Agents of Mayhem is dumb fun, but it needs to be even dumber

I wanted Agents of Mayhem to be Saints Row 4: The Sequel. But it’s not really that, and to be honest, I’m not sure what it is. It’s not a terrible game – I liked it more than Wes did – but it certainly won’t be a remarkable one, either. 

The Agents of Mayhem are a motley crew of 12, all with impressive and unique powers. While fighting their primary foe L.E.G.I.O.N is noble enough, generally speaking they’re all arseholes – both because they’re loaded with bad quips and attitude, but also because they’re sometimes criminals. 

For each mission you can put together a squad with three of these agents and swap between them whenever you like. I embarked on my first mission with Hardtack, Hollywood and Fortune – a close-range bulky shotgun wielder, an all-rounder with an assault rifle, and the “master programmer” Fortune, a dual pistol wielder. I needed to take the latter because the mission required a specialist hacker.

I’m off to kill August Gaunt, a very annoying pop star in Agents of Mayhem’s neon-hued future version of Seoul. He’s a dead ringer for Justin Bieber, and the various voiceovers and cutscenes go to great lengths to make me hate him (“his music alone terrorises millions of people”). But I didn’t really hate him much more than I hated every other damn character I encountered in the game.

Agents of Mayhem is sometimes vaguely amusing (unlike Wes, I love making compound words where one component is a swear word) but most of the time it overreaches in its attempts to be crudely, “randomly” funny. This variety of smarter-and-tougher-than-thou humour is basically the default setting for modern edgelord action games, and it’s really starting to get old. It’s just such an easy formula. I’d prefer silence.

So to be honest, I’m not fussed whether this Gaunt guy lives or dies, but off I go, into an undercover parking lot to tamper with some of his cars. This initiates a wave of enemies – dumb robotic looking fellows that don’t understand personal space – and I have a lot of fun killing them. Agents of Mayhem won’t win prizes for its third-person shooting, but it’s enjoyable enough. Like Saints Row there’s no lock-to-cover system, but all characters have triple-jump and a dash, resulting in a balletic approach to combat requiring fast movement and rapid character switching. Rather than swap between three characters on the field, your playable-character shapeshifts into the one you select. In other words, you’ve only ever got one character – yourself – on the winning team.

This character-swapping system is probably the neatest trick Agents has up its sleeve. It feels good to jump between an agent with a short-range shotgun, to an agent with a long-range rifle, mid-combat. Each has their own powerful ability which has a cooldown period, but these are generally pretty rudimentary compared to the Gremlin Tech – which are the power-ups and abilities each agent can use. This is where Agents’ real fun lies, with each Gremlin technology a finite resource crafted with salvage which spews from smote enemies. 

While Gremlin Tech is fun, it’s also the element that disappoints me most. You see, in Saints Row 4, once you unlocked any ability it was on tap forever. For instance, once you’d unlocked the ability to sprint dash through vehicles at ludicrous speed, exploding everything in your path, you could use it without limits. Agents of Mayhem is stingy by comparison. The equivalent move, Mayhem Star, is a finite ability which you can craft with salvage. So is the Ball Pit – which suspends enemies in the air in a floating bubble – and so is the Superhero Move – a devastating ground pound which decimates all enemies within its area of effect.

I have no idea how easy or difficult it will be to craft huge amounts of these abilities so that you can wield them a lot. Maybe you’ll end up with hundreds in your inventory. But whatever the case, Saints Row 4 was outstanding because it gave you the ability to do ridiculous things without limits. It was a ropey game otherwise – with unremarkable combat and unremarkable driving – but being able to leap around the map and smash through vehicles without a care is why I still play it sometimes. Introducing limitations back into the Saints Row world seems like a very silly move indeed.

I’m actually quite angry about it. Why, Volition?

Perhaps it’s because Agents of Mayhem partially takes cues from zeitgeisty, grindy games like Destiny or Overwatch, where your spectacular abilities are like palate cleansers between the interminable grind of shooting with care (there’s loot and cosmetics and all that stuff here, and replaying missions seems to be encouraged). But you know what: fuck that. If this game supported 4-player cooperative then it would make sense, maybe, but this is a single-player superhero sandbox. It needs to never let up. It needs to be insane.

Volition can do this, but for whatever reason the studio isn’t really doing it here. Saints Row 4 had a blissful sense of verticality, but unless there are abilities I didn’t see in this preview build, Agents of Mayhem limits your ability to bound between buildings to a fairly shallow triple jump. Even characters wielding grappling hooks, such as Oni, can only climb a little ways up the side of buildings. I should be able to press a single button to catapult to the top of one.

And yet I didn’t entirely hate Agents of Mayhem. By the time I’ve finally tracked this Gaunt character to an underground VR rave, I’m really enjoying the character-switching and the triple jumping – especially the triple jumping, which is better suited to combat mobility than city traversal. And while Seoul feels quite barren – barely resembling a functioning city – I kinda like that about it. I love the eerie, barren shininess of it, the retro-futuristic spareness. It’s not a place you’ll really want to explore thoroughly, but it looks nice when you’re passing through in vehicles.

This game will struggle to compete, though, both against its predecessors (Saints Row 4) and with other games that do everything marginally or dramatically better (Watch Dogs 2 and GTA for open world mayhem, virtually any other third-person shooter for third-person shooting). I don’t think Agents of Mayhem will be terrible: I think it will be that type of game you’ll resort to when you want something pulpy and easy and safe. It’s the epitome of gaming junk food: it’s not taxing, it’s not amazing, but it’s a fun thing to do with your hands. But whether anyone has the time for those types of games nowadays, we’ll have to wait and see.