This month saw the release of a game that I have been waiting for with bated breath. Agents of Mayhem, the new IP from Volition, developers of the incredible Saints Row series. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Saints Row started out as a fairly straight forward GTA ripoff and eventually grew into its own skin. Mainly by ripping off GTA’s skin and growing new skin in a vat full of comic books and action movies. The results were ludicrous, campy, raunchy and immature in the best possible ways. When Saints Row 4 came out, Volition - perhaps unintentionally - delivered the superhero game I had been waiting for. You basically became what Neo from The Matrix would have been if all he cared about was upgrading his penthouse. The games were also multiplayer. Here is a pic of my friend Jonny and I posing after our violent wardrobe competition.
My transformation from male to bearded female may have been cheating.
By this point Volition had earned my respect, and I was ready to buy any new game from them sight unseen. They announced Agents of Mayhem as a Saints Row spinoff, which sounded like a smart direction to go on a series that I honestly felt was going to be hard to top. The pre-order bonus was Johnny Gat, a Saints character that I’m pretty sure Volition thinks is way cooler than anyone else does. I guess he’s a fan favorite? To me he’s just a holdover from the GTA ripoff era, and his cool factor comes off more like lazy douche factor. I skipped the pre-order.
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Once I started playing I could almost immediately tell what Volition was going for. Agents of Mayhem mixes the brightly colored sandbox of Saints Row, the diverse cast with unique abilities of Overwatch, and the dungeon crawling of Diablo. All of it is wrapped up in one big GI Joe parody. Old school animated cut scenes are meant to drive the GI Joe theme home, and although they were a cool idea, they feel half baked and cheap. Some of them aren’t even technically animated, but merely hand drawn stills with some Ken Burns cheats (Nice try, Volition. That trick is in our toolbox too). Don’t get me wrong, there are some standout scenes. Oni’s origin story being a strong one in particular. I almost feel like the cut scene producer was like “Guys, if we nail this one, it doesn’t matter how hard we phone in the rest. This is the one people will remember us for.”
If only the rest of the cut scenes were produced with this level of love and attention, it would have provided more of the charm that this game desperately needs. We’ll talk about the gameplay in a little bit, but right now I can safely say that the characters were the best chance this game had to save itself. Gone is the juvenile but inventive humor of the last two Saints games. What’s left is mostly just juvenile, and even then it’s pretty toothless. It’s like the creatives were suddenly afraid of what made their previous games so fun and decided to play it safe. Sure, the characters do swears and talk about banging each other, but those things alone aren’t what made Saints Row great. It was the intelligent application of foul and stupid that made the difference. This gimp chariot scene from Saints Row 3 was nothing short of art. Also very NSFW.
As a true child of the 80s, I appreciate any well executed nod to my childhood. GI Joe, in my opinion, still has plenty of room for parody, but if you’re not going to bring anything new to the table that Venture Bros already set, don’t even bother showing up. VB covered the latent homosexuality, the toxic hero worship and the disfunction. Doing it again is playing softball.
You run three characters at a time and switch between them on the fly, basically acting as human load-outs. You start the game with Fortune, Hardtack and Hollywood. Hardtack takes obvious style cues from Shipwreck and I’m at least thankful they didn’t go for the low hanging fruit of the gay sailor. Unfortunately he’s also the strong shouty black guy stereotype that Roadblock represented, which feels less like a parody and more like every other black guy in games. Hollywood is the Duke/Flint generic white guy leader type. I never figured out the GI Joe equivalent of Fortune. She feels more like the Brazilian version of Overwatch’s Tracer. Other characters evoke shades of Snake Eyes, Storm Shadow, Gung Ho, and Scarlett, to name a few. Some characters have obvious Joe inspiration, some don’t. Some are just special guests from Saints Row. I feel like going all the way with the GI Joe stuff would have been the winning move, but it seems like Volition also wanted to be cool and original. They never fully commit to either the parody or the originality and it ends up feeling all over the place.
Introducing Young Soldier 76, Brazilian Tracer and Black Roadhog. They aren't really Overwatch parodies so much as they "borrow" many of their mechanics
There are some standouts, though. Daisy, a hard partying roller derby girl with an underslung chaingun is quickly becoming the fan favorite. While not a direct parody of any Joe, she perfectly represents that inexplicable Joe tendency to confuse athletic ability with combat ability, ala Bazooka, Sgt. Slaughter and Big Lob. Red Card sort of fits this criteria as well but he’s WAY too into soccer to be anything but boring. Maybe hardcore soccer fans will appreciate him? Either way, that ain’t me.
On the villain side, there is no one more inspired than August Gaunt. A mix of Dr. Mindbender and Justin fucking Bieber. He combines the stupid, gimmicky mind control devices of Dr. Mindbender with the more realistic, scarier mind control powers of a celebrity and it’s brilliant. If only half as much thought were put into the rest of the cast, they might have saved this project from the repetitive game-play.
The brightly lit cityscapes of Saints Row are were you spent most of your time, whether it was street level, in the air or somewhere in between. You felt like you could go anywhere. AoM makes you spend most of your time trapped underground in a maddening deja vu loop. Earlier I said this game takes cues from Diablo’s dungeon crawling. In Diablo, the procedurally generated dungeons at least come in a few different flavors. In AoM, they come in one: evil science lair. It’s the vanilla ice cream of lair design. There might be ten total assets for the game to draw upon when building these dungeons. It’s the same few rooms connected in slightly different ways over and over and over again. This Escher-esque nightmare is where you spend most of your time.
Get used to it. This is your life now.
That’s not to say the game doesn’t take place anywhere else. You spend some time above ground laying claim to control points and taking over territory. But how the game handles it is so insulting that it makes me want suspend a treadmill over a tank full of starving piranha, set it to the highest incline and speed, then drop someone from Volition onto it. After you've gained control over one of the city's four zones and start generating resources from it, it’s only a matter of time before the bad guys take it back. There doesn’t seem to be anything you can do to stop it, and it honestly might be some of the laziest artificial playtime inflation I’ve ever seen. You feel like a parent constantly chasing the mess your kids never stop making. You clean and clean but your house will never be fully under your control. Trying only makes you want to give up and submit to the unceasing hopelessness of it all. You could argue that this is an attempt to lampoon the never ending battle between GI Joe and Cobra, but I could also punch you in the god damn face, so don’t even try it.
Take it all in. You won't be seeing very much of it.
One of the never ending tasks that randomly generates throughout the city is the destruction of a dark matter fracking device. While trying to take one down, I ran into maybe every single bug this game has to offer. If you dare, here is a video I made that could potentially be used to drive a QC play tester to suicide.
Some highlights include
A boss showing up and promptly turning invisible, except the gun that was almost impossible to distinguish from the background. This is not one of his powers.
A ridiculously bullshit hacking mini-game that requires precision timing, which would be fine if it didn’t rip you out of it the second an enemy sneezed on you
Respawning and being unable to swap characters
Finishing the task without the game recognizing that it’s been completed
Snipers. Not a bug, but with no way to counter them at long range, they really suck in this game.
When all's said and done, this is a game that doesn’t feel nearly as big as previous Volition efforts, but feels too big for what they set out to do. There are a lot of great ideas in this game with a decent amount of charm, but this may have been a case of trying to do too much and not having the time or budget to take any of it as far as it could have gone. The characters are legitimately fun to play. Building the perfect trio with the most complimentary skills, then running around wreaking havoc with them feels great. Unfortunately the overall game feels rushed and unfinished. The GI Joe parody could have been taken further. The animated cut scenes could have been better. They could have made it feel like anything you did in the city mattered. The dungeon lairs could have used at least two more themes to help break up the monotony. I am also really let down by the music production. Saints Row had some killer original music, and it's all but buried in this spin-off. The one tragic decision, however, that makes zero sense to me, is the omission of multiplayer. This review would have been entirely different had I been able to enjoy the game with a friend or two. No matter how bored we got in Saints Row, my friends and I could always make ourselves as fat as possible and try knocking each other off of skyscrapers using dildo bats.
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