Agents of Mayhem reboots Saints Row with new city and heroes

Agents of Mayhem is set in the Saints Row universe, but it’s not a Saints Row game. It sure feels like one, though: the wacky and upbeat sense of humour from the recent games is here, along with the exaggerated characters and garish colour palette. So what makes this different? Well, you can switch between three heroes at any time in-game, each of whom have their own abilities and weapons, and these can be selected from a larger roster of 12 agents. The name suggests something entirely new, but like Saints Row, this is an open-world game with a knockabout, affable tone. The diverse selection of heroes makes a strong first impression, even if there’s a sense that leaving out co-op seems like a bit of a missed opportunity.

So why isn’t this open-world shooter just called Saints Row: Agents of Mayhem? I asked Volition’s studio design director Anoop Shekar. “We got to the end of Saints Row IV, [and] we were very happy with it, but where we left it was not exactly easy to pick up from,” he says. At the end of that game, Earth was atomised and the Saints suggested they were going on a time travel adventure. Fair enough. “Now, obviously we could spend some time and we can figure something out, but we thought it was a good point to sort of reassess and think about what else we might want to do. [We] came up with this idea of doing this super agency game with these colourful characters and a big evil organisation to fight against. And as soon as we hit upon that, that just clicked with everybody, and we just started coming up with ideas for different characters and enemies and the world, and it’s kind of ballooned from there.”

After two games set in the same location, it’s nice to see Volition take us somewhere new, in this case an extremely colourful rendition of Seoul. There’s a noticeable glow to the visuals that Saints Row games didn’t have—this clearly benefits from not being tied to last generation consoles like Saints Row IV was. While I didn’t get much of a look at the open world—the demo was a mostly linear runthrough of one level with only a snapshot of exterior environments—the change to a brighter, more near-futuristic-looking locale is pretty refreshing.

I notice I can’t enter any vehicles dotted around the map, unlike in Saints Row, but I’m assured that’s just not in the game yet. Clearly this is just an early build. “Vehicles are absolutely part of the game, we just don’t have them in this first demo,” Shekar says. “But Mayhem will have their own vehicles that the agents will be able to call at will. You can pick from a suite of them, [and] you’ll unlock them as you play the game. But then also you can jump into any pedestrian vehicle and take control of them, but in the end you’re probably not gonna want to do that too often because the agent vehicles are so easily accessible and much more effective.” Those fond of the radio stations in Saints Row may be disappointed to discover there’s no licensed music in this one.

To compensate for the lack of Saints Row’s appealing character creator, the roster is an eclectic one, with each hero having very different loadouts. Four agents have been revealed so far out of twelve. You’ve got brainless actor Hollywood, whose special ability triggers loads of random explosions in your vicinity, the shotgun-wielding Hardtack who pulls enemies towards him with a harpoon, and the bow-wielding Rama, as well as a fourth I didn’t use, the drone-wielding Fortune. Each character’s weapon feels convincingly different, and their special abilities are all unique, which encourages you to experiment in who you take into missions.

So why no co-op? The section I play ends with a long-ish boss fight on top of an airship that turns into a K-pop concert inside a giant bubble, and it feels like having another player there might’ve been fun. With all these characters to choose from, having friends bring their own selections to the party would’ve been cool—you could experiment with compatible loadouts for the best effect. “Obviously co-op was something we looked at because of what we’ve done in the past,” says Shekar. “I think in the end the reason we decided against it was we wanted each player to feel like they were controlling and running and playing as this agency without needing other players to do that, and so the swapping is a big part of that. They can do that on their own. They’re not reliant on a friend to make it feel like they are actually playing as this agency.”

Some players will miss the option, I suspect. But otherwise I’m pretty fond of Agents of Mayhem’s direction, and I look forward to trying out more superheroes—their individual movesets feel well thought out and satisfyingly different from each other. With the same humour as Saints Row, as well as a vibrant new locale to explore, this is pretty much the series’ spiritual successor.