Review: Agents of Mayhem

Agents of Mayhem is the follow up to Volition’s Saints Row IV from, it’s hard to believe, four years ago now.  While Agents of Mayhem isn’t a direct sequel, it is definitely a spiritual successor set in a shared universe, with hints, winks, and nods to its street gangbanging predecessor. Clearly with how Saints Row IV and the Gat out of Hell expansion ended, Volition was tasked with a challenge to come up with something similar, yet entirely new. The studio’s answer to the challenge was to take its usual formula of adult humor and third-person, open-world action and present it through the lens of a Saturday morning cartoon. 

The game opens with a stylish animated cutscene to set the whole Saturday morning cartoon vibe. Dr. Babylon is a bald mad genius bent on world domination in the hopes of gaining the favor of a mysterious superbad named Morningstar. A team of super agents reminiscent of GI Joe, the agents of MAYHEM (Multinational Agency Hunting Evil Masterminds) are there to stop Babylon and his Cobra-esque LEGION (League of Evil Gentleman Intent On Obliterating nations) of bad guys. Players control a team of three agents at a given time, but only one agent is present on screen, with the ability to swap out at the press of left or right on the d-pad. From the start, players control Hollywood, Hardtack, and Fortune. Hollywood is an egotistical yet charming (for the most part) run-and-gun hero. Hardtack is a stern, hardnosed tank armed with a devastating shotgun. Fortune is an agile hacker with akimbo laser pistols and a drone that provides additional support.

All heroes have specialized skills that help to balance the teamwork of the trio. Hardtack starts off with Skinpiercer, which grants bonus damage to hard armor targets.  Hollywood starts off with World Savior, which offers bonus damage to big LEGION targets like a Golem or Hate Machines.  Fortune has Shieldbuster, which provides a bonus to targets with a shield. Once heroes earn enough experience to reach level 10, a secondary specialization is automatically unlocked.

These specializations are just the tip of the iceberg of what Agents can do. All Agents also have the following skills: passive abilitiy, which can be modified with gadgets that are earned through missions; traversal ability, which allows advantages when moving through the open world; “ability,” which is similar to traversal—both are performed by pressing the circle button—except the ability is used during combat; special, a timed cool down and damage/buff/debuff that varies based on which gadget is equipped; weapon, which never changes the gun type—shotgun, pistol, ice cannon etc—but can be modified for more damage/buff/debuff with equipped gadgets; and finally the Mayhem ability. As Agents kill enemies and blow stuff up, a meter is filled that will allow a unique animation to fire off followed by swift and deadly devastation on nearby enemies.  A little purple fleur-de-lis icon has a chance to drop when enemies are killed as well, which can provide an immediate Mayhem ability to be triggered, in addition to reviving any fallen agents during a mission or open world session.

Adding even more to an agent’s collective ability to unleash mayhem, LEGION tech allows players to pay for research to equip tech on top of the gadgets that can be slotted in. At the time of this writing, I had managed to unlock only 39 of 108 LEGION tech bonuses in almost 30 hours of play time. My point in mentioning this is solely to point out that there is a LOT of configuration that can be done to boost a player’s style of play, almost to the point of too many options. 

Combat can be as complex as the abilities and gadget are. Between missions, players can run around in the open world of Seoul, South Korea (or at least a video game interpretation of Seoul) and complete activities such driving specific cars to garages, racing across rooftops chasing gates before the time runs out, defeating LEGION lairs, taking over LEGION outposts (which further unlock other activities in the city), rescuing hostages, or delivering mayhem. Additionally, players can return to the agency’s floating HQ called ARK to perform VR missions, invest in the research and development of the various tech unlocks, change the skins of agents and their weapons, and so on. Upon returning to the city and subsequently changing the loadout of which Agent to use while on a mission or just running around in the city, players have the option to change the difficulty of the game on a sliding scale ranging from 1 to 15. The higher up on the slider, the more bonus XP and money is awarded to players. However, what isn’t clearly explained is just how the difficulty ramps up in scale between settings.

I’ve alluded to buffs and debuffs above, but the game does a poor job of explaining those effects–a menu item offers an explanation but finding said menu item isn’t intuitively obvious. Increasing the difficulty apparently means, ramping up the number of enemies that are faced along with the chance that each of those enemies will have the ability to throw debuffs onto the player. I’m reminded of original Diablo 3 and how completely unfair and ridiculously unbalanced the higher difficulties were, except in Agents of Mayhem, playing in a third-person shooter perspective, you don’t get the opportunity to see any of the enemies capable of spawning in behind you. Stacking debuffs like immobilize, slow, damage over time, and vulnerability while throwing ten or more enemies at players is ridiculous. Especially when some of those enemies are snipers who never miss and can take out an agent in two shots (or one sniper takes down the shield and health and the second sniper finishes the job). The game loses all of its charm and fun because even with a fully loaded agent, players never feel powerful. Even worse, the game quietly cranks up the difficulty between missions. I was playing through the final “episode” trying to get to Dr. Babylon and kept dying in a particularly nasty encounter only to realize that the game had stealth increased the difficulty from 7 to 11. I’m not averse to playing on higher difficulties, but at least give players some notice that it is happening.

For the most part, story missions are unique and offer some fun new opportunities to explore the world, which is beautifully rendered but also fairly empty and generic. What isn’t so appealing is the fact that every locked agent has a similar group mission, then a solo mission introducing the new agent’s weapon and abilities, which becomes a repetitive grind before a new agent becomes available to use in the overall story and open world. I found some agents to be absolutely critical to keep in while others felt useless against the unrelenting onslaught of LEGION troops that never seem to stop spawning in. Side stories give interesting background to each character but don’t necessarily tie well to the overarching narrative. Certain agents have a group of missions that ultimately unlock “team” skins, and those missions are fun if only because of the humorous banter between the agents. I found myself pleasantly surprised in the late game missions when gameplay tactics required a different slant on how to approach each encounter.

Having 12 playable characters (I actually had 13 thanks to the Gat DLC provided with the review code) and only being able to take 3 on any particular mission means that agents only level up if they are being used. Experience points only seem to be gained if an agent is actively selected, although I have had larger encounters where I’ve had to swap between multiple agents in order to defeat the swarm and had an inactive agent level up at the end of the encounter. So it’s hard to say for sure how leveling is truly calculated. One downside to agents having a large gap in leveling means if you have an agent at 19 or 20 and one or two at level 10, and you’ve set the difficulty setting higher so that the lower agent can take advantage of the higher bonus of XP, they are naturally more likely to be taken out faster.

Agents of Mayhem is an up and down experience. Moment to moment combat feels pretty good until there are too many enemies and the only way to stay alive is to continuously jump around while blind firing, hoping a shot or two will land. The game almost feels like it bit off more than it could chew with the deep level of gadgets and swappable technologies. I appreciate that Volition didn’t just build a game where enemy difficulty is based solely on the sheer number of bullets it can soak up before it dies, but at the same time, there needs to be a slightly better balance on just how many enemies appear with buff and debuff effects applied. Agents of Mayhem tries to be as zany as the Saints Row games, but it doesn’t feel like the game has earned the ability to pull off some of the gags it attempts because there isn’t a history with the characters and franchise yet. The game just feels like it is trying so hard to be too many different things at once that it feels out of focus.

That’s not to say that the game is bad though. In most aspects, I would argue that the game is really well designed and implemented. I have put just under 29 hours into the game, completed the main story, gotten the agency up to 94% compete and found 77% of all assets in the game, so clearly there is some redeeming value here. While missions become far too samey and mundane far too quickly, unlocking the various agents and trying to see all of the aspects of the world kept me intrigued. At the same time, I’ve reached the point now where I’ve lost the desire to try to completely 100% the game. For every positive I can say about the game, I could just as easily find a drawback to it as well. Maybe the next installment–if there is one–will find a better balance and further realize the game’s potential. So while the premise sounds like an absolute no-brainer and there is some enjoyment to be had, I have to say that Agents of Mayhem is really more like Agents of Maybe.

TryIt

Pros:
+ Exciting moment to moment combat
+ Lots of variety in agent abilities and play styles
+ Fun animation cutscenes
+ Beautiful open world that is easily traversable

Cons:
– Samey mission types
– Leveling up agents only adds to the repetition
– Unrelenting difficulty at higher levels with unclear scaling

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS4, also on PC and Xbox One
Publisher: Deep Silver
Developer: Deep Silver Volition
Release Date: 8/15/2017
Genre: Open World 3rd Person Action
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1

Source: Review code provided by publisher

Buy From: Amazon, Steam, PlayStation Store, or Xbox Live for $59.99.

About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.