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‘Agents of M.A.Y.H.E.M.’ serves up ’80s nostalgia with a side of frantic action

From what we’ve seen, the best parts of Agents of M.A.Y.H.E.M. happen between its missions.

Invoking the G.I. Joe cartoons of yesteryear, Agents of M.A.Y.H.E.M. presents cutaway moments — short sketches similar to G.I. Joe’s “Knowing is half the battle” public service announcements — in which its characters offer a few words of wisdom.

The difference is, in M.A.Y.H.E.M., these scenes are played for laughs. For instance, one encourages kids to observe gun safety rules because of the embarrassing self-inflicted injuries that can result if they don’t.

Even more than in its gameplay, it feels like the real spirit of Agents of M.A.Y.H.E.M., Volition’s third-person open-world shooter, is in these scenes. The game’s most recent trailer (shown above) uses theme songs from the 1980s TV shows The A-Team and Knight Rider, but as we mentioned above, much of  M.A.Y.H.E.M. comes across an extended, raunchier version of G.I. Joe. Tapping into those 1980’s pop culture sources, and the nostalgia behind them, is exactly what developer Volition hopes to tap into with M.A.Y.H.E.M., according to Lead Agent Gameplay Designer Ryan McCabe.

“Those are definitely the Saturday morning kind of feel (we’re going for),” McCabe told Digital Trends at an Agents of M.A.Y.H.E.M. preview event in San Francisco. “I would wake up, get a bowl of cereal, watch some cartoons. But we’ve grown up as people, so how do we modernize that somewhat, and still keep the feeling of those things.”

G.I. Joe, but with drinking

First announced at E3 2016, Agents of M.A.Y.H.E.M. is something of a cross between the developer’s goofy open-world Saints Row franchise, and a hero shooter like Blizzard’s Overwatch. You control a trio of goofy superhero-style gunmen, who work through open-world-style missions and gameplay. You only control one character at a time — the other two disappear from the world and heal until they’re needed — but you can rotate between them on the fly.

The game’s strategic shooter gameplay encourages you to switch between them frequently. Each character has different weapons, abilities and uses, so you want to build teams of characters that complement each other, and prepare for a variety of situations.

The ability to create customized squads of heroes and switch between them on the fly gives M.A.Y.H.E.M. an altogether G.I. Joe vibe. Each of its 12 characters sports both a unique personality and a unique set of abilities, making them all distinct, even as a few share the same roles. Some snipe, other specialize in close-range attacks, and plenty more offer unique abilities that can change the battlefield as you’re fighting on it.

When we saw Agents of M.A.Y.H.E.M. last year, we played a short demo mission where we had to break up a wedding between an evil cyborg and his artificial intelligence Korean pop music star bride. This time, we were presented with a wider swath of the game, including personal missions revolving around the individual agents.

Despite what you might assume, given the game’s ‘80s motif, the agents of M.A.Y.H.E.M aren’t really “heroes” at all. M.A.Y.H.E.M. is dedicated to fighting its supervillainous rival L.E.G.I.O.N., but Volition describes the dynamic as “bad versus evil.” They’re the kind of folks that get excited about shooting guys with impunity, blowing things up, and earning money doing it.

It’s hard not to see it as a hybrid mix of influences like G.I. Joe, The A-Team, The Venture Bros. and Saints Row. It gives the whole package a different feel to what players might get off a game like Overwatch. Volition is embracing the antics, the explosions, and the open-world chaos the genre is known for, while also bringing in a distinct feel from cartoons and games of the past.

A series of stories

While much of Agents of M.A.Y.H.E.M. pits your squad against L.E.G.I.O.N., the most interesting aspect we saw so far were character-centric solo missions that for each squad member. Most squad members seem to have a “recruitment” mission, in which they’re brought onto the M.A.Y.H.E.M. team, and a personal mission that fleshes out their story.

The heroes of M.A.Y.H.E.M. aren’t really “heroes” at all — instead, Volition describes them as “bad versus evil.”

Volition showed off two of those missions during its preview event. First, we played the recruitment mission for Daisy, a deadly roller derby player who also wields a minigun. In the mission, players find Daisy recovering from a wicked hangover, and control her as she retraces her steps from the previous night’s debauchery.

Wander around Seoul figuring out what Daisy got up to, we relive her belligerent berating of a sushi restaurant’s animatronic mascot, and her entry into a robot fight club. The mission serves as an introduction to Daisy’s gameplay as well as her character. It gives players a chance to get familiar with her minigun, for example, as well as her special abilities that cool down the weapon while turning players into a rollerskate-wearing bruiser who melees her way through enemies. McCabe said that, as the game goes on, players will unlock more customization options for each characters. In Daisy’s case, that will that let them angle gameplay toward their style — either focusing more on her gunplay, or on high-speed bruiser capabilities.

Another mission, which focused on the hardline soldier Braddock, involved taking down a former protégé turned L.E.G.I.O.N. convert. Braddock wields an assault rifle she can switch out for a shotgun, and the mission is all about delving into her semi-sadistic days as a drill sergeant who demoralized her recruits so completely they went ahead and joined the bad guys.

Braddock’s mission is all about smashing through enemies while chasing down and fighting a particular recruit, but the trademark Volition humor comes from radio conversations between the characters as players complete the mission. Braddock’s former trainee, Hauser, goes on constantly about all the ways Braddock crushed his spirits in boot camp. Braddock can’t muster much sympathy — it was all in the name of good training, and what’s more, the stuff she pulled on Hauser was pretty funny.

The focus on each of the agents’ stories helps set Agents of M.A.Y.H.E.M. apart from other open-world games, McCabe said. And pushing the kind of experience the team wants to deliver helps Volition to look past all the other open-world games, like Horizon: Zero Dawn, Ghost Recon: Wildlands and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, on the market.

“We’re constantly looking at what everyone else is doing,” McCabe said. “Part of it is remaining confident in what we know. We know open world, we know humor, how are we going to bring those things into each of the games that we do. And we do humor — I’m biased, but I think we do humor almost better than anybody else, especially when it comes to doing open world humor. …So we knew going in that that is what we wanted to do and that is what we wanted to be.”

Finding the funny

McCabe was right to point — humor is definitely another big highlight of Agents of M.A.Y.H.E.M. The E3 demo, where players battled Volition’s stand-in for digital pop star Hatsune Miku, was ridiculous from start to finish. In the new demo, players had to do things like drive a car while evading an orbital laser, while still staying close enough to the extremely deadly beam to analyze it for data to take down its creator. Oh, and did we mention one of the character’s is a woman on roller skates carrying a minigun?

Like in a role-playing game such as Mass Effect, which squad members you take on a mission changes what dialogue, and jokes, you hear along the way

McCabe said that making players laugh is always a challenge — often because what one person finds funny isn’t the same as what might draw a laugh from another.

“When we’re building a game, a part of it is, what do we find funny, and what audience are we going for, and how are we going to relate to that audience through the humor that we’re building?” McCabe explained. “That’s a big part of it — not just getting caught up in what we like, but what people are going to respond to?

“We do user testing, focus testing, on every aspect of the game, and that includes the writing and the humor, not just the gameplay elements and the missions that we have. So it’s really about finding, not just ‘does this line work,’ but does this line work better if we can time it to have it happen exactly here versus three seconds later, or right after this explosion goes off. So there’s a lot that goes on with just trying to find out where we want to put something so that it has maximum impact, and maximum humor.”

But humor is a huge part of the Volition brand, which meant that Agents of M.A.Y.H.E.M. needed its share. Each mission in the game, of which there are more than 50, includes voice-over dialogue for each of the game’s 12 characters. Like in a role-playing game such as Mass Effect, the squad members you take on a mission dictates what dialogue, and jokes, you hear along the way. McCabe said you can revisit missions with new squad members to hear the dialogue they couldn’t hear the first time around.

A lot of the humor is delivered in the personalities of the characters. Drunk and disorderly, Daisy is a gag in and of herself, but other characters have goofier additions. Hollywood, an aspiring actor, is a pretty boy who’s kind of dumb, but triggers action movie-like explosions with his chargeable “mayhem” ability. Kingpin — also known as Saints Row mainstay cast member Pierce — can throw down a boombox that compels enemies to dance while he rocks them with his submachine guns.

G.I. A-Knight Team Rider Joe

We still haven’t actually seen how Agents of M.A.Y.H.E.M. will string its missions together with its open world. This latest preview took players through a string of missions, but it also hinted at some well-loved gameplay features from open-world titles, like a high-flying triple-jump that often makes traversing buildings easy, and the ability to hijack any car you come across.

Agents of M.A.Y.H.E.M. is trying very hard to hit a certain hero-shooter sweet spot, filled with intense and strategic gameplay, character story arcs, and plenty of jokes. Our latest dive into the game suggests, at the very least, the humor and the characters are already there. With a title like M.A.Y.H.E.M., Volition is trying to alter the formula it’s known for while playing to its strengths. So far, those strengths — like funny scenarios and memorable characters — are playing very well. We’ll see if Volition can integrate them into a new kind of open world game when Agents of M.A.Y.H.E.M. launches August 15.