Agents of Mayhem Review (PlayStation 4)
Volition has made a name for itself developing some of the most memorable and unconventional open-world games of the last decade. Over that time, the developer's Saints Row series turned from a simple satire into a franchise that surpassed its inspiration in creativity, originality, and humor. Agents of Mayhem may be a departure from the long-running crime series, but Volition's latest creation has personality and excitement in spades.
Taking place in a future Seoul, Korea spinning out of a possible timeline from Saints Row 4, Agents of Mayhem puts you in the many shoes of the world's greatest anti-terrorism group, MAYHEM. The Multinational AgencY Hunting Evil Masterminds is locked an eternal battle against LEGION, the League of Evil Gentlemen Intent on Obliterating Nations. Playing as MAYHEM, you'll take on the role of a dozen different agents from the action star turned assault expert, the brilliant engineering model, the former Navy serviceman, to a former Yakuza that does the dirtiest work. All of them have cheeky code names, and all of them bring a big attitude to the fight. The same is true of LEGION, whose many members like the charismatic evil pop star or the genius weaponsmith that only cares about the bottom line, are equally as memorable,
If it sounds like one of your favorite '80s cartoons, you're not far off the mark. Agents of Mayhem brilliantly pays homage to classics like GI Joe and MASK, and does it in a way that elevates the idea beyond a nostalgia play. Both of those properties viewed good and evil through a simple lens, and though they had memorable stories, never quite did more than serve as a way to sell more toys. Agents of Mayhem doesn't have to worry about that, and digs a little deeper into the concept of a worldwide freedom force filled with people that were highly motivated to take a stand against a collective of evil geniuses. To be fair, GI Joe never did get the video game it so deserved, but Volition does its best to give the ridiculous concept some more depth, while also having a whole lot of fun doing it.
There are a dozen different agents you get to play as throughout the game, though you'll have to spend some time learning about and unlocking most of them as you progress. Agents of Mayhem starts you off with a squad of three members known as "Franchise Force," and you'll spend a good few hours with them to get the ball rolling against LEGION in Seoul. All 12 of the agents can be used in squads as you see fit as you unlock them, but these characters also break into teams of three like "Franchise Force" based on their personalities and abilities. Mixing and matching them up in those teams isn't ever necessary, but it does create different dialogue and backstory beats for everyone when you do create a three-person squad based on their affiliation inside MAYHEM.
Juggling that many characters isn't something new for Volition, and the developer's sharp writing is as on point as ever working to develop these varied personalities. Just one mission with any three characters gives you a great idea of what every person is like, and the banter between teammates gives the roster more depth than you'd expect. There are also humorous animated segments explaining each character's personal quest against LEGION, which again take from GI Joe without leaning too heavily into the past for the sake of it. It would have been easy for Volition to coast on skimming the top of that property for bullet point satire, but the team dives in without abandon to revitalize the cliches to be more thoughtful.
The characters are interesting and charismatic, but they also all have a unique set of powers and abilities they bring to the table. Everyone has a standard weapon from a shotgun to a chaingun to a set of laser pistols, but they also all come with added powers called Mayhem Abilities that make them more super than your average private military soldiers. Causing mayhem by blowing things up and defeating the troopers of LEGION builds a meter, which when full allows you to unleash these powerful attacks, all of which are thematically tied to the individual character. To make things even more interesting, new Mayhem Abilities can be found and unlocked in the game world, giving you a bit of customization that still falls in line with who these characters are at their core.
Additionally, each agent can level up through being sent on missions, and earning upgrade points to make them more formidable in the field. Like the Mayhem Abilities, these upgrades are somewhat personalized, and give the rowdy cast things like better shield regeneration, faster reloading, and faster special cooldowns. They all also have one extra upgrade that affects the whole squad, though these are more simple things like better money drops and better overall health for the team when active. These more basic elements don't have quite the impact early on as the Mayhem Abilities, but over time you can build up each of these agents to nigh-invulnerable levels of heroism.
That comes in handy when facing Agents of Mayhem's sliding difficulty scale. Each mission gives you a chance to set the difficulty, with one being recommended. There are almost a dozen different challenge levels you can set for yourself, each of which not only makes the game more taxing for the agents and the LEGION forces more imposing, but also ups the reward ante, too. Everything is laid bare for you before embarking with a squad, and you can adjust the difficulty at nearly any time if it gets to be too much for you. Otherwise, Agents of Mayhem will adjust on its own according to the levels of all your agents and where you are in the overall story progress.
Playing on low to medium difficulties is recommended for the first time you go through most of the missions, and not just because things get rough rather quickly. There's a lot of aggravation from being overwhelmed constantly on higher settings by LEGION enemies, all of which come with their own sets of strengths to combat the skills of MAYHEM. It's honestly not worth the added experience and money you might earn when all the joy and fun you could be having is sapped away by endless hordes of terrorists.
You will have more than your wits and powers about you when attempting to thwart LEGION's takeover of Seoul. Back on the Ark, the airborne home of MAYHEM, there's a full support team to help the agents. Gremlin will be the primary source of all that help, as she develops Gremlin Tech for all the agents to use in their missions. These one-time use items can be as simple as giving you a full revive for the team when they're all downed to a giant electric disco-ball that wrecks the heck out of enemies. All of them have to be found in the game world first, but once you have the plans, you can buy as many as your budget will allow.
Only one can be active at a given time however, so you've got to figure out which of these bits of Gremlin tech works best for the mission at hand. For the most part, we left the team revive as our active item as it came in handy more than nearly any other item. Since you never run out of bullets or other ammunition, and all the characters have those powerful Mayhem Abilities, the more offensive Gremlin tech wasn't quite as necessary to finish many of the missions. It's still fun to use, for sure, but nothing felt better than knowing that our agents wouldn't truly be knocked out of a mission even if we got into a tight spot thanks to that revival item.
The Ark is also home to the Armory, where you can check out all the characters, even if they're not currently in your squad, to level them up and make sure they have the latest equipment activated. It's a handy place to visit once you've run through a few consecutive missions in Seoul just to check up on all the other agents. The Garage is also up there, wherever there is in the skies above the city. It's never really clear where the Ark is at any point, but those MAYHEM agents sure love jumping out of it. There are multiple cars to find and unlock, but they're all basically just cosmetic variances. Each vehicle does have different speed and armor ratings, but they don't matter much in the grand scheme.
Missions themselves don't stray too much from the beaten path. You'll go somewhere, you'll shoot some guys, another objective will pop up and you'll do just about the same thing all over again. Sometimes you'll have to hack computers, which offers a brief quick-time game, but for all the energy spent on making this world, these characters, and the abilities special, there's not much that makes the missions of Agents of Mayhem unique. Yes, the plotting and dialogue is certainly more memorable, and makes the repetition a little less tedious, but there really isn't much here that we haven't seen before.
It doesn't get frustrating or annoying out in the world, and as you progress through the story, the bigger battles definitely spice things up enough to set them apart from everything else you encounter. Aside from banter and the goofy domination plans LEGION has, boss battles are definitely a key driving force in Agents of Mayhem's missions. The only place tedium sets in is during LEGION lair levels. Throughout Seoul there are a number of entrances to underground bases that LEGION calls home. Many quests will take you to these shiny metallic dungeons in order to obtain intel or rescue hostages, and a handful of other simple concepts. The first few times, these lairs are interesting to explore. Once you get a few hours into Agents of Mayhem, all the lairs start to look the same.
That's mostly because they are all the same. The layouts may vary, but all the pieces making the different lairs are identical. It's like LEGION couldn't hire any actual architects, and just slapped together each different underground base from the same prefabricated layouts with slight variances. The world above is bright, colorful, and full of all kinds of interesting sights. LEGION lairs suffer drastically from any real creativity, leaving them feeling more like every other game you've played before than any other aspect in any other game from Volition's catalog.
It's so strange that so much of Agents of Mayhem is brimming with personality and flavor that such a major exploration component is so dry, but the rest of the game is so heckin' enjoyable that that element is mostly forgivable. There weren't many other major flaws in our time with Agents of Mayhem, and aside from the occasional vanishing enemy or objective that wouldn't spawn, repetition was this game's greatest foe. Even the optional sidequests around the city weren't nearly as droll as these supposed big attraction dungeons. At least the loot we earned was worth it.
It's not easy to still find ways to innovate in the open-world space, but Voltion has managed to stay on the pulse of the genre well enough over the past few years. Agents of Mayhem is another strong entry in the developer's fan-favorite library, and has just as many memorable characters and moments as the best Saints Row titles. There are times where it feels like a bit of a grind, but even those elements are outmatched by Agents' charm. Saving the world has never been this vulgar or felt this good, and we wouldn't have it any other way.
This review is based on a download of Agents of Mayhem provided by the publisher for PlayStation 4.