage against shielded enemies, Skinpiercers do more damage to armor, and there are more beyond that. Outside of character specific abilities - like the massive Yeti freezing enemies with his primary weapon - most of these mechanics are spread amongst the characters. Agents of Mayhem wants deploying your Squad to be a choice. Yes, there will be members you you will gravitate towards, but you'll occasionally need to swap members around to access certain abilities.
Agents of Mayhem is a game that slowly unfolds itself as you play it. Early on, I found myself a bit bored of the basic combat, a lack of impact in the weapons and vehicles, and a somewhat boring presentation for the futuristic version of Seoul, South Korea where your adventures take place. But as you play, the game begins to throw more options your way and become a bit more fun.
You'll unlock more Agency vehicles, which feel much better than the rank-and-file cars you can hijack on Seoul's streets. You'll fill out your roster of agents, offering newer and more preferable weapons and special abilities. Within those agents, there's a host of upgrade options. There's basic leveling, which gives stat boosts; Upgrades, which slowly improve one of four categories via upgrade points you gain by leveling; Core Upgrades, which vastly change certain character abilities at the cost of findable Upgrade Crystals; and Gadgets, which tweak your character's weapon or special ability, or offer a new passive ability.
The Agency itself levels up as your progress through the game, unlocking new options and more colorful non-combat Agents. Claymore at the Armory lets you outfits your agents, Gremlin helps you craft limited-use, far-out Gremlin Tech weapons (the closest to Saints Row IV's superpowers) or new modifications to your Gadgets based on materials you find around the world, and Quartermile keeps track of all your customizable Agency rides. And the upgraded Agency also unlocks Global Conflict, letting you send non-active Agents out on timed missions for more experience, cash, and materials.
There's just a lot here, all aimed at allowing you to play Agents of Mayhem your way, despite the loss of the character creator. Hell, the game even has selectable difficulty on deployment, with higher levels of difficulty offering more cash and experience gain. Levels 1-10 of the difficulty come unlocked from the beginning, while Levels 11-15 are unlocked behind getting at least one agent to level 20.
Pound for pound though, you're still doing the same things you did in the Saints Row games and most open world titles. Take out a L.E.G.I.O.N. Outpost in a region to reveal all the available actions in the area. These actions take the form of cars to steal, hostages to free, various targets to destroy, and more. All for more money, experience, and other rewards. Seoul never really rises above those early moments I mentioned above; it looks nice, but it doesn't really feel lived in or a place that you particularly want to explore beyond whatever mission you're currently tackling. You'll find a flow state later in play, where you'll be jumping, dodging, and switching without thinking, but I wouldn't say the gunplay is amazing. If the basic open-world experience has deadened your soul, Agents of Mayhem probably isn't the game that's going to put a spring in your step. My lizard brain continues to love that boilerplate open-world thing.
And yet, I had fun playing Agents of Mayhem. It's not an amazing game. It's not particularly innovative. I'd hazard that Saints Row IV is a better game overall. But I enjoyed this attempt by Volition to punch a new hole into its dance card. The studio wanted to try something a bit new and while Agents of Mayhem doesn't quite stick the landing, there's still a lot here to enjoy.
Agents of Mayhem is a step back from the trippy, superpowered hijinks of Saints Row IV and Gat Out of Hell. The cast is colorful and eventually, you'll open up the game enough that you'll have fun, but for a Saints Row veteran, you'll always feel like a little bit is missing. There a definite highlights here and there, but otherwise Agents of Mayhem treads water most of the time. Fun, but not amazing.
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