Volition, the studio behind the exceptional Red Faction series (as long as we ignore Armageddon) and the ridiculous Saints Row games are back with an open world tactical shooter with a difference. Agents of Mayhem sets you in the shoes of an entire clandestine spy organisation tasked with defending the world from evil. A single player only game where you hot swap between larger than life characters in bright and colourful environments… it might sound familiar, but this is definitely not a LEGO or Blizzard title, even though it takes significant inspiration from those. Beginning with a dash of the studios heritage and adding a splash of character based MMO’s, do they manage to offer up a game that gives us as much chaos as the name suggests?
Remember when you were a kid and spent your Saturday morning’s whiling away the time watching the action cartoons on TV? So do Volition because this is exactly how Agents of Mayhem is presented. You always got the feeling with shows like X-Men and Dungeons and Dragons that you’d missed about half a series and were playing catch up, and this game is no different. Getting dropped (literally) into the heart of a futuristic version of Seoul during the height of an ongoing battle with the nefarious Dr. Babylon and his Legion organisation, you need to fight your way free through hordes of soldiers just to get to the point where someone starts to explain what’s going on. The intro missions are fast paced and spend all the time introducing the main mechanics, leaving you little time to ponder what’s happening. With gloriously over the top abilities and snappy dialogue you’re lulled into the neon colour pallette and lose yourself in the action.
With a rapid pace Agents of Mayhem throws out new things to keep you occupied – levelling, upgrades, new abilities, special weapons all come thick and fast, and alongside those the roster of characters also begins to open up. It’s a squad shooter at its core, with 3 individuals at your beck and call all the time. You only play one at once, with a tap on the direction buttons switching you between each of the agents that you’ve taken on the mission. Everyone is unique, and coming from the team that gave us Saints Row you know they’re going to be over the top. Take your default agents Hollywood (an actor), Hardtack (sailor) and Fortune (a pirate); each specialises in particular skills for dealing with enemies, whether that’s brute force, high energy or sustained damage. They all complement each other, and whilst any one can be used in a particular scenario, they shout up and let you know if you’re not using the most efficient character. It’s a nice touch hearing Hardtack holler for the chance to take armoured enemies down, or Fortune needing to be the one that hacks a security console. Unlocking new agents by finding and completing side missions lets you update the squad and add some variety to the Legion massacring.
It’s something that Agents of Mayhem suffers from very early on – repetition. The missions are very formulaic, go to location, shoot some Legion, go to another location, shoot some legion, go to a final location (probably an underground bunker), shoot lots of Legion. Repeat until it’s time for a boss fight. The agent side missions have some unique elements, like Daisy’s being a recreation of a drunken night out, and the subordinates of Dr. Babylon are well realised and satisfying once you’ve taken them down, though it gets old fast. Even the setting of an entire city can’t relieve the tedium because despite how nice it looks, it’s devoid of character and you don’t bother looking around at anything, it’s just a blur as you drive to your next waypoint. You’d think that at least traversal would be entertaining, and the inclusion of a triple jump is great for on foot, so it’s a shame that you really do need a vehicle to move about due to the distances involved. Calling your car is hot keyed, and a neat animation plays as it hurtles up and you’re absorbed in… only to be left static and needing to get up to speed. It breaks the flow, though not nearly as badly the atrocious handling and inability to turn a corner without stopping dead in your tracks. Saints Row wasn’t the best example of open world driving, but at least it was functional so why it’s not transferred is a mystery.
Back to the plus points, difficulty is completely customisable and if you’ve headed back to your not-at-all-a-SHIELD-helicarrier, you can set how hard you want things to be before deploying again. The Ark (as it’s known) also serves as a hub for character customisation, weapon creation, training sessions and even a metagame that’s used to unlock new Legion tech and bonus XP contracts. Contracts are interesting as they’re passive multiplayer and enable your actions to count towards unlocking extra rewards for all the people taking part. They are time limited though, so if you miss the deadline it’s wasted effort. That said, hitting the deadline and the targets doesn’t really seem to do a great deal, unless I just completely missed the messages. You’re not short of ways of collecting XP or other consumables, they’re given out by killing enemies or finishing objectives in the open world, and as you’d expect there are loads of things to do if you dedicate some time to exploring the map. Outposts, lairs, trucks and hostage rescues are just some of the activities, and they’re pretty much standard copy and paste from any other open world game.
One area that I can’t level any criticism at is the way the game looks and how smooth it is. Agents of Mayhem has colour infused just about everywhere, with a penchant for purple to make sure you know full well it’s linked to the Saints Row universe. The way the squad members are drawn and fleshed out show attention to detail that would usually get lost in a game with 12 playable characters. Each has something to offer that makes them worth giving a go, and specific upgrades are unlocked even for those you don’t use, so there’s always incentive to try them out and see what new things they can do. Experimenting with loadouts and configurations will help you find a combination that suits your playstyle best, and there’s a versatility in this approach that makes a lot of sense. One of the things that doesn’t quite gel is the barrage of swearing that comes from some of the team. We know this is a game aimed at adults and aren’t averse to some contextual cursing, but it just seems out of place and unnecessary here. It’s trying to be amusing with it and missing the mark, and unfortunately the truly comic moments that come in the conversational elements whilst moving around the city are spoilt by unnaturally long pauses.
Agents of Mayhem is a bit of a disappointment. There’s a lot here that works so well, and the concept, characters and technical execution are spot on, so it starts off making you feel awesome. Explosions, witty banter, huge amounts of particle effects – it’s all there to provide a spectacle and try and instill the sense of being a team in the way we’ve seen Marvel building it’s universe in the movies over the last decade. Then it just gives you the same thing to do over and over again with very little change to the action. It’s funny, exciting and boring at the same time, which is a difficult trick to pull off. There’s also the odd decision to not have any active multiplayer in a game where the protagonists lend themselves so well to that type of gameplay. It isn’t a bad game at all, it just needs less identikit lairs to run and gun through and more of what make Volition’s previous games a joy to play… as long as we keep pretending that Red Faction: Armageddon doesn’t exist.
A PS4 review copy of Agents of Mayhem was provided by the Deep Silver PR team, and the game is out now on PC, Xbox One and PS4.