Is it fair to judge a game based on the one that came before it? That’s the question that’s on my mind today with Agents of Mayhem. On one hand, a lot can change in a development studio in the years between game releases, and a new game should be allowed to stand on its own two feet. On the other hand, taking a look at the preceding games gives an insight as to how a company grows and changes with each new project, and whether they’ve evolved or regressed. In the case of Agents of Mayhem, we have a “new” title based on an old series, a spin-off distantly related to the original Saints Row games, but set in a rebirth of its universe. How will Agents of Mayhem live up to its legacy? How will it move on from it?
Agents of Mayhem features a roster of twelve colorful characters (called “agents”) who belong to a titular spy agency called M.A.Y.H.E.M., locked in a battle of “evil vs. evil” with their enemies, the rival agency L.E.G.I.O.N., who seek to destroy the world’s nations. Players choose a squad comprised of three of the agents, each of whom have their own unique skills and attacks, carefully balancing their team’s abilities to suit the mission’s needs. Weapons and passive effects can be boosted with special gear and pick-ups, while different kinds of tech and skins can be picked up as rewards in-battle, each adding to the strategic depth of each character. Instead of flipping through a set of three weapons pre-selected from their inventory like other games, players rotate their squad with the flick of a button, rapidly swapping their agents out as the situation demands, based on the vulnerabilities of their combatants.
Overall my first impression of Agents of Mayhem is that the game is a fairly routine shooter: kill bad guys, gain experience points, spend points for skills until you max out your character. With certain games you can almost tell what the developers were playing a lot of while they were making it. If I had to guess, I’d say there are some Gearbox fans among Volition’s team. It’s not the worst studio they could model themselves after for a multi-cast shooter, given they share a similar sense of irreverent fun. The RPG-lite flourishes, the diversity of the characters, the enemy cut scenes, the theatrically kooky villains, the sterile feminine voiceovers while visiting the hub, even the graphics seem like a softer take on Borderlands. The jump-drift, which allows the player character to jump three times in a row to reach heights, reminds me of The Pre-Sequel. There are almost too many similarities, subtle or not, to fully name.
But, if Agents of Mayhem is in fact borrowing from Borderlands, it took some of the best stuff from it. Volition seems to understand that people like a diverse roster of heroes with a wide range of abilities and strengths to mix and match. Where Agents of Mayhem succeeds over other games with a huge roster is in its switching mechanism—in MOBAs or hero shooters or even fighting games, a lot of people can’t devote the time to become really proficient with more than a few characters. Forcing the player to cycle through three works well in getting them to consider each agent’s strength and how it will best suit the team. As a result, it becomes much easier to quickly get well acquainted with each. I found myself choosing my squad based not just on a good strategic balance, but also on the characters that were the most fun to play, and I really like that I had the freedom to do both. I always feel like I’m not getting my money’s worth when I haven’t played a lot with everybody.
And while I’m not qualified to speak on some of the finer points of the various character identities presented in Agents of Mayhem (and look forward to the insight of those who are), I will say that those on the more marginalized side are some of the coolest, strongest and most interesting in the entire game. There are few things as satisfying as the sway of Daisy’s roller derby skates, the mysterious Scheherazade’s fluid hand-to-hand melee attacks, and the impeccably cool way that Braddock lights her cigarette on the glow of her gun. The Mayhem feature, a special attack each agent has that can be triggered under certain conditions, is also a glorious, adrenaline-pumping chance for each character to shine, and probably my favorite part of the game.
Sadly, Agents of Mayhem fails in some of its smaller details. The cartoon cut scenes, meant to evoke a campy ‘80s Saturday morning feel, look cheap and suffer from weak dialogue. Battleborn, another Gearbox title, used animation sequences as well, but they were highly stylized, sitting somewhere between a Gorillaz video and the cult classic Heavy Metal. Agents of Mayhem, meanwhile, looks budget, and not in a good way. The lack of proper shading is a distraction.
I also seemed to run into some issues with certain checkpoints triggering properly; I had to play one mission three times in a row due to errors, and it was bewilderingly different each time. The mission dialogue, particularly during sections where the player must travel to a new area, can also be very choppy, with long unnatural pauses between lines. I expect this will get fixed shortly after launch, but nonetheless, it’s worrying.
As for the “open world sandbox” aspect of the game, there isn’t much to speak of. The game takes a step backward from Saints Row, in that the environments offer no motivation to wander off the linear narrative path, outside of a few mini-missions. While its future-Seoul is lovely to look at, it’s also repetitive and bland, and offers little reward for exploring it. One of the most enjoyable things about Saints Row 4 was flying around town (either by cape or car) while listening to the radio. The city didn’t offer much more than that, but it was still fun. Agents of Mayhem strips even that away. Gone are the well-selected tracks of the radio stations blaring throughout Saints Row 4, as are the wildly ridiculous weapons and wacky minigames that made driving around the city so thrilling in the first place.
Agents of Mayhem also doesn’t have much to say. I didn’t get much out of its goofy, “sexy espionage”-esque plotline, and found it hard to pay attention until I got deeper into the game, around the Gaunt storyline. Saints Row 4, which became a fascinating subversion of the three games before it, gave me a bit to think about, but I don’t expect I’ll find any retrospective depth with Agents of Mayhem. The characters are well fleshed out in detail, but without any additional contextual depth, their personality traits come off more as stats. It’s impersonal, as though you never really get to “know” them.
It seems as though the greatness of Saints Row 4 was always going to be a problem for whatever Volition game came next. In that game, The Saints became President, saved the world from aliens in a superhero-luchador Matrix simulator, and then ruled the universe. And then in the DLC, they visited Hell. There was really nowhere to go from there. It’s disappointing, though, that some of the best features had to go with it. I see no thematic reason why Agents of Mayhem could not have retained some of the more entertaining aspects of Saints Row 4, like running straight up building walls, “super-jumps” and flying. For that alone, Agents of Mayhem was always going to be a step down. It fails to up the ante.
That said though, I believe in critiquing a piece of art based, in part, on what it intended to be. For example, I don’t judge Die Hard for not being Lost in Translation; some entertainment exists specifically to preoccupy the audience with the absence of meaning. Agents of Mayhem is intended as a summer action blockbuster, and in that vein, it delivers. As a spin-off and follow-up to Saints Row 4, Agents of Mayhem is an imperfect start that wields enormous potential. The agent-switch mechanism is so effective in encouraging player strategy that I’m not willing to write it off yet. But if there’s anything to learn from Volition’s past, it’s that the pressure to reinvent and outdo itself is still very much on, and even more so now with Agents of Mayhem’s future.
Agents of Mayhem was developed by Volition and published by Deep Silver. Our review is based on the PC version. It is also available for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.