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Super Saints: Hands On With Agents Of Mayhem

Shield down, guns up

Agents Of Mayhem [official site] explicitly plants Saints Row in a futureworld of supervillains and interplanetary metahuman agencies. I use the word ‘explicitly’ because Saints Row IV was already at least part way there, using the grammar of a superhero comic if not the language. I played through a mission of Mayhem recently and while I immediately missed some aspects of Saints Row, as an action game, Agents is streets ahead.

Saints Row IV is a brilliant game and one of the few that has ever made me laugh out loud. That it does so from its opening moments right up to the end credits is incredible. I like to compare the trajectory of the series to the Fast and Furious films, which similarly transitioned from brooding cars and crims drama to action comedies that revel in self-aware excess and ever more ridiculous feats.

In the Fast and Furious films, the central conceit or gag is that no matter how inappropriate vehicles might be for a job, the crew will always plant themselves in a driver’s seat. Whether it’s a heist or a kidnapping, a flotilla of fancy cars are the only way they can see themselves pulling off the job. If they had to deflect a bit of space debris that was heading toward off, they’d somehow manage to incorporate muscle cars into the operation, catapulting them into orbit and nitro-boosting their way to a happy ending.

For the Saints, it was their criminality that defined them even when they’d clearly moved into stories and situations that didn’t rely on their gangland background. Whether they were global celebrities, presidents or Earth’s last hope in the face of an alien menace, the Saints were always the Saints - loud, brash, purple, anarchic, violent and amoral.

With Agents of Mayhem, Volition are jumping forward in time and across the globe to Seoul, shedding the skin of the Saints for a new beginning. There are twelve agents to choose from, with three available on any given mission, and each has special abilities (superpowers) and distinct weapons that lend themselves to certain approaches, but they’re all good at one thing: beating the crap out of LEGION (League of Evil Gentlemen Intent on Obliterating Nations).

Mayhem (Multinational Agency for Hunting Evil Masterminds) operate outside the law, meaning they have some of the anarchic qualities of the Saints, but despite taking place in a future version of the same world and having surface similarities, Agents is a very different game to its predecessors. And that, a quick hands-on suggests, is because it’s actually a good action game rather than a so-so action game with a delicious wrapper.

Yes, I said Saints Row IV was brilliant right at the beginning of this write-up and it is, but the driving, shooting, jumping, climbing and melee combat is fine. Just fine. It does the job. Take away the charisma of the characters and the writing, as well as the weird missions that interrupt the ordinary flow of the game, and I wouldn’t be playing just to enjoy the actual activities - exploring the city and fighting enemies is functional rather than exceptional.

Agents of Mayhem, as much as anything else, looks to be Volition’s attempt to provide something exceptional on the action front. It’s impossible to judge having only seen a single mission but everything is pointing in the right direction. Gunplay feels much weightier, with shotguns causing kickback and hurling enemies across the room, while sniping in the heat of battle flips the entire approach to combat on its head. And you can switch at any time, swapping between the three agents taken on a mission with the push of a button.

Far from a simple way to bulk up on abilities, the agent-swapping is the key to the game’s flow. I used Rama, a bow-wielding sniper, to set up traps that sucked enemies into a mini vortex, and then switched to shotgun-wielding bruiser Hardtack to wade in and take the cluster out with a few blasts. Agent Hollywood is also a good call when enemies are grouped together, able to unleash a pyrotechnic display fit for the multiplex.

That latter is a ‘Mayhem Ability’, requiring a fully charged special bar to activate. The charge is shared between characters, so you could use the sniper, Rama, to pick off smaller enemies from a distance, building mayhem, and then switch to Hardtack to utilise a skill designed to take down a larger boss enemy as soon as the charge is full.

Switching agents is instantaneous, allowing for the construction of interpersonal combos, and while the mayhem charge is shared, health is agent-specific, so swapping out can be used as an emergency escape if someone has taken too much damage. They’ll recover while out of the field and while there was no real threat to survival during the mission I played (I suspect we were playing on easy to ensure nobody died while learning the controls), the final fight ramped up the challenge significantly.

It’s a fight against a supervillain and his bride, who is a K-pop idol that also happens to be an AI in hologram form. The mission begins with the idol on the side of Mayhem but she betrays you at the mid-point, having fallen for one of Legion’s crew, and the mission ends with you crashing the wedding, which is taking place on a giant skybarge, above Seoul.

This whole subplot is delivered in a tone that treats the agents and their predicaments sincerely - the humour is in the character work and the ludicrous situations unfolding rather than the setting itself. Essentially, Volition don’t expect you to find the basic idea of antihero superagents smashing up a city hilarious; just as in the later Saints Row games, they seem willing to explore the weirder corners of this new world for jokes rather than expecting any inherent humour of the premise to do the heavy lifting.

And if this small taster is representative of the full meal, this will be a game that makes you smile more than it makes you laugh. For all that Saints Row IV delivered on the laughs, it was also packed with charming characters. Seems odd, given that they’re a bunch of horrible bastards, but the Saints are enjoyable company. Same goes for the Agents, based on what I’ve seen (just four of the twelves). They’re ready with quips and good natured back and forth, and they’re a properly international bunch. The in-depth and splendid character customisation of Saints Row is out, which breaks my heart just a little bit, but Volition are aiming to provide as much diversity as possible in the twelve characters, and that goes for backgrounds, backstories, aesthetics and playstyles.

As I see it, there’s a definite balancing act here: even half an hour with Mayhem is enough time to declare it superior to Saints Row as an action game, but the focus on a specific set of characters in a more tightly focused experience means some aspects of the Row have been cut away.

In between raiding the wedding and fighting goons in an underground base, I had a brief dash through the city streets. Mayhem’s Seoul has far more character and colour than Steelport, and seeing traffic swerve and crash in an attempt to avoid the fights breaking out made me hopeful that it’ll feel just as (if not more) vibrant and chaotic as well. It’s impossible to tell at the moment though, and it’s not even clear how much vehicular carnage you’ll be able to cause.

This isn’t Saints Row: The Future or Saints Row: The Superheroes, and it might be missing elements of that big urban canvas that Volition’s series has offered in its finest moments. Instead, Agents of Mayhem is perhaps best understood as a singleplayer take on character-driven action games like Overwatch and Battleborn, a skill-based third-person shooter that favours knowledge of the protagonists over a twitchy trigger finger.

There’s a long wait to see if it all comes together and I hope that it’ll still be possible to cause consequence-free trouble in the city between missions, but Agents of Mayhem already feels solid and satisfying. The humour feels almost as close to No One Lives Forever as Saints Row, and the futuristic superheroics allow for that Crackdown vibe that Volition have come close to harnessing in the past. I'm eager to see more.

Agents of Mayhem will be out next year.

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