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Wot I Think: Agents Of Mayhem

Defrocked

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Agents Of Mayhem [official site] should not be judged for not being a Saints Row game. Volition are under no obligation to keep making that series, even after they struck on such extraordinary gold with SR III and IV. Agents Of Mayhem loosely shares the same universe, albeit mostly via the presence of the colour purple and fleurs-de-lis. There are also a few half-familiar character names, and a DLC that lets you add Johnny Gat into the mix, but beyond this AoM and SR are separate games. Different types of games. You can’t measure Agents Of Mayhem against Saints Row in a sensible way. Still, it doesn’t stop them trying, and, well, you know, it’s nowhere near as good as the recent Saints Row games. Here’s wot I think.

I was, immediately, really excited. The game begins with your controlling three different characters, each in a different part of an underground bunker, jumping between them as you learn their distinctive combat styles in this enormously elaborate third-person shooter. The writing was incredibly funny, the character mix interesting, and the action fine enough – I was delighted! Volition doing their thing. The process of playing since this opening scene has been one of disappointment after disappointment, until I’ve come away from what is undeniably a huge and complex game with very few positive feelings about it at all.

Your three starting characters work for an organisation called MAYHEM, which has some sort of international responsibility to protect the world from the nefarious efforts of LEGION. So far, so Saturday morning cartoon. LEGION’s efforts are, at present, focused on a futuristic Seoul, so a very truncated incarnation of a futuristic version of that city is our setting (the game is set after the ‘recreate Earth’ ending of Saints Row IV, if you’re wondering how there’s even a planet Earth to play on).

MAYHEM agents are based in a HQ called the Ark, from which they teleport into the city, and where upgrades and extras can be bought and added. Most importantly, it’s where your roster of agents can be changed. As you play you unlock up to twelve agents, each with unique skills (although broadly falling into tank, melee and range), and pick which trio you want to have with you at any point.

Once that opening section is complete, instead of having your characters scattered about a level working individually on a goal, they teleport in to replace each other on the fly. This not only allows you to pick the best character for the particular enemy you’re fighting, or distance you’re traversing, but also acts as a means of survival when one agent is very low on health. If they lose all their health they’ll be out of action until you return to the Ark, or use one of the game’s reviving mechanisms. However, switch them out just before they die and they’ll regain health behind the scenes. In the toughest fights, balancing between your three chosen characters is one of the key tactics of survival.

And as I said, it all starts off so well. Not least when you realise that every single character starts with a triple-jump! See, that’s the Volition we know and love, right? Generous and delightfully over the top. But how it starts to crumble can be best encapsulated I think by the following: in Saints Row IV, Volition set a superhero sim in a GTA-like world; in Agents Of Mayhem they’ve set a GTA-like sim in a superhero world. One felt like aspiration and excess, the other feels like confinement and disappointment.

The action is the bulk of the game and has unavoidable problems. Fights are often very pretty and busy, many enemies attacking from all around, your characters switching in and out on the fly to best tackle them. But it’s here that the biggest mistake is made, and it’s so colossal as to be devastating. There’s just no sense of being hit.

Your characters’ shield and health deplete with no meaningful feedback other than the two little bars creeping down bottom left of the screen, far out of your line of sight. Suddenly a character is crouched and out of action, and each time I momentarily wonder what’s wrong, before realising, “Oh.”

It’s hard to convey just how fundamentally terrible this is for the game. You get used to it, learning that you have to just watch that red line instead of enjoying the natural feedback of impacts, but it never stops sucking. This provides one half of the twin assault the game takes on itself, the other being really weak writing.

I don’t understand this repeated confusion when it comes to spoofing Saturday morning cartoons. Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon did it, and now Agents Of Mayhem too. It presents the visual style, the caricatures of, and the overall themes of Saturday morning cartoons, but then has the characters swearing and the depicted violence overtly adult. I’m down for either, but the two conflated just seems peculiar, because it fails at spoofing either extreme.

After a while, it’s essentially saying, “REMEMBER THE CARTOONS YOU WATCHED?!?” That feels increasingly awkward. Um, yeah, I do. They were often funnier. Everything is ‘a bit like’ something you remember; a bit like Turtles, a bit like Mask, a bit like Thundercats. But being a bit like something isn’t a witty pastiche, it’s just, you know, being a bit like something.

If it managed to combine that with the exceptional wit of Volition’s recent games, then perhaps it could have all worked, but instead you’ll spend more time avoiding the clangs and thuds as missed punchlines hit the ground than you will dodging enemy attacks. Sometimes it even tries to reach for pathos, and oh gawwwwd, no, please no. There are a few funny lines here and there, but they’re few and far between.

I think that’s in part because Volition gone to the extraordinary effort of having whichever of the twelve characters you’ve currently got selected be the one to respond to the set scripts of your in-ear mission-giving collective, meaning they had to think of twelve different gags – or, as was always going to be the case doing that, twelve lines that would just about do. Oh, and that mission-giving collective never stops their bants in your ear, and their blather is by far the most tedious and dry bumbling mess of all.

There are lots and lots of cutscenes, and they cut in when they feel like it, often completely ruining the flow of play. This is such a strange contrast with the latter Saints Row games the spirit of which they are so clearly trying to invoke, which once knew to keep things going as important information was conveyed. And more infuriating, when the game decides a mission is complete, it’ll often zap you away from the location you’d not yet finished exploring or clearing up of loot, dumping you elsewhere for the story.

The missions have some clever aspects to them. Each can have its difficulty selected to increase rewards. And there are a LOT of levels, creating a system that allows you to essentially gamble on your own ability – how difficult a level do you think you can cope with, for the stake of improved returns on completion? Losing doesn’t carry a permanent loss of any sort, so it’s not a genuine gamble, beyond all that extra time of having to start a mission again. It’s a neat idea, one other games should definitely nick.

The more you play, the more you realise that so many missions are achingly reliant on the same bland format though. You drive around, fight some people near a building, then scan to find your way into a generic base. Inside it’s too obviously built out of a scant few room blocks and corridors in a slightly differing order, kill all the enemies in a room, go into the next room, ‘hack’ a computer terminal or two (the hacking minigame involves pressing a button when a needle passes through a marked range in a circle), and repeat until, with no moment of finality, no final boss, no last task, no distinctive discovered object, it’s just done. Even the game doesn’t seem to know a mission has been finished, instructing you yet against to “enter the next room”, when it turns out that next room is the corridor to the exit elevator, and then it’s over. Huh.

There are other, better, above-ground scripted missions, but they too inevitably come down to drive somewhere, scan for something, kill everyone, be done. Even the boss fights don’t find room to vary far from this.

Oddly, the better moments are hidden in the little side quests. Like Daisy’s character intro missions, in which you have to retrace the roller-derby heroine’s steps from the night before while deeply hungover, playing both now and in last night’s flashbacks, trying to work out how a trip to a sushi restaurant led to getting involved in an underground robot fight club. It has some nice moments, silly details like a sepia tone for the previous night, and loading screen descriptions featuring what drinks have been consumed at that point. There, in those moments, the old flair feels present, but it’s inevitably drowned in driving, scanning, fighting, being done.

On top of the boredom, there are bugs. I had to quit the game and restart to be able to leave the Ark at one point, after a miserable ten minutes running around trying to find out what I’d missed. Another mission with a timer was failed because the game didn’t seem to have noticed I’d completed all three required tasks. Enemy AI frequently sees mobs running eternally into walls, or wobbling on top of objects their pathfinding doesn’t seem to be able to account for.

One boss fight had killed me on my first couple of attempts, but then on my third try the boss seemed to spontaneously combust before I’d even chipped away at much of his armour. Much reeks of a lack of thorough testing, like the time I ran past the entry door to a chamber, which somehow triggered not only the tutorial message that had been tied to walking in the area to pop up again, but also the scripted dialogue for that room to incongruously play itself again.

There’s unquestionably an absolute ton of stuff to do. I’ve been playing for days, and am only halfway through the main plotline, having unlocked most of the agents and done a bunch of sidequests and on-the-spot open city activities. But rather crucially, there’s no single part of the main quest I care about, not least because it’s broken up into ‘episodes’, each featuring a different named enemy, none feeling vaguely like it coheres to the last, never feeling like any of it’s building toward anything.

I certainly don’t care about any of the MAYHEM staff, and the playable characters’ personalities are limited to their snark – I only feel any affection for rollerskating Daisy, although she’s a pain in the arse to control, and bow firing Rama, but she’s a hard character to justify having in your squad when she’s so weak beyond long range. (I strongly recommend unlocking ninja Scheherazade as early as you can – she’s the most fun character to play in combat, and moves faster than most – I really wish I’d found her earlier.)

The cast is truly international, with accents you almost never hear in games, and a male/female balance. That’s another thing to celebrate, but none of them get enough time to shine. Or, maybe they wouldn’t shine given all the time in the world because the writing isn’t up to it, and too often the casting goes for the laziest stereotype imaginable. Big angry Russian dude you say? Whatever next.

I want to celebrate a few other things the game does really well, because I’m aware that this is a hugely negative review. I love that when selecting a newer character on a far lower level than ones you’ve used regularly, the game balances smartly to this, suggesting perhaps a lower difficulty level to suit the combined strengths of your crew. That encourages you to try out new characters, rather than sticking with your old guard, and as such find better ways to approach combat.

And it cannot go unrecognised just what a good job Volition have done with the UI in what is an enormously complex game, balancing so many characters with so many skill menus, upgrades and optional extras. There’s tech to research, unlocking abilities for each agent, new cars to add to your fleet, overall crew upgrades, and so on and so on. There’s so much to find and to do, and it all feels much more manageable than many games that are nowhere near as dense.

Oh, and it’s really beautiful. The design opts for a cartoon world with bold black outlines, but translates well to 3D. Fights can end up looking really stunning with ludicrous numbers of explosions, effects, attacks and laser beams, managing to keep the framerate above 50 in incredibly busy scenes. I love how Seoul looks, especially its verticality, and equipped with a triple-jump exploration can sometimes (terrible clipping dependent) prove quite fun.

None of it’s enough to convince me though. Agents Of Mayhem is huge, and so incredibly ambitious, but more often than not, it misses the mark. The lack of combat feedback is a tragedy, and one that is ruinous, but for me it’s the disappointment of the writing that feels like the biggest letdown.

It’s definitely not sensible to compare this to Saints Row, because they’re entirely different types of games… except that so often they’re not. It’s an open city, with cars to drive, jumpy powers to climb up buildings, and a base of characters who all banter at each other and you. If anything, Agents Of Mayhem keeps trying to compare itself to Saints Row, and in doing so only feels weaker and less competent.

For whatever reason, this feels like a game that wants to reach as high and far as the games that came before it, and simply can’t.

Agents Of Mayhem is out today for Windows for £40/$60/60€ via Steam.

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John Walker

Senior Editor

One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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