Agents of Mayhem Review
They're done G.I. Joking around
Watching the evolution of morality in GTA-style open-world games has been quite a trip, hasn’t it? The fundamental joyous principle of letting a player go bananas in a city full of cars, pedestrians and balsa-wood lamp-posts made perfect sense when they were playing the part of public enemy number one; a desperate individual with flexible morals and powerful enemies. With each creative step away from the theme of organised crime and towards heroism, though, justifying unhinged chaos has become an increasingly difficult affair. “It’s okay, you’re fighting a corrupt authoritarian regime”, or “It’s okay, you’re secretly working for the good guys”, or when all else fails, “It’s okay, you’re just destabilising another third-world nation”. Saints Row, over the course of its bizarre arc, went to cyberspace and even the depths of Hades to give players a sufficient license to cause pandemonium, but with Agents of Mayhem—a spiritual successor to Saints Row IV in all but name—Volition may have come across their most powerful excuse yet: the world of the Saturday morning cartoon.
Yes, it’s time for vigilante justice, and all the baggage it tends to drag along in its wake. Operating from a secret base floating in the skies over Seoul, MAYHEM Inc has everything you’d expect in a futuristic international crime-fighting organisation: advanced technology, seemingly bottomless funds, a light dusting of office politics, and a crack team of culturally diverse agents who would’ve been thrown out for unprofessional behaviour years ago if they weren’t utterly irreplaceable. All they need is an international criminal syndicate to lock horns with, and as luck would have it, the mysterious LEGION is on-hand with a limitless supply of armed goons and dastardly plans that violate multiple fundamental laws of physics. It’s all very camp and self-aware, but not so much that it consumes its identity; the mugging and winking at the camera takes secondary priority to putting on a good show, with emphasis on ‘show’. Story missions are grouped into ‘episodes’ that follow their own little arcs, so while the overarching plot isn’t much to speak of, events tend to resolve in a less ridiculously drawn-out span of time than usual open-world fare. It also makes it easier to remember what the blazes is going on, because subplots don’t need to languish unattended for a dozen hours or be constantly stymied by distracting roadblocks.
What defines Agents of Mayhem, though, is… well, the Agents of Mayhem. In the latest example of what I’ve been told I must now call ‘personality-driven’ design, the game contains a dozen playable agents, each with their own theme, play-styles, weapons, abilities and upgrades. You’re only allowed to take three out at a time—swapping between them on the fly through somewhat glossed-over means—so you’re encouraged to figure out which ones you like, get familiar with them and level them up appropriately. From a purely mechanical perspective it’s little more than a troublesome, somewhat restrictive reshuffling of the usual unlockables—‘you found a new gadget, but you can only use it with this agent you never play, tough luck’—but true to the term, Agents of Mayhem takes the opportunity to inject a bit more personality into your toys and trials. Side missions (or ‘special episodes’) often star particular agents, delving into their individual motivations and goals, and dialogue lines are tailored to whoever you currently have out in the field. It’s not a particularly monumental shift, and none of the agents are exactly overflowing with nuance—my eyes started rolling like gas-station hotdogs when the Cold, Honourable, Professional Yakuza Hitman made an appearance—but it makes a nice change from the usual Saints Row create-a-character syndrome where the protagonist has to be surrounded by more interesting people to disguise their inherent one-size-fits-all personality.
Speaking of Saints Row, it’s nice to see Agents of Mayhem recognise which parts of Saints Row IV’s combat could be salvaged and which parts needed major corrective surgery first. Unsurprisingly, many of your agents’ abilities err on the side of superhuman—freeze people solid, shoot through walls, teleport, climb buildings, forego the last biscuit in the jar, etcetera—but since they weren’t crammed sideways into an existing third-person shooter with all the care of dirty laundry being stuffed into a full suitcase, the combat actually feels pretty good. Everyone you control has, at the absolute bare minimum, a mid-air triple-jump—it’s not quite crossing tall buildings in a single leap, but it’s pretty damn close—and only a scant few enemy attacks are hitscan, so gunfights are generally very mobile with lots of last-second dodging away from incoming hazards. A surprisingly diverse range of status effects, both positive and negative, are associated with your abilities and those of your enemies, but with the exception of one or two especially dramatic ones, like invulnerability or invisibility, I never really found myself concerned enough with their impact to remember what they meant. So what if someone’s glowing a funky colour for a few seconds? Unless I’ve cranked the difficulty up to “Oh, So You Think You’re Hot Stuff, Huh, Kiddo?” levels where every other enemy is a bullet sponge, or I’ve been caught in an eye-searing crossfire of three or four different debilitating effects at once, it’s not going to noticeably impinge on my ability to shoot grunts in the face.
But of course, combat viability wasn’t why Saints Row IV’s mobility superpowers were fun, was it? No, it was because they let you lazily leap around on Steelport’s rooftops to ‘This Is How We Do It’, collecting cyber-orbs and shirking presidential responsibility. While the glaring absence of licensed music definitely hurts Agents of Mayhem’s atmosphere relative to its forebears, aimlessly platforming your way across the city is as relaxing as ever, and Volition have only gotten better at distracting you with collectibles and bite-sized events. I found myself growing somewhat enamoured with Seoul as I hopped among the balconies and rooftop terraces; its squeaky-clean presentation initially came off as a tad lifeless, but it’s packed with cute sci-fi design flourishes, manifesting in oddball skyscrapers, self-driving motorised billboards, hovering maintenance barges, and other touches that feel somewhat refreshing without the usual comically dystopian cyberpunk setting making everyone miserable. There’s something distinctly plastic-y about a lot of the surface materials, but I suppose that’s only appropriate for a game that, if it had actually been a Saturday morning cartoon, would have sold kids’ action figure playsets by the truckload.
It’s a good thing that the rooftops make for an enticing route, mind, because going by road is decidedly uninteresting. You can summon your personal rocket-powered secret-agent-mobile with a snap of your fingers—and you’re going to want to, because everything else on the streets is a trundling little eco-wagon that can barely outrun a windblown chocolate wrapper—but even the delightfully chipper Knight Rider-style computer in the glovebox can’t distract from how miserably flat the driving physics feel. Oh, sure, you can pull sweet powerslides and do sick jumps like it ain’t no thing, but that’s just it, isn’t it? The vehicle handling has been simplified to the point that these things cease to be remarkable, along with just about anything else you can do with your wheels. Whatever you do, there’s a nagging sense that Agents of Mayhem is fudging the numbers behind the scenes, ensuring that the LEGION vehicle you just rammed spontaneously swerves into a bollard and explodes, or that a sudden updraft mysteriously catches your undercarriage mid-leap if it looks like you might not quite make a jump. Sure, nobody likes seeing a potentially radical stunt flop because they didn’t quite reach some hidden set of conditions, but quietly nudging the odds in your favour like this feels like a breakdown of trust; a patronising little cheat, like when your dad used to let you win at football by dramatically falling over in slow-motion in front of the goal. Come on, Agents of Mayhem, you lost the rights to subtle traffic manipulation when you started unloading vehicles in the oncoming lane from memory before they’d reached me.
Can we agree on something, though? Can we agree that it’s realistically possible to have too many Proper Nouns in a game? Because Agents of Mayhem absolutely, definitely, has too many proper nouns. It’s not enough to have basic resources like Cash or Scrap; you’ve got to have Elemental Fragments and Dark Matter Residue and Intel and Machine Parts and Blueprints and what the blazes are any of these things for? Crafting, mostly, as it turns out. You can craft Gremlin tech, LEGION tech, embark on Global Conflicts, take on Connected Contracts, and… actually, no, I’m not going to explain what any of those things mean. You can stew on them for a bit, as I did, because the game buries you under terms like this without really defining them, or telling you why you should care enough to read up on them. I still don’t know the exact distinction between Shields and Hard Shields, nor do I have the faintest idea where to find out, although it’s possible Agents of Mayhem feels that that particular one is self-evident.
If there’s an overarching theme to Agents of Mayhem—besides ‘Saints Row does campy superpowered G.I. Joe in future Korea’—it might be ‘hit and miss’. Sometimes, like in the case of the voice acting, the misses are as entertaining as the hits, but when the writing itself lands off-target, you can practically feel the sickening, bone-splintering crunch. It’s almost as if they divvied up the dialogue work between precisely two writers: one with a great sense of humour and a tremendous knack for sincere, goofy, light-hearted spoofs, and another who has been locked in an oubliette for nine years with nothing but a packet of cheap Christmas crackers. For every sassy exchange or wry comment, it feels like there’s another moment where the game just gives up and jangles some referential keys in front of your face. “You know how it goes,” grumbles an exasperated villain over the PA system. “See, this is all incredibly trite, but I’m being self-aware about it, so that makes it okay, right? Anyway, please don’t destroy that equipment, it’s very crucial to my master pla--”
Ahem. Similarly, the missions themselves in Agents of Mayhem seem to leap back and forth between memorable highs and miserable lows. One nice thing about the episodic grouping structure is that the game doesn’t feel the need to keep all its ridiculous scenarios hidden under a sheet until twenty hours into the campaign, so at any given time you could find yourself out-driving an orbital laser bombardment, or brawling your way through a crowd of hypnotised boy-band fans, or piecing together recollections of a drunken night on the town that turned into an art heist. And yet there’s an equal chance, if not greater, that the game will just whip up some flimsy excuse to make you go through some all-too-familiar rigmarole three or four times, with little to no meaningful outcome. Scan the area. Hack the computers. Drive through the checkpoints. Blow up the patrols. At the absolute nadir lie the LEGION bases themselves; ugly subterranean tech-dungeons hidden around the city, built from reshuffled sets of the same handful of nondescript rooms. They’re typically pretty rich sources of certain resources if you look hard enough, presumably because people are more willing to subject themselves to a laborious grind if you call it a ‘dungeon crawl’, but I never found myself wanting to linger long enough to methodically search for them—especially not when my adventures on the surface had already given me more Arbitrary Glowing Crafting Ingredients than I could conceivably ever need.
That’s the other running theme in Agents of Mayhem, I suppose: weirdly inconsequential rewards. Not only is the city so densely packed with resources that they quickly take on the allure of a half-finished bag of crisps on the floor of a subway car, but sometimes you just have to stop and wonder who a particular goody is even for. Every time you level up an agent you get an upgrade point that can be used to improve one of four stat bonuses—they’re unique per agent, so they’re not necessarily the usual health/speed/damage/etcetera caboodle—but the gains in question are so small and marginal that it’s hard to find them enticing unless you pour ten levels’ worth of points in all at once. Plus five percent to damage-over-time effects? Plus four percent to special ability damage? If you wrote that on a broadsword’s tooltip, I’d throw it into a ravine without a second thought. And why are there skins? I love a spot of character customisation as much as the next self-absorbed nerd frustrated with reality’s resistance to change, but picking a different colour palette from a menu isn’t exactly what most people would deem a creative outlet. You can’t even qualify it as a sign of worrisome waifu worship like in Overwatch or League of Legends because, well, there’s nobody around to show it off to – the game has no multiplayer.
Is Agents of Mayhem a worthwhile successor to Saints Row? It’s a question that’s almost certainly crawled forth from lot of reviewers’ lips, because we do rather love working from established reference points. It’s also a completely useless question. What even is Saints Row anymore? What would a successor look like? How could it possibly sustain the trajectory plotted by the previous games without ascending into meaningless absurdity? Agents of Mayhem is as close as any game could be expected to get. Like Saints Row, it’s blindingly purple; like Saints Row, it’s extremely silly; and like Saints Row, while it puts on a good show overall, whether or not you enjoy it will ultimately depend on which parts you’re able to either relish or gloss over. Sometimes it’s pointless, yes, and sometimes it’s dry and repetitive, but soon enough the memories of LEGION bases and repetitive objectives will blur together, and be eclipsed by the time the baddies disguised a shield generator as a Vocaloid’s wedding cake. Bless you, Volition.