Agents of Mayhem Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
Developer: Deep Silver Volition, LLC
Publisher: Deep Silver
Following the escalation seen throughout its run, the Saints Row series was in something of an odd predicament by having gone from the streets to the stars and all the way to hell, effectively leaving no stone unturned, across five games. So clearly something had to be done to set the slate clean or reinvent the series, and what the developers settled on was launching the title into the realm of a spin-off, one set in an alternate universe wherein the Third Street Saints were never assembled …But that really is just a preamble for people who care too much about continuity, such as myself.
Agents of Mayhem follows the assorted members of Mayhem, a sort of private military company that aims to stop the world dominating force known as Legion by turning the world into their battleground, namely the South Korean capital of Seoul, and break as much of their stuff as possible. Because Legion has pretty much taken over the world at this point, and this is really all Mayhem can do. If that sounds like somewhat of a vague premise, that’s because it is. Despite aiming to be a rather simply plotted dual faction battle affair, much of the underlying lore present in Agents of Mayhem is only presented lightly, or nestled in obscure places. This results in a title that I played to completion, but developed a far greater understanding of characters, backgrounds, and general set-up by perusing a sparse fan wiki.
The overall premise is quite simple, following the titular agents as they go on assorted missions in order to sap the resources of Legion and take down the assorted rogue’s gallery of lieutenants, all of whom have their own unique gimmicks and flair. But in execution, it is all rather unfocused, largely due to how the playable characters are handled. Every one of the playable Agents can be used interchangeably in all main missions, have unique quips for story dialog, which is mostly dominated by support characters, but they all serve the same purpose. This in turn makes them all feel like a homogenized singular entity, and one that really has little sense of agency throughout the storyline, simply serving as the entity that shoots the baddies, presses the buttons, and lets their employer handle most everything else.
Yes, they all have unique backgrounds and motivators for joining Mayhem or wishing to stick it to Legion, as illustrated in the character introduction and loyalty missions. But the lack of a singular central protagonist and use of interchangeable avatars, who can’t really have much of a personal impact on each mission because there are 15 of them, makes the story ultimately feel like two poorly defined entities duking it out with unclear stakes, and a sense of progress that is often stated, but rarely ever felt. It’s nebulous, disconnected, and when trying to stop and put together the pieces of my playthrough together, I am left more befuddled than anything else. Which is quite a feat for a game that was meant to mimic and pay tribute to Saturday morning cartoons.
Then there’s the matter of the dialog, which is very… muddled and inconsistent, as if there were arguments amongst the developers about what tone this title should adopt. It wants to be silly and irrelevant at points, but serious in others, and generally does not do a very good job at either of them due to a poor distinction between what is an actual threat and what isn’t. Characters tell the player when things got serious, but it is not often felt, and when it does try to be funny… This is a game that came out in 2017 and has an entire mission dedicated to Uranus jokes, and I stumbled across an ‘arrow to the knee’ reference a mission or two later. Saying it is mixed would be generous, and while a few lines solicited a snicker, there is a severe lack of humor beyond the dialog itself, meaning that this title lacks any humorous setpieces or scenarios to really call its own, or any humorous or endearing uses of a licensed soundtrack. Also known as some of the creative highlights of the Saints Row titles, and two things Volition has a proven track record with.
Alright, so do I have any positives I can highlight? Well, yes actually. All in all, I did enjoy the assorted cast of this game, found their personalities compelling, and thought that the voice actors did a great job of bringing these characters to life. From the calculating and intimidating leader of Mayhem, Perseophone. The cheery and innocent mechanic Gremlin. And the assorted playable cast who all had unique quirks that, even if not really my thing, are endearing in some way shape or form. But I think my favorite has to be the penultimate antagonist of the game, mostly because I have a thing for psychotic and eccentric megaminical villanesses.
I was also incredibly intrigued by the murmurs made about a multiverse in the missions centering around the Iranian ninja Scheherazade, and the final mission of the game. Unfortunately, much like many other plot threads introduced in this game, they don’t really go anywhere. That is the reality of Agents of Mayhem and its storyline. For all the intriguing ideas it levies, the execution indicates that something did not go according to plan, or the plan failed, thus resulting in a finished product that feels lopsided and stilted. I want to say that this can only be seen in the more narrative aspects of this title, but nope! The same sentiment can sadly be applied to more or less everything.
Jumping to the next point, how is underlying gameplay? Well, the long and short of it is that whatever variety that one would expect from the Saints Row series should be left at the door. There’s no running into traffic and ragdolling to commit insurance fraud. No rolling around a giant ball of yarn that makes everything explode because reasons. No high stakes vehicular combat. No human trafficking. No spraying the streets with poo in order to decrease property values. And obviously no mayhem activities, because it’s not like this game is named after the persistently enjoyable exploit of blowing things up for fun, money, and cool unlocks.
Instead, the game doubles down on the core gameplay of its understated lineage, being a third person shooter where the player characters must fend off waves of assorted enemies, drive high speed vehicles around a metropolitan environment, and triple jump across Seoul in search for assorted goodies. Going through these three things in order, the shooting seen throughout the game is completely serviceable, functional, and has a lot of variety between its assorted cast, all of whom come with their own designated weapon, special, and super move that allow them to shine in select situations, and provide the player to create a wide number of functional pairing befitting their playstyle.
However, the simple act of fighting off waves of enemies with gunfire has become rather trite nowadays, and Agents of Mayhem’s execution is… a bit troubled. The lack of a mini map combined with a close camera can make combat rather disorientating on its own, but when paired with respawning enemies that excel at blindsiding, distant and difficult to pinpoint ranged attacks, and a lack of damage indicators, frustration becomes far more common than it really ought to be. This is not helped by the introduction of new enemy types, such as sniper can disable weapons and tear through shields, while being elusive targets on account of the rubbish range afforded to most weapons, whose bullets evaporate after traveling 50 meters or less. Turrets that fire balls of electric death that can shred through characters in 3 seconds (I timed it). And heavily fortified fortified enemies that take forever to kill and dish out area of effect damage as conveyed by circles that appear on the ground. Which would make sense if the camera clearly showed where the character was standing, but it doesn’t.
I will say that combat can be fun when things are kept simple and challenge is not a stated priority. However, because combat is so crucial to the underlying gameplay there really isn’t anything the developers could do other than throw in more enemies. Yes, the characters, environments, and enemy line ups do change, but it all amounts to a nebulous series of unmemorable encounters wherein even when things were supposedly shaken up, they really aren’t.
As for the driving, it honestly functions more as a way of traversing around the fairly small city of Seoul and little else. Vehicle combat is not a focus of this game, there is never a good reason to steal civilian cars, and most of the player’s driving should be spent with a summonable high tech car with boost engines and preposterous durability that enables these vehicles to decimate just about anything else on the road by bumping into it… or by using the shockwave attack. But while it was efficient, it was not my preferred means of transportation, as I have something of a fixation on collecting assorted goodies while hopping and dashing around in an open environment, and goodness is this game full of hidden goodies, most notably chests with randomized contents.
However, remember what I said about the lack of a mini map? Well, that is seemingly addressed in the introduction of a scanner that highlights enemies an unmistakable red, and highlights assorted objects of interest in a light blue that is not particularly useful with the color palette seen throughout this game (they probably should’ve been purple) but it is functional enough. So with the introduction of this function, I wound up pressing the scan button constantly, picking up all chests in sight, and gathering up glowing red crystals, known as upgrade cores. A collectible I initially pegged as being an equivalent to the glowing blue clusters seen in Saints Row IV, but that is not really the case, as collecting upgrade cores is a waste of time.
Between chests, passive “Contract” quests that offer rewards, and brief respawning activities wherein the player can indulge in some combat or racing, the player gets more than enough of these upgrade cores, and general resources, to the point where I was positively drowning in them before the halfway point. Or in other words, the open world of this game is filled with minor things the player can do, but the reward structure hits a cap very quickly.
Okay, but is it fun? I would say that, yes, it is indeed fun to collect things and indulge in brief snippets of combat while triple jumping and air dashing about. However, much like the combat, it gradually outstayed its welcome, and after a while I began to fixate about the lesser parts of open world exploration. Such as why the game opted to give half the cast air dashes and the rest the ability to do a small boost when up against a wall, instead of extending both abilities to everyone. Or why this open world itself feels so devoid of life. Despite offering some appealing architecture, the city of Seoul is about as lifeless as they come, with people droning on through their lives, not serving any purpose other than making crowds and cowering when murder happens. Combined with the lack of intractability outside of designated mission markers, this sci-fi themed reimagining of Seoul winds up feeling like a plastic diorama more than anything else.
But I do suppose that the city, generally and from a landscape perspective, does look good, and the assorted playable characters are well modeled, designed, and animated. The game in general is an attractive endeavor that shows considerable improvements over its technical predecessors, using the power of advanced hardware to iron out the edges seen in the Saints Row series after it adopted a new art style with part 3. Unfortunately, a lot of the most commonly used assets are recycled gunmetal gray sci-fi themed corridors, and a lot of the time the game struggles to present all the necessary visual information to the player amidst all the actiony bombast and cluttered environments wherein enemies must be highlighted red to stand out.
Then there are the 2D cutscenes, or as I like to call them, budget cuts. It is something of an uncommon practice in the game industry for developers to opt for 2D cutscenes in their 3D games, and historically has been done for fairly obvious budgetary reasons, as it is considerably cheaper to opt in for 2D animation than model and animate everything in-engine. However, that was seemingly not enough for Volition and Deep Silver, as there are several cutscenes where events are presented as 2D animatics, and one instance where a cutscene was constructed using recycled character key art and backgrounds. While I might admire this frugal approach from a smaller scale project, this is technically a AAA production that lacks any such excuses, and instead comes across as unsightly.
Though that is not the only thing unsightly about Agents of Mayhem, as from a technical standpoint, it’s certainly far from the most polished of endeavors. Throughout my playthrough, I managed to get stuck in a wall, fell through the world, lost the ability to enable “fine aim,” and was thrust into an infinite loop wherein the hacking quick time event would not load properly, and only worked after I restarted the game. But the most pressing of these issues is how this game really doesn’t like it when you alt-tab. When playing in full screen, alt-tabbing crashed my PC, and the only way I could get alt-tabbing to work in borderless windowed mode was to switch from borderless windowed to windowed and back to borderless windowed everytime I booted up the game. I would understand this if I was playing the game at launch, but two years after the fact, I expected something a little more… functional.
Agents of Mayhem typically isn’t the sort of game that would pop up on my radar, however my fondness for the Saints Row series, or at least 2 and IV, instilled me with a curiosity that I simply had to quell. Unfortunately, the game is largely devoid of the things that made me enjoy the developer’s early works, and amounts to a very mismatched open world shooter. Between the messy narrative construction and delivery, underwhelming gameplay, a presentation that shows clear signs of budget limitations, and an almost complete lack of the same set pieces that served as highlights in Volition’s previous offerings, I cannot help but look at Agents of Mayhem, shake my head, and mutter that something went wrong here.