Agents of Mayhem is what happens when a studio goes completely in on making a spin-off of a series that has jumped the shark. Specifically, the Saint’s Row series, which was a satire, homage, and slapstick parody of the crime sandbox game. While the more popular Grand Theft Auto went into issues regarding psychopathy, mid-life ennui, and socio-political commentary, developer Volition’s take on the material had a mini-game about hosing down neighborhoods in liquid sewage, pimps who kept auto-tuning themselves with a staff, and a final installment that had computer simulations, superpowers, an alien invasion, and downloadable adventures where you saved Christmas and prevented the end of the world by going to Hell and killing Satan himself. It was crass, childish, dopey, obnoxious, and one of the best things ever.
That delightful kitchen sink mentality is still alive and kicking here, and it’s all thanks to a simple yet immeasurably liberating change in tone. Agents of Mayhem is a violent and crude open-world action game that plays like a Saturday morning cartoon.
And it is glorious.
Bad Versus Evil
It is some time in the future and the world is under the heel of a new global threat. During what would become known as Devil’s Night, the evil organization known as LEGION attacks the nations of the world with elaborate doomsday weapons. To combat this deadly foe, the world looks to the peacekeeping organization of MAYHEM, a team made up of thrillseekers with some combination of a drinking problem, a mysterious past, an axe to grind with LEGION, and a criminal record that’s two miles long. After tracking down the location of the terrorist group’s leader Doctor Babylon to Seoul, MAYHEM is given a simple mission: stop LEGION’s plans for world domination and kill Babylon by any means necessary.
It is this “GI Joe for Psychos” tone that really makes Agents of Mayhem stand out. Instead of controlling one customizable character with your own personal touches, you assemble a squad of three characters with their own special weapons and skills. Your starting trio is made up of Hollywood, an egotistical movie star with an assault rifle and the ability to start off an explosion-filled rampage that would make Michael Bay jealous; Fortune, an ex-pirate with energy pistols and a helpful drone for stunning and crowd control; and Hardtack, a former navy officer with a shotgun and a harpoon.
There are twelve agents you can unlock and each one of them brings something to the table. Some of them can overlap in terms of role, like Rama and Oni being stealth-focused agents, but one focuses more on crowd control and damage-over-time with trick arrows, while the other is all about intimidation tactics with a silenced pistol. It also helps that each one of them is full of vibrant, if a bit broad, personality. Personal favorites include the risk-and-reward tactics of Red Card, a German soccer hooligan with an infectious rage mode, the roller derby girl with a minigun known as Daisy, and Yeti, the hulking brute with a freeze gun.
Each agent can gain levels by using them in the field which unlock Gadgets. These modifiers can range between a character getting a major boost to their speed and damage when they’re about to die, or having a special attack blind and weaken the enemy instead of just damage. Since you can switch between any agent in your squad at the push of a button, the game encourages you to mix and match gadgets and agents to get every advantage you can.
Order Through Chaos
The major plot of the game is separated into six major operations where the agents deal with one of the major villains. Some of these include cyborgs, mad weapon designers, and even a man-child pop idol with mind control gadgets.
It is here Volition shows how more deliberately paced, disciplined, and focused an experience Agents of Mayhem is. The operation can start with your team taking care of some regular enemies hiding away somewhere, then turn into grabbing information from a hidden base, all of which crescendoes into an intense car chase with explosions raining from the sky, a race against the clock, and a boss battle. Complete with particle effects blazing everywhere, quips from the cast, and a lot guns being fired.
Even the combat takes this busy-but-clear philosophy to heart. I cannot recall a single gun battle I was in where I wasn’t running, dashing, jumping, shooting at baddies, or activating a special ability. In fact, due to all of the continuous stacking of buffs and debuffs like Empower or Vulnerability that kept flying around, special consumable support items called Gremlin Tech that could either heal in a pinch or call in an orbital laser strike, and even ultimate abilities unique to each agent, the combat felt less like a third-person shooter and something closer to the hero-based combat of a MOBA. It’s a combination that works wonders.
If there is one element that doesn’t completely gel with the otherwise energetic and engaging campaign, it would have to be the open-world itself. Despite the futuristic vehicles, robots, and civilians running around Seoul, most of it registered as superfluous filler between the bigger missions. It almost feels like Volition had to make Agents of Mayhem open-world to make sure it didn’t go too far off its own personal brand, and the attempts to have it mesh with the gameplay is a mixed bag. For example, you can run over civilians with cars you’ve stolen, but there aren’t a lot of people to hit and all of the civilian vehicles are slow and can’t turn worth a damn. There is also no in-game radio, so don’t expect a lot of licensed music while fighting the bad guys.
On the flip side, shooting and destroying enough stuff in an area increases the enemy’s Malice level, which will cause wave after wave of enemies to come after you. Probably because LEGION are very self-conscious about being taken seriously as a threat. Instead of running away or hiding, you can completely reset the level by fighting them off until hitting the maximum possible level and defeating a boss enemy. While civilian vehicles aren’t worth the trouble, you can call in a specialized MAYHEM vehicle with a button press complete with armor, expert turning, and even a nitro boost. Finally while the map itself can be full of busywork activities like races and bombs to dismantle, eventually it is filled with major doomsday devices to be taken down like rampaging golems or dark matter fracking devices (yes, really) that will take some skill to dismantle.
But even those bits of entertainment is diluted by how this content is presented. Once you take down a major LEGION stronghold in whatever region you’re in, every single activity of interest is pointed out on your map. This even includes new events that get added as you play so any form of surprise is diminished. Thankfully you can only have one of these activities highlighted at a time and there is no mini-map to clutter up the screen with various icons, but it still takes out a lot joy out of discovery. The only exception to this rule are a bunch of collectible power shards you can use to further power your agents’ abilities and loot chests full of vehicle blueprints and alternative costumes.
Presentation Over Polish
If there is one element that absolutely shines in Agents of Mayhem it has to be its comedic timing and its complete dedication to its own ludicrous premise. In addition to broad pop-culture swipes like your supercar having a Knight Rider-like AI that won’t stop commenting on your driving, the jokes are a healthy mix of absurd situations, workplace awkwardness and the occasional trip to the gutter. There’s an entire side mission revolving around Hollywood’s “early acting career” that had me in stitches for example. Some of these gags don’t completely work, like weak attempts at level design self-awareness in the second act (oh look a very convenient key that’s right near the door, look at me pointing out contrivances!), and a few bits of cringe-inducing PA banter in some of the LEGION bases, but on the whole, I laughed more than rolled my eyes.
The atmosphere is so well done it even lessens some of the more questionable design decisions. For example, in order to upgrade your agents, vehicles, or even change your squad, you have to return to a headquarters known as The Ark. Once you’re done running from vendor to vendor, making sure you have the right coat of paint on your super car, bought new abilities, crafted new Gremlin tech from materials you found, and assigned agents not in your squad to an off-site mission straight out of Assassins’ Creed: Brotherhood, you can then return to Seoul after picking your agents again. It is tedious and stops the pacing dead in its tracks, but every single time you return to The Ark, a support character gives a joke “The More You Know” lesson during the loading screen, and returning back to the game proper happens in seconds.
But style can only take Agents of Mayhem so far. While the main story missions have some high points, a lot of the side missions can feel interchangeable and repetitive. Go to base, kill baddies, look for terminal to interact with, rinse repeat ad nauseum. There are pay offs to this tedium like unlocking new agents or getting a new gadget or vehicle, but it doesn’t completely justify the recycled content.
Also, while the game’s combat can turn into a chore after long sessions, how it handles difficulty keeps things interesting. Rather than the simple options of Easy, Normal, and Hard, the game has a numbered difficulty. Three being considered normal, which made the game flashy but a bit boring for me, and fifteen being the max, which turned me into mulch within seconds. Each incremental increase guarantees a bonus to agent experience earned.
Agents of Mayhem manages to make its own identity while still retaining the spirit of the series that inspired it. With a visually pleasing art direction, pleasantly entertaining combat and a plot that easily ate up thirty hours of my time, it’s the kind of experience that is perfect for turning your brain off. There’s an art to making video game junkfood like this and Volition haven’t lost their touch yet.