Wot I Think: Agents Of Mayhem

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.

37 Comments

  1. TotallyUseless says:

    Sounds exactly like the mediocre Saints Row III and IV we know. SR3 and 4 had mediocre story, mediocre graphics, mediocre mechanics, mediocre characters… so mediocre it’s surprisingly fun.

    I we can at least go on a mindless shooting rampage in game. XD

    • Premium User Badge

      John Walker says:

      That’s simply untrue, and a ridiculous assertion. SR III and IV were exceptionally well written games, with stunning performances. And by far the funniest games in many years.

      If you found *those* mediocre, then this will be like watching your family catch fire.

      • Stevostin says:

        Agreed with you on everything there, John. So it happens too :)

      • Unclepauly says:

        Family fires are not fun.

      • -Spooky- says:

        #7 mediocre

      • SV_Gray says:

        Another person called SRIV a “soulless experience”. I think that describes it exactly right. For me, the entire set-up was the issue. The fact that the game takes place in a virtual reality drove home the fact that none of this is real, these aren’t really people but just empty simulations. I felt nothing when I saw run-down areas of the city, or the people burning trash in bins there. Whereas I remember SR2 both for being a far more fun version of GTA, and for being amazingly well written, too. Can’t forget the revenge against the leader of The Brotherhood. Still think about that slow clap sometimes.

    • MeestaNob says:

      SR 3 and 4 were fine, Gat out of Hell was the weak one in the series, basically just a collection of left over ideas from 4 packaged at a budget price.

      It’s hard to get a read on what exactly is bad and what is just disappointing here, but I must admit I wasn’t exactly waiting for more SR (or this off-brand SR), and nothing here helped build interest in it either.

      Reckon its time for Volition to do something new.

    • Laurentius says:

      I agree, especially SRIV. Game that medicore that even adding superpowers or Haddaway Death Star run resulted in boring and soulless experience.

      • Beefenstein says:

        Both SRIII and IV let me down with the gunplay. I just didn’t feel like I was hitting anything or being hit, perhaps similar to this game according to the review.

        That said I’ve never enjoyed any 3D GTA for more than 30 mins, they end up just feeling too ropey and then crushingly samey.

      • MikoSquiz says:

        It was adding the superpowers that did them in for me. It felt like playing with cheats on. Helping yourself to various vehicles is such a core part of the GTA-like experience that having mobility superpowers from the start let most of the air out of the balloon, for a start.

      • Doug Exeter says:

        I hated Saints Row 3. I sold it 2 weeks after buying it. It was such a disappointment after SR2. Years later, I picked up 3 and 4 on Steam sale and shotgunned em in a week or 2. I ended up liking them both more than I thought they would but I missed the nihilism from 2 and the gangland progression. I would have rather them gone darker then goofier.

  2. CMaster says:

    Wasn’t the “Restore Earth” ending actually the (admittedly very forgettable) Gat Out Of Hell, as opposed to SR4 (which had “Space Empire” and “Time Travelling with Jane Austen” endings).

    • wombat191 says:

      I still want a time traveling SR.

      • FurryLippedSquid says:

        I would love to punch a velociraptor and hear “That’s right, I’m better than you.” in a London accent.

  3. Wstr says:

    Maaaan, this sucks. :(

    I was really hoping for a good Saints Row 4-ish game but this just doesn’t look like it. Loved the hell out of SR4, still do, so WTH were they thinking? They got the formula just right in SR4, why change it so much? Damn you Volition! (•̀o•́)ง

  4. wombat191 says:

    I’ve liked the SR game but the moment I saw the first game play for this I was thinking.. Well this looks dull

    • Fade2Gray says:

      Yeah. As soon as I heard that there would be little to no customization in this game I became leery. Once I saw that it was going to be some sort of quasi-squad-based hero shooter, I became even more doubtful that I’d like this game. Reading this review, and others like it, though actually made me pretty sad. It sounds like if the writing had been better it could have ended up being a surprised hit for me. Oh well..

  5. Pich says:

    Honestly i’ve been so tired of this brand of “ironic” comedy that’s been in a lor of games in the last decade (i think trying to play through Borderlands TPS burned out my last enjoyment of it). Western devs need to realize you can make jokes without winking at your audience every 10 seconds or trying to be as comically edgy as possible or overexplaining yout joke to the point of exhaustion.

    • BooleanBob says:

      I’m definitely suffering a bit from ‘smart-dumb’ writing fatigue. It was fresh enough when TF2 did it in 2007, but when we’re still seeing variants of ‘my blood! you punched out all of my blood!’ 10 years later..

      • satan says:

        Amen, that comedy doesn’t age well/lend itself to replayability either.

  6. kse1977 says:

    So what I am gathering is “wait for patching and a big sale”. Got it. I loved Saints Row 3 and 4, at this point in my life, any time I play a game all the way through, it says something about my enjoyment. So I already knew this wasn’t going to be Saints Row 5, so hopefully they will get on that. Now we have to wait and hope for an awesome new Darksiders.

  7. jonfitt says:

    An aside on Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon.

    It was always odd that the trailers went for “Saturday morning cartoon” because the style, plot, violence, and swears all felt like “Straight to VHS b-list 18-rated action movie”.

  8. RichUncleSkeleton says:

    I cannot possibly understand why, regardless of the game’s actual content, this isn’t called Saints Row V or at least Saints Row: Agents of Mayhem. Where is the sense in walking away from a commercially successful IP to make a substantially similar IP (with some of the same characters, even) with a different name? I’ve barely heard any buzz about this game and I think a big part of that is the generic branding.

    • ThePuzzler says:

      Presumably because it lacks a lot of things you’d expect from a Saints Row game. You’re not playing as murderous gangsters, for example.

      Plus, I’m guessing a lot of people didn’t bother with the last Saints Row game; the series had taken everything up to 11 a few times too many.

      And creating a successful new IP seems like it would be a good thing?

  9. Arlyeon says:

    Interesting to know. I’m still on the fence as to whether I want to dabble in this myself or not, given the price tag. I suppose I’ll wait until a free weekend to make a final judgement.

  10. left1000 says:

    lots of rumors about performance problems?

  11. Premium User Badge

    Nauallis says:

    Ah, gotta love how teleportation is so often used as a movement mechanic but apparently nobody ever seems to consider the ramifications of functional teleportation. Why bother teleporting anywhere but your goal into an enemy stronghold unless your goal is to kill/destroy everything? And if that’s your goal, why not just teleport nerve gas, or a thermobaric bomb, or worse yet, purposely teleport solid matter into other solid matter?

    Sigh.

  12. Premium User Badge

    ErraticGamer says:

    It’s interesting, because technically there are visual cues for being hit all over the screen – you get a shield icon that pops up directionally when you’re taking shield damage, and a directional “health damage” icon when you’re taking health damage, and the screen edges color red when you’re taking health damage – but I agree that the feedback feels weak. Not enough audio, maybe? I too have been surprised by almost dying way too many times.

    • Premium User Badge

      ErraticGamer says:

      That said, I am having a really good time so far. I don’t find the characters grating, yet (I actually like Rama a lot so far) and the combat has a lot of variety to it. Also the city traversal feels really good, and collecting shards has some of that good ol’ Crackdown orb-catchin’ feel to it.

  13. racccoon says:

    Awesome review.. loved it :)

  14. Atrak says:

    Might be time to break out Descent Freespace 3 eh Volition.. please?..pretty please?

  15. poliovaccine says:

    I think it’s funny how games having multiple endings can extend into whole parallel timelines and realities haha. I almost feel like that’s one of those “as above, so below” kinda things, like our microcosm in games might have something in common with the macrocosm of existence, like there’s something analagous there… like maybe less was possible til existence got better tech haha… maybe that’s what’s keeping us in the 3rd dimension, and it plays and runs like a GeForce Voodoo – as in, it used to be a lot more impressive in the past, but with the endless entropic march of time it’s frankly insufficient for rendering anything that ever happens these days (except for maybe in very rural, typically conservative areas where there’s very few AIs and assets to render and not-coincidentally people are more inclined to cling to the past and tradition and the old ways, because those old games literally run better for them on the aging hardware of existence…). I could keep going with this but I trust folks to be able to continue along those lines on their own if they like haha..

  16. Danarchist says:

    To be honest I played for a few hours last night and I really enjoyed it…
    I will now run and hide as I can actually feel the glasses being pushed up noses right now in preparation for a heated response to my obvious ignorance of fact A and article B.

    But still…already played it more than the last two games I purchased.

    • Yglorba says:

      That doesn’t surprise me. Even bad Saint’s Row game is still head and shoulders above a lot of the other stuff out there. I intend to get this one despite the review… though I’ll probably wait until it’s on sale and the bugs are fixed.

  17. Urthman says:

    John, I’m curious if you would agree with people who are saying this is really more of a Diablo-style ARPG than a GTA/Saint’s Row type of open world game, in that the focus is more on different character builds?

  18. falcon2001 says:

    I’m basically on board with this. Was very excited for the release because SRIII is one of my favorite games of all time probably, and I kind of hoped that Gat out of Hell and SRIV being less great was to some degree chalked up to the financial situation that the devs found themselves in, but apparently it just didn’t really pan out.

    It’s not a BAD game, clearly. It’s just disappointing, and feels like they spent a lot of time on SOME things and just copy/pasted things they should have spent time on.