Agents of Mayhem is the latest in a long line of third-person action adventure games from veteran developer Volition. Before Mayhem came along, Volition cranked out the hit Saints Row series, and before that even more amazing games like Red Faction and FreeSpace. Volition has been around, and has done stuff worth being lauded for, basically.
Set in the same universe as Saints Row, Agents of Mayhem features enough departures from that wholesome series to stand by itself. So while it remains an action shooter stitched together with comedy, new RPG and squad elements separate it not only from Volition’s earlier work, but also from most other games, as there aren’t really any quite like it.
When you start, you have just one character to play as, but you quickly recruit some friends and form up a squad of three. You can edit the members of the squad back at your home base – substituting any three of 12 unlockable characters – and then switch between them at any time by pressing left or right on the d-pad, causing your current character to dematerialise and the new one to materialise in their place.
The idea is that, where you’d switch weapons in a different game, here you choose between different types of characters so that you can adjust your approach based on the given situation. It’s a decent enough concept, and it even adds in the twist that here your "weapons" (characters) can die, potentially reducing your options in the middle of a fire fight.
In practice, it doesn’t really work as well as it seems like it could; changing between characters takes a second or two, and the loss of control in the middle of a firefight is both jarring and cumbersome. As a result, I found myself mostly switching ahead of – or after – combat, which meant I was largely restricted to whoever I was playing as once the typically hectic fighting began. This cost me any real chance of chaining together compatible skills in some sort of emergent (or accidental) manner.
Each character has a basic attack, a melee attack, and two different specials. Most also tote some sort of ranged weapon. The basic special moves tend to be an amped up version of the basic attack (i.e. fire a rocket instead of a bullet, that kind of thing), while the top-end specials, "mayhem attacks", can be all kinds of nuts, much in the same way special attacks in Injustice are the cool kind of comic book crazy.
For the most part, the combination of skills keeps each of the characters individually viable, without making them feel too samey, but they certainly don’t feel as diverse as Overwatch’s, for example. Some of the characters felt super underpowered and were quickly rotated out of my team, which struck me as something of a shame, as the character roster is clearly part of the game into which a lot of time and money was invested.
As you’d expect from the creators of the Saints Row franchise, Agents of Mayhem is firmly rooted in the "comedy" shooter sub-genre. One-liners abound, and the (mostly) genuinely amusing banter is very entertaining. My favourites include some of the announcements overheard inside enemy bases, talking about how anonymous feedback isn’t really anonymous – that sort of thing (maybe you had to be there?).
The characters themselves, all of whom are grotesque caricatures of pop culture tropes, are well thought-out, and at the very least, eyebrow-raising, if not always totally uproarious, when engaging with the various situations and NPCs you’ll encounter on your trip to neo-Seoul.
However (and it’s a big 'however'), the game is, for the most part, ultra-boring. The first mission is OK; you kill some dudes and move from point to point in Seoul. The second… well, it’s basically the same as the first. In fact, nearly all of the missions are basically the same as each other, with the only variety being where you have to go to kill the dudes, whether you need to find something while you’re there, and whether the next objective is gated behind the death of all of the dudes or not.
The dudes are even the same throughout most of the game, with only very occasional variety added in to… highlight how boring the rest of it is? Not sure, but when a game with neon visuals and loads of explosions is coma-inducingly dull, there’s definitely an issue there. Even getting to the missions is super dull, as the game forces you to go to different parts of the map for absolutely no reason whatsoever.
The missions aren’t the only boring aspect of Mayhem. There’s loads of loot to find, in the form of scraps and blueprints for things you can build, cash, etc. None of it is interesting. Most of the things you can build with this stuff are also super dull: moves that mean you hit people differently, skills that give you more crit chance or a chance to "enfeeble".
There are a few things that are kinda fun, but you’ll need to unlock them, build them, and equip them, all of which is super booooooring to do. Shooting people in the face? Boring. They’re either super easy to kill (boring) or epic bullet sponges (booooooring). Want to see where the enemies are? Press triangle to highlight them – something you need to do, because the garish environments make enemy spotting difficult – then press it again (and again) because the effect doesn’t last long. I’m all for combos in games, but shoot-scan shoot-scan shoot-scan is – you guessed it – boooooooooring.
Another boring factor is the level design; Seoul itself is cool and the tech-neon aesthetic is both rad and definitively Volition. The interior levels, however, are identikit snap-together horror shows that seem much more like a survivalist’s wet dream of a bunker made of welded-together polished shipping containers than something that would actually exist anywhere sane people lived. They’re all the same, too, which is – actually I’m not going to say it, you already know. I even got some missions in other countries (through a meta game element which isn’t worth spending much time talking about) which, amazingly, were exactly the same.
Not all of the gameplay is bad, and it’s worth calling out a couple of the boss fights, which are actually pretty fun in comparison to everything else. The characters they’re based on are unique, and those wacky personalities carry through to the mechanics in meaningful ways, which is nice. For example, one of the bosses has multiple personalities, each of which manifests itself during the various stages of the fight. The mechanics aren’t ground-breaking or anything, but their integration with the game’s personality makes for a good experience.
Then there’s the bugs, and man does Agents of Mayhem have bugs. Most of them are forgivable / recoverable, if a bit teeth-grindingly annoying. Things like enemies spawning inside of geometry, making them unhittable – a real chore when you’re on a "kill everyone to proceed" mission. I had missions that effectively crashed, forcing me to restart them. Sometimes the guidance stuff wouldn’t work, so I’d have to find my own way around Seoul. The sound died completely at one point, with only my footprints left audible.
The worst, though, was the game-ending glitch at around 72% of the way through, which prevented me progressing any further. Looking around on the Internet, I haven’t seen anyone else complaining of this particular issue, so it’s unlikely to be widespread, so chances are it won’t happen to you. Caveat emptor and all that (plus, you know, the Consumer Guarantees Act), though.
But even epic glitches aside, Agents of Mayhem is tough to recommend. There’s good comedy here and the characters are cool, but everything else feels too close to placeholder quality. It’s clear that Agents of Mayhem could be good – even great – if it spent more time in the oven, but the game that exists right now just isn’t worth playing. You can’t even play it cooperatively! Hopefully someone, somewhere, is taking a good hard look at themselves after deciding to release it.