Developer/Publisher: Volition/Deep Silver
Platform: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One (Tested on Xbox One X)
Released: August 2017
If you’ve been reading Outer World Laboratories for a while, you probably know I quite enjoy the Saints Row series by Volition (now Deep Silver Volition). Volition always said Saints Row IV and Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell would be the end of the series as we knew it, which was understandable because there was really nowhere for them to go at that point. Some fans expected a Saints Row reboot on the current generation of consoles, but instead Volition decided to head in a different direction.
This time, instead of taking inspiration from the likes of Grand Theft Auto for their new open world game, Volition looked at 1980s cartoon shows such as G.I. Joe, and Agents of Mayhem was born. The basic plot is that an evil organization named LEGION (League of Evil Gentlemen Intent on Obliterating Nations) is trying to, naturally, take over the world and must be stopped. The game takes place in a futuristic version of Seoul, South Korea, and as the story progresses we learn why LEGION’s Doctor Babylon wants the city so badly (not to spoil anything in too much detail, but giant robots are involved).
The only ones who can stop LEGION are, of course, the eponymous MAYHEM (Multinational Agency Hunting Evil Masterminds). MAYHEM is funded by Saints Row/Red Faction mainstay Ultor Corporation and was initially set up by a woman named Persephone Brimstone, who used to work for LEGION until they attacked her hometown of Paris. Agents of Mayhem has been confirmed to take place in the alternate timeline created in one of the endings of Gat Out of Hell, and Brimstone was in fact mentioned by name in that ending.
As for the game itself, Agents of Mayhem was released in August 2017 for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC, meeting with lukewarm reviews and massively disappointing sales. Even I, one of the biggest Saints Row fans you’re likely to meet, didn’t buy Agents of Mayhem at launch because nothing about it seemed particularly appealing. So what on earth went wrong?
Leading up to its release, Agents of Mayhem was being marketed as a sort-of-but-not-really Saints Row game, obviously taking place in the same (well, alternate) universe and featuring several characters from that series, a similarly irreverent sense of humor and, of course, prominent use of the color purple with fleurs-de-lis aplenty (a futuristic rendition of a purple fleur-de-lis serves as MAYHEM’s logo) However, those superficial elements aside, Agents of Mayhem is not all that similar to Saints Row, and is in fact missing several of the key elements that fans loved about those games.
First of all, the departure of Saints Row creator and lead writer Steve Jaros from Volition left a gaping hole in the writing department, and as a result the humor falls almost completely flat. Agents of Mayhem tries so, so hard to be funny, but never really manages that outside a few isolated instances. Obviously, humor is subjective and I didn’t think the later Saints Row games were gut-bustingly funny either, but I can honestly say I did not laugh a single time when I was watching the preview materials and early gameplay videos of Agents of Mayhem. Even more unfortunate is the fact Agents of Mayhem almost completely lacks the little moments of humanity from its spiritual predecessor, making it difficult to care about any of the characters very much.
Secondly, there is no multiplayer of any sort in Agents of Mayhem. This game feels like it was made for co-op, but there isn’t any. Single player only. Now, I’ll admit that only a fraction of the hundreds of hours I’ve put into Saints Row have been spent playing co-op, but for many others that was the only true way to play those games and the lack of it in Agents of Mayhem was a baffling omission to say the least.
For me, however, the most glaring omission is the complete lack of real character customization. Saints Row (before Gat out of Hell, anyway) was all about my character, and I spent hours upon hours creating all sorts of monstrosities (or stylish criminal kingpins) in the editor and playing pretty princess dressup with them. Agents of Mayhem has nothing of the sort. Instead, you choose from twelve pre-made characters (fifteen if you include DLC) and send them out on missions in teams of three. You can unlock clothing and weapon skins for all of them, but those are mostly just palette swaps and certainly aren’t a replacement for full customization.
Now, I certainly do not mean that every game needs to let me fully customize every single thing about the playable character. Games with predefined protagonists can be just as enjoyable as ones where I can create my own. However, Volition and Deep Silver marketed Agents of Mayhem as something of a Saints Row spinoff, and as such they should have expected that their fans would cry foul over the lack of the mechanic that was so central to the Saints Row series.
Volition has said they wanted to create a cast of characters with strong designs fans could cosplay as, but honestly I’d say cosplay potential should be the least of your worries when you’re designing your characters. You know what series had characters that appealed to both cosplayers and people who just enjoyed the games, despite having a player-created protagonist? Saints Row! Also, pretty much every BioWare RPG ever. And Dark Souls. And… you get the point.
So, as we’ve established, in Agents of Mayhem we have a sort-of-Saints Row game without many of the things people enjoyed about that series, one that focuses almost entirely on combat. In fact, the game is more of a MOBA-esque hero shooter that happens to also be open world, rather than a true open world game. This was probably the main reason I did not pick the game up until I got it for 25 euros with all the DLC included — the combat in Saints Row has never been all that great, especially in The Third and Saints Row IV where nothing seemed to have any impact and enemies felt like bullet sponges, and Agents of Mayhem seemed to continue along those lines as well.
However, I am pleased to say the combat in Agents of Mayhem is not bad at all, and in my opinion it is far better than any of the Saints Row games’ combat. Everything moves fast, all the agents have their unique special abilities and various gadgets they can equip, there are many different types of enemies (all of them look like generic mooks in body armor, but that’s at least accurate to the sort of thing this game is trying to parody), and often you really do feel like a badass 80s action hero when everything’s exploding around you. Some enemies do feel a bit bullet-spongy here as well, but since there are fifteen (!) difficulty levels to choose from, you can balance the gameplay pretty much the way you want it.
Where Agents of Mayhem really trips up is the mission design. There is barely any variety here, with almost every mission boiling down to “go here, shoot all these mooks in body armor, hack a computer or something, kill more mooks, go to another location, repeat until done”. Worse yet, far too many missions — story and sidequest alike — take the Agents into one (or, if the designers were feeling particularly sadistic, several) of LEGION’s secret underground lairs. I’d say almost half the game, maybe more, takes place in these lairs, and this is where Agents of Mayhem stops being very fun at all.
LEGION’s lairs are, in a word, boring. They consist of featureless, gun-metal grey corridors leading to arenas where you fight LEGION mooks, which in turn lead to another nondescript hallway, and so on and so forth. I realize that an evil organization of cartoon villains would have a bunch of identical lairs, but these lairs simply aren’t any fun to slog through. You can find some loot (which is always randomized, and can include things such as agent, weapon or vehicle skins, money, schematics for new gadgets, and upgrade cores that can be used to permanently strengthen your agents) if you look around, but the lairs are simply so dull that usually you just want to get out as soon as you can.
The sheer repetitiveness of the LEGION lairs is the aspect of Agents of Mayhem that comes closest to ruining the whole experience. When I was doing each agent’s personal mission and the group missions for all four factions within MAYHEM (Franchise Force, Carnage-a-Trois, Bombshells, and Firing Squad), the game was sending me into these near-identical grey slogs over and over again and I could feel my will to continue on just sapping away. Fortunately, the later story missions get a bit more interesting, although you still need to visit a few lairs along the way.
In between missions you can explore Seoul, look for collectibles (there are 350 crystal shards to find, collecting ten gives you an upgrade core), rescue hostages, participate in what are basically Blazin’ events from Saints Row IV (running around the city, hitting checkpoints), or weaken LEGION’s grasp on the city. This is done by liberating their outposts, taking over properties to earn extra cash, and destroying various weapons and devices they’ve set up, but unfortunately nothing you do really matters because everything eventually respawns and LEGION automatically re-takes their outposts after a couple of real time hours. A recent patch made it so that you will always keep at least one outpost under MAYHEM control and never lose your properties, making Agents of Mayhem a far less frustrating experience. Before the patch, you’d have take over the same properties every time LEGION took back the nearest outpost, which sounds absolutely infuriating and I’m glad I didn’t play the game until the latest patch.
To change your team members, you need to return to the Ark, MAYHEM’s airship and base of operations. This can get a bit annoying, because returning to the Ark and getting back to action means sitting through loading screens and unskippable cutscenes. While aboard the Ark, you can also build upgrades, change your default vehicle (if you’ve unlocked more than one, obviously), participate in VR training and send agents on global assignments to unlock new stuff. And more LEGION lairs! Hooray! I for one can barely contain my excitement!
Despite launching as a full-priced game, Agents of Mayhem has the distinct feel of a budget title to it. The graphics look a bit last-gen (although the use of color and lighting help make the game look less bland — Seoul, depicted here as a city of cherry trees and neon lights, can sometimes look fantastic especially on an HDR setup) but the game still runs rather poorly even on the Xbox One X, the gameplay is repetitive, and there is a noticeable lack of production values. There’s no licensed music (well, technically there is, but it’s all production library stuff), so when you’re driving around Seoul you won’t be singing along to any 80s hit songs, having to make do with generic electronic music instead.
Speaking of music, why does Agents of Mayhem not have a cheesy 80s style theme tune? The fanfare that plays in the mission completion screen is very nice and Volition could’ve done something with that melody, but they really didn’t (apart from a brief guitar riff during the G.I. Joe-inspired “MAYHEM knows…” loading screens). At least the handful of original songs recorded for LEGION’s teen pop star lieutenant August Gaunt are pretty amusing, and the track performed by AI K-pop group AISHA (voiced by Charlet Chung, who also did the vocals for the song and is better known as D.Va from Overwatch) is disturbingly catchy. (“H! E! A-R-T! S! T! E-E-L!”)
The game kind of squanders its premise in general, because it doesn’t feel very much like an 80s cartoon at all and there’s just so much more that could’ve been done here. My assumption is that Agents of Mayhem actually was made on a very low budget, even compared to the later Saints Row releases, and/or ran out of development time, and this was the best we could get.
As I mentioned earlier in this article, Agents of Mayhem flopped. Hard. According to SteamSpy, only 55,473 copies of the Steam version have been sold as of this writing, and even though Deep Silver has not released official sales figures, it seems the console versions haven’t exactly done any better. In late September, Volition was forced to lay off 30 staff to make up for the game’s failure, and by this point they have practically abandoned Agents of Mayhem altogether, dropping the price and releasing a “complete” edition with all the DLC included. What’s next for Volition, then? More Saints Row? Would another Saints Row even work without Steve Jaros on the team? Who knows.
I ended up having a decent amount of fun with Agents of Mayhem, thanks in part to the latest (and probably last) patch fixing some of the most glaring issues, but I also paid far less than the original retail price. By most accounts, 2017 has been an exceptionally good year for games, and Agents of Mayhem never really had any chance to compete with all this year’s heavy hitters, certainly not at the $60 price point. The failure of Agents of Mayhem to reach an audience is unfortunate because it is not that bad of a game, but not at all unexpected either because in my opinion, the writing was on the wall ever since Agents of Mayhem was first announced.