Agents of Mayhem first impressions: a disappointing hero shooter in a generic open world

Agents of Mayhem's open world gets a little more exciting than this, but not much.

I spent an hour and a half trying to find something to like about Agents of Mayhem. It's a new third-person shooter set in an open world, a familiar formula for Saints Row creator Volition, but the 2017 twist is an injection of 12 Overwatch-style heroes instead of the usual create-a-character. That's one way to outdo Grand Theft Auto 5's three protagonists, I suppose! The problem is that where GTA5's massive world is fastidiously detailed and interesting to simply exist in, Mayhem's depiction of Seoul is utterly barren, populated by a few NPCs and ugly cars driving slowly down the street, like an approximation of an approximation of a simulation.

Where GTA5's characters move and animate with a sense of physicality, Mayhem's agents control like characters from an early Xbox 360-era open world game. It's like playing Crackdown before you get the ability to jump three blocks and clear entire buildings with a superheroic leap, with none of the satisfaction of Crackdown's climbing. And where Overwatch's hero weapons and powers are satisfying to use against fast, hard-to-hit human opponents, within minutes using most of Mayhem's attacks against nondescript, AI-dense armored paramilitary baddies already feels rote. 

The moving, the shooting, and the world of Agents of Mayhem all left me feeling like I'd stumbled upon an open world game from half a decade ago. I really hoped it would make me laugh, because it very clearly wants to, with a cast of profanity-happy heroes who are "bad, but not evil." It finally did, an hour into my demo. A strange crunching noise made me turn around on a mostly empty city street to find one NPC car clipping through another, spasming as they glitched out and slowly sliding down the street as newly conjoined car twins. That got a chuckle. A little while later, I also laughed at a line about clown dicks.

The rest of the dialogue fell flat, like so much comedy that thinks combining 'fuck' or 'shit' with another random noun is hilarious, and flipping the bird at the camera is how you show you're edgy. Also, there was a line about Faceplace and Instablam. That's the kind of stuff you're in for here.  It's not offensive, it's just, mostly, a bit dull and predictable. The jokey VO is pretty much constant, so if that doesn't sound funny, be prepared for a lot of non-funny.

Case in point: this was one of the included press screenshots. Also, the cars handle like weightless toys.

Shooting by the numbers

So here's what I played. I started with Agents of Mayhem's tutorial mission, which started me with heroes Hollywood, Fortune, and Hardtack and sent me into an underground Legion (the bad guys, obvs) lair to shoot a bunch of samey baddies, blow up some exploding crates and destroy a big glowing power orb. The demo was set up with controllers, which may partially explain why I found the shooting so flat and unresponsive. I've enjoyed plenty of third-person shooters on a controller, Grand Theft Auto included, but I was immediately desperate for a mouse that would allow me to make precision headshots instead of hovering a person-sized reticle over an enemy and holding down the trigger.

The tutorial ended with a short boss fight against Doctor Babylon, who hams it up with a robot terminator hand and a maniacal laugh. He teleports around the room and goes through invulnerable phases where he calls in mobs of enemies in a formula that will be familiar to any action-RPG player, but this did provide a fun introduction to switching between my three heroes at will. On the controller, this is done by tapping left or right on the D-Pad. Your hero disappears and the new one snaps onto the screen. Properly juggling these characters will obviously be essential in Agents of Mayhem's harder moments. They can heal up their shields while they're not in action, and every hero has specialties for certain situations. Hollywood is your average rifle bro, basically Johnny Cage with a gun, while Fortune is a fast-mover with pistols that never need reloading, and Hardtack can do huge damage close-up with a slow-firing shotgun. Doctor Babylon was predictable enough not to need much strategy, but hopefully later bosses will.

After the tutorial, I played a scattering of missions introducing a few heroes like Daisy, the roller derby brawler who sleeps in a shipping container and has to retrace the steps of her drunken evening killing robots. These solo missions weren't interesting enough to make me care about the characters and continuously threw out different flavors of the same basic jokes that never really landed for me. Worse, they took away the core feature of swapping between heroes to use the best weapon for the moment.

When I did get to choose my team of heroes, I enjoyed experimenting with their specialties. My favorite was Red Card, who wields a rifle-shotgun combo and has to get up close to enemies to use his special ability (letting out a rage explosion that hurts everyone around him). The idea of hero characters with unique weapons and a couple special powers each is fun, and so are the unlockable gadgets you can equip on them. There were loads of them unlocked in the demo and plenty more I couldn't try, which ranged from basic damage buffs to auto heals to special attacks like a ground pound and one that turned enemies into exploding bunnies. You can guess which was my favorite.

It's just a shame that the concept feels so bland in execution. For all Agents of Mayhem's attempts at style, its world is lifeless and uninteractive beyond a few hackable terminals and exploding barrels. Its basic enemies are bullet sponges that mostly stand around while they shoot back. If there's anything in the game that makes them new and interesting to fight, I didn't see it.

Agents of Mayhem wants to go after that Borderlands comedy shooter vein, and it has all kinds of characters to level up and skills and weapons to unlock for hours and hours and hours. Maybe in a shooter with more creative missions, I'd be into that. In videos—when the action is controlled by someone who's played hundreds of hours and wants to make the action as intense as possible—it looks a lot more fun than I remember having.

That makes me think, for a moment, that I'm being too harsh. But then I remember walking around in a sterile open world and following a big glowing arrow to the next objective, firing off weapons and powers that rarely felt satisfying to use, and I just expect better out of an open world game in 2017.