The follow up to the Saints Row series checks a lot of boxes, but doesn’t always impress.
Agents of Mayhem is not Saints Row. Developers Volition have gone to great lengths to establish that fact. Agents of Mayhem is, essentially, a successor to one of the endings from the last game, so it is set in the Saints Row universe- but it’s its own beast. It’s a spinoff and a spiritual successor at the same time, trying to straddle the line between taking advantage of being attached to a huge franchise and maintaining its own identity. And while there’s a lot here that will definitely remind you of Saints Row heritage, it does enough to stand out as its own thing.
But is the thing that it stands out as even any good? Much has been said about the Saints Row franchise throughout its life cycle, from its humble beginnings as a challenger to the Grand Theft Auto throne to its unpredictable future after the shuttering of THQ. After all these ups and downs, is Agents of Mayhem any good at all? Is it a worthy successor to the franchise? The short answer to that question – if we absolutely have to give a short answer – would be yes. But there’s a lot more to it than that.
Agents of Mayhem is a game with lots of pros and lots of cons, making it an uneven yet enjoyable experience. But lets get started with what is probably its greatest strength- its large and varied cast of characters, one that is used excellently not just for narrative purposes, but for also the actual act of playing the game. Unlike Saints Row, you don’t play as a single character, and you’re not allowed to create your avatar. Instead, this time around, there’s a number of characters you play as, an entire team of superagents of an international organization in a futuristic world, and these agents are what lies at the heart of this game.
"Agents of Mayhem is a game with lots of pros and lots of cons, making it an uneven yet enjoyable experience."
You begin the game with just three agents, but after the tutorial mission is finished and the game really kicks into gear, you get the option of unlocking more characters. How many? All of them. Agents of Mayhem has a cast of 14 characters to play as (two of which are pre-order exclusives), and players have to complete specific missions to unlock each of them. Commendably, the game makes a great decision in having all of these open to the player right from the get go.
And these missions are excellent. They offer insight into the motivations of the character they are focused on, develop their traits and characteristics as people through excellently written in-game dialogue, and do a great job of introducing these characters that you will be spending several hours with. Character based missions are an absolute blast, not because of the actual gameplay or mission design, which is decent at best and forgettable at worst, but because of the characters themselves. Other than introducing these new characters as people you should know and care about, these missions also do a very good job of properly defining and explaining the abilities that are unique to the character in question, and exactly what it is that sets them apart from everyone else in the game’s large cast.
Compared to these character missions, the actual missions in Agents of Mayhem are a bit of a letdown. Mission design is unimaginative and uninspired, often devolving into same objectives that crop up throughout the game again and again, and this repetitive structure does the game no favours. It’s not, to be fair, as repetitive as something like, say, the original Assassin’s Creed, and there’s enough variation here to keep the monotony from setting in, while several side activities also help break the pace, but the repetitiveness and the unimaginative nature of the missions still feels like a major missed opportunity.
These missions are, of course, a big part of the game, so it’s easy to assume that low quality missions would mean a low quality game. That isn’t, however, necessarily the case. While it is a major flaw for sure, and one that might rub a lot of people the wrong way, it is something that is almost eclipsed by the game’s strengths. And so we circle back to the characters. Agents of Mayhem asks you to choose a loadout of sorts of three agents before every mission, and while in the middle of these missions, you can switch between these agents on the fly with a simple press of the button.
"Mission design is unimaginative and uninspired, often devolving into same-y objectives that crop up throughout the game again and again, and this repetitive structure does the game no favours."
And each agent is markedly different from all the others. From the way they behave and talk to their visual design, from their unique abilities to their movements, each agent has his or her own unique traits that separates them from all the others. One might be a shotgun specialist while one might use a bow and arrow. One might be a kickass shot from long range, while the other may have a unique ability that can help you out in tight spots. Each agent has his or her own advantages and disadvantages, and choosing which agents to play as is an important part of your pre-mission routine. It’s a very hero-shooter like approach, and there’s certainly room here for comparisons with games like Overwatch, and if ever you wanted a single player focused hero shooter, this is it.
Tinkering with these agents and finding out which ones you like best is an excellent part of the Agents of Mayhem’s gameplay loop. Switching between the on the fly is essentially like switching between different weapons and abilities, but then again, in so many ways, it is like nothing else you’ve ever seen in a video game. It’s hugely liberating a great deal of fun to be able to switch out a character that isn’t doing so well in a particular situation to try out a completely different but equally well constructed playing style.
The more you play with these agents, the more they level up, the more abilities they unlock and the stronger they get. Agents of Mayhem is essentially an action RPG in many ways, so you’re going to have to make sure all or most of your agents are properly developed and levelled up. To do that, however, the game sets you into a bit of a grind, which is where the criticism about the repetitive missions comes into play again, and this time in much stronger focus. The missions are repetitive and bland as it is, and the fact that you have to go through them again and again just to make sure your character gets stronger does the game no favours. It can often be a drag, and while it’s not enough of a bummer to completely alienate players, eventually it can start getting on your nerves.
Much like the rest of the game itself, the moment-to-moment gameplay in Agents of Mayhem is quite uneven. The good parts are very, very good, but the parts that are bad just add to the feeling of frustration that permeates through so much of the game. For instance, traversal throughout the city of Seoul is a lot of fun, no matter which character you’re playing as. While the movement of the characters themselves is slow, traversal is fun because no matter what height you jump from, you do not take damage on landing. This can lead to hours upon hours of aimless traversal, of jumping and hopping your way to the top of skyscrapers and then plummeting toward the ground for a spectacular and completely harmless landing. When you don’t want to travel on foot, you can always hijack vehicles, and driving feels appropriately arcade-y and fun.
"Much like the rest of the game itself, the moment-to-moment gameplay in Agents of Mayhem is quite uneven."
But as much as the traversal is good, the actual in-game city of Seoul is lifeless and uninteresting. There’s a few side activities for you to indulge in, and there’s personality in some sections of the city that will definitely remind you of the Saints Row games, but for a game that claims to be a sandbox experience, the futuristic setting of Seoul is decidedly bland and largely boring. Buildings and environments often feel copied and pasted, people move about listlessly or just stand around lifelessly, and often stuff feels like it’s there just to check boxes on a list. In an age where living, breathing open worlds such as the ones in The Witcher 3 and Horizon: Zero Dawn have wowed one and all, it feels weird to step into the city of Seoul. Admittedly, the ARK, which serves as a hub area for your agents, is much more interesting, both in terms of visuals and in terms of activities, not least because it inhabits actual characters we know about and care about, but the game is largely set in Seoul, not on the ARK.
And then there’s the actual act of shooting, which is what you will be doing for most of Agents of Mayhem. The game doesn’t necessarily need you to shoot exactly where you’re aiming, with a system that essentially sees you doing more damage the closer you are to where you’re aiming. The closer your reticle gets to your aim, the more damage you deal, and coupled with the game’s auto-aiming, this can make for combat that is bombastic and fun while also being extremely accessible. The downside, though, is that it is rarely challenging.
The other downside is that the slow movement of the characters and slow aiming turns the combat into a bit of a chore at times, making it feel sluggish and unresponsive. For a game that wants to be frantic and packed with action during combat, this is a weirdly contrasting characteristic, one that doesn’t seem to have any place here but somehow has been made an intrinsic part of a fundamental part of the gameplay.
But hey, at least the game looks good. It’s not an uber-realistic look crammed with tiny little details akin to what you see in so many games on the market these days. Agents of Mayhem employs a charming, visually pleasing cel-shaded style, and it contributes greatly towards giving the game a great deal of personality. It also helps bring the city of Seoul to life, if only on a superficial level, if not an intrinsic one. And while the game looks great in action, it looks even better when its conveying its story through cutscenes. These cutscenes are carton-style animated shorts, and they look absolutely brilliant. Agents of Mayhem isn’t a game that wants to take itself too seriously, and these excellently directed cutscenes, along with the smart and often hilarious writing, go a long way in making that happen.
The performance side of the game, however, is a bit of a letdown, and no amount of beautiful cel-shaded visuals can make up for it. There’s a few glitches and screen tears here and there, as there are in most open world games, but it is when the on-screen action becomes too frantic when the performance really takes a hit. The frame rate can often drop to ridiculous levels, and when it happens in the middle of combat, it can feel particularly frustrating.
"The frame rate can often drop to ridiculous levels, and when it happens in the middle of combat, it can feel particularly frustrating."
Agents of Mayhem is a game that is equal parts good and bad. It has a lot going for it, and when it’s good, it is very good. But it also has a number of flaws that simply cannot be ignored. Don’t get me wrong, these flaws are not game-breaking by any means, but they’re enough to be a nuisance. The fact that they hold back a game that otherwise has so much going for it makes them even more frustrating. Is Agents of Mayhem a game that I would recommend? Why, yes. Yes, it is. But it is also a game that has enough flaws to sour the experience.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.
Smartly written and often amusing; Huge and memorable cast of characters; Unique abilities and skills make playing and tinkering with all Agents extremely enjoyable; Well-made cartoon-style cutscenes; Traversal through the city is fun; Great visual style; Character-specific missions are a blast
A few glitches here and there; Performance issues; Shooting can feel wonky and inaccurate at times; Largely forgettable and repetitive missions; Uninteresting game world
Agents of Mayhem is a game that tries and accomplishes a lot of things, but a general lack of ambition and mechanics that are often sluggish weigh down the overall experience.