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Hands on: ‘Agents of Mayhem’

‘Agents of Mayhem’ combines ‘Saints Row’ antics with ‘Overwatch’ character

Everything seems to be exploding in Agents of Mayhem.

I’m blasting my way through robots and helmeted soldiers atop a flying aircraft carrier-like ship, fighting a gigantic cyborg, and all of this during a wedding. The cyborg is getting married to a Korean pop star, who also happens to be a computer program.

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It’s ridiculous and insane, and that’s what makes third-person open-world shooter Agents of Mayhem work. Developer Volition might have something here, provided the gameplay turns out to be as fun as the nonsense going on around it. After trying out the hands-on demo at E3 2016, it’s still not clear whether that’s the case, but Agents of Mayhem looks like a promising new take on Volition’s already hilarious entries into the open-world genre.

Saints Row via Overwatch

Volition became known for open-world games with the Saints Row franchise, and Agents of Mayhem is an extension of many of the ideas players love from that series. In many ways, it plays like Saints Row, but trades out those games’ crazy weapons for crazy characters. Agents of Mayhem is a squad shooter of a sort, with players controlling a group of three characters at all times.

The best part of Agents of Mayhem is literally the mayhem, with everything seemingly blowing up pretty much all the time.

It works like this: Players pick three characters from a roster of 12 to use as their squad, and control them one at a time. You can switch to the other characters whenever you want, mid-battle, and you’ll need to do that pretty regularly as each character takes damage. Switching off lets you regenerate injured characters’ health, but it’s also part of your strategy as you fight your way through missions.

Each character comes with their own specializations: Rama is an archer with sniping capabilities, while Hollywood specializes in machine guns and explosions. Hardtack is a Navy SEAL with a harpoon gun and a shotgun, and Fortune is pistol-wielding sky pirate. The point is to switch around as the situation dictates.

Agents of Mayhem’s characters also each have a powerful additional ability, known as a “mayhem” ability, that charges up over time. Each character builds charge for their specific ability individually, depending on the mayhem they inflict. Machine gunner Hollywood, for instance, sets off an action movie set of continuous explosions, while Hardtack tosses mines in all directions, restricting enemies’ ability to attack him.

To make a very recent comparison, Agents of Mayhem’s character-switching and ability sets feel a lot like the strategy at play in Blizzard’s Overwatch, with players flipping characters on the fly for each new threat. Hardtack lets you rope enemies in for a quick shotgun dispatch, while Hollywood is a better all-around mid-range fighter, and Rama can tag out enemies at long range.

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Lead Gameplay Designer Ryan McCabe told Digital Trends that the vision is for players to constantly be switching back and forth, defending weakened squad members and utilizing each character’s specific abilities for maximum effectiveness.

In the hands-on demo at E3, it was possible to see that idea in action, although as with many E3 hands-on offerings, Volition had ratcheted down the difficulty significantly. The result was a too-easy slice of the game in which it was tough to really see how players will have to strategically switch between the three characters they choose. With the difficulty low, the issue of protecting characters from too much damage or strategically building mayhem abilities was pretty much moot.

A shared universe and sense of humor

Volition’s Saints Row franchise started out as Grand Theft Auto-like but quickly distinguished itself through writing and humor. These are games that include weapons that fill enemies’ brains with dubstep until their heads explode, or just let you swing away with a three-foot sex toy. In Saints Row 4, you play the president, who has superpowers, and is fighting an alien invasion. In that game’s downloadable content pack, Gat Out of Hell, you literally go to Hell and fight demons.

A lot of elements of the Saints Row flavor are maintained in Agents of Mayhem. The characters all carry over-the-top caricature personalities. If you’re a fan of the superpowers of Saints Row 4 and Gat Out of Hell, you’ll find at least some of that maintained here — in the E3 demo, there was plenty of sprinting around and impossible leaps onto buildings to avoid fire. It had something of a Crackdown feel as you were able to explore the game.

Volition’s goofball sensibility has endeared that character to plenty of fans, and the developer is taking that same sensibility to Agents of Mayhem. The players’ squad of high-powered soldiers are fighting a team of evil geniuses, complete with all the kinds of craziness and pop culture jokes that that can entail.

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Players are members of M.A.Y.H.E.M. — Multinational Agency for Hunting Evil Masterminds — which is basically an equivalent of Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D., but with more moral ambiguity. These are the “shoot first, then blow up whatever you’re talking about, then ignore the paperwork later” kind of anti-heroes. They’re battling L.E.G.I.O.N., or the League of Evil Gentlemen Intent on Obliterating Nations, which might be nominally in line with the James Bond franchise’s “SPECTRE” organization.

Agents of Mayhem exists in the same universe as Saints Row, but don’t expect them to overlap much. McCabe said there will be callbacks to Saints Row, but that’ll be about it. Agents of Mayhem takes place in Seoul, South Korea, instead of Saints Row’s usual setting of Stilwater, and is based on one of the possible endings of Gat Out of Hell — an alternate timeline in which the Earth is rebuilt post-alien invasion.

All about the jokes

It’s definitely the breezy humor and lighthearted insanity that seems like it will mark Agents of Mayhem. Each of the characters is a not-quite-heroic cartoon character of sorts, and the villains are similarly over-the-top. The best part of Agents of Mayhem is literally the mayhem, with everything seemingly blowing up pretty much all the time. And then there is the mission itself, a running joke centering on an artificial intelligence pop music star — an in-game Hatsune Miku.

Aisha, the singing AI in question, is one of the most sophisticated computer programs ever created, and in the mission at hand, L.E.G.I.O.N. wants to get its hands on her. At first, M.A.Y.H.E.M. is attempting to rescue Aisha from incoming enemy forces, but about halfway, the whole thing turns into a trap. Aisha has already picked her side: she’s marrying Steeltoe, a cyborg L.E.G.I.O.N. lieutenant. Suddenly, the mission becomes about breaking up the wedding, which includes shooting the (armed, robotic) wedding party, and blowing up the entire airship on which it’s taking place. The whole mission felt like something straight out of the superhero parody Adult Swim cartoon The Venture Bros.

The mission includes lots of great jokes, from character discussions of love lives with the radio-borne mission-giver, to objective names — like the one called “Press X to Object” as players enter the wedding, guns blazing. Really, it was the characterization and humor that shined, coupled with Agents of Mayhem’s absolutely bonkers amount of explosions.

Agents of Mayhem looks to be a cool riff on Volition’s Saints Row formula, taking the humor and open-world antics the studio is known for and putting them through a new squad-style shooter filter. The atmosphere and tone are the best part, though, and it seems likely that Volition has more idea on-deck of the same quality as breaking up an imaginary singer’s nuptials.

Look for Agents of Mayhem on Playstation 4, Xbox One, and PC next year.

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