Sometimes, it's not easy taking a risk - especially if you're a developer sitting on a surefire success. Knowing you could just churn out a game that's almost guaranteed to sell well, it takes some guts to decide to strike out and try something different - and yet that's exactly what Volition, the developers of tongue in cheek open world gangsta parody Saint's Row, have done. So while this year may see us playing through our fourteenth Call of Duty game, and nineteenth Assassin's Creed, it's great to see there's still some original games to get stuck into too, with Agents of Mayhem being one such game.
Sticking true to the sense of humour that's done them so well so far, Agents of Mayhem is a familiar third person open world game with a traditionally ridiculous plot. Technically spelt as M.A.Y.H.E.M, or the Multinational Agency Hunting Evil Masterminds, the game tells the story of a group of misfits and weirdos, brought together under the watchful eye of Persephone, a French lady who looks like she's just walked off the set of a film noir movie, as they take on a bunch of ne'er do wells called Legion. And yeah, that's an abbreviation too - for the League of Evil Gentlemen Intent on Obliterating Nations.
Rather than playing as a single character or having a character creator, though, Agents of Mayhem instead lets you play any three agents of your choosing- although you don't get to play as them all at once. Starting out with the trio of Hollywood, a reality TV star turned film actor who fancies himself as an action hero; Fortune, an irritating hispanic woman who insists on slotting random Spanish words into her every sentence; and Hardtack, a burly, ex-Navy black dude who fights up close and personal with a short range shotgun, it's an eclectic mix to say the least.
Able to cycle between the characters on the d-pad, you'll find yourself flicking between the characters on a fairly regular basis as you make your way through the game, whether you're in the middle of a level, or exploring the game's open world recreation of Seoul. As you may expect, each of the characters here has their own unique set of weapons, along with their own fighting style to encourage you to mix and match - but while in most games, different fighting styles are usually nothing more than show, in Agents of Mayhem it really seems to matter. While Hollywood is the good all rounder, Fortune attacks with dual pistols from a distance, and Hardtack can use his special ability - a teleporting harpoon - to either stick into distant enemies, or give himself an extra leg up when scaling buildings.
Alternating between recruiting new agents, and taking on the heads of Legion's various organisations, the main story missions here are usually pretty combat heavy - and perhaps unusually for what's still technically an open world game, they don't really feel that open. Beyond having you drive yourself around the city to get to the mission location, you'll usually find yourself ending up in a fairly enclosed area, where you'll need to either beat up some enemies, hack a machine, or find some things that need collecting. Whether you're hunting for some bits of space rock that have smashed into the city, or taking on a boss in the middle of a planetarium, as a lecture about "The Wonders of Uranus" plays in the background, (the perfect setting for some traditional crude humour - "Long ago, the ancient Greeks worshipped Uranus"), there's at least a few levels that do manage to stand out, although the rest do tend to follow a rather similar format.
However, the forces of Legion aren't simply a bunch of identikit, faceless soldiers. Instead, the enemies you'll be taking on are each part of a number of classes and ranks, with higher ranks having more HP and more abilities, while different classes of enemy have markedly different skills. From bog standard Helltroopers who attack from medium range, to the up close and nimble Swarmtroopers who rely on melee attacks, to the irritating Bufftroopers, who'll sit out of harm's way as they heal, or, well, buff enemies from afar, and the more serious (and shielded) Shocktroopers, which attack using devastating area of effect explosions that'll send you flying, each will require a different strategy to take on - which is why it's handy you can switch between your characters at a moment's notice.
The more missions you play, the more agents you'll unlock, with some being unlocked through the main story missions, and others only being accessible via the specific side quests. With 14 different agents in total to play with, there's bound to be one to suit every play style, even if the designs do leave something to be desired. Personally, we're pretty fond of Rama - an Indian immunobiologist who joined Mayhem in order to try and cure a plague that's ravaging Mumbai. Armed with a really nifty bow, and the ability to scale an extra few feet up sheer walls using only her hands (making her really useful for getting around the city), she also comes packing a handy cloaking device that you can use to turn invisible at the touch of a button.
If anything, though, one of the most unusual parts of Agents of Mayhem is that it never really encourages you to explore the city. While there is a full (and fictional) take on Seoul to explore, it's all but possible to just bounce straight from one mission to the other without actually seeing anything of the city the game's set in. With very little reason or incentive to go and take a look around, if you're not familiar with Saint's Row, you might not even realise there is a city you can look around, because the game makes such little effort to tell you about it.
Unfortunately, though, the game's reluctance to shout about its open world may not be without reason, as Seoul ends up feeling a little bit... empty. With little in the way of beefy side quests to take on, you'll find yourself faced with the usual compliment of races, a handful of collectables, and some Legion "targets of opportunity" to destroy along the way, occasionally stopping off to duff up some troops and capture a building. The problem is, it never really feels like there's anything substantial to do in the city - and somewhat ironically, the in-game Seoul doesn't really seem to have much a soul. An urban mixture of tiny shopfronts covered in neon lights, and cool looking skyscrapers, one of the biggest issues is that it's often really, really hard to figure out how to get to the top of a building (where there's usually some collectable, or mission waiting). While games like Crackdown let you simply leap small buildings with your super hero powers, Agents of Mayhem never really pushes the super hero boundaries all that far - and it's all the worse for it.
Similarly, it's disappointing that Agents of Mayhem seems to have played it so safe with its character designs and writing. Creating a bunch of hugely stereotypical yet painfully politically correct characters, it's sad that so few of the characters here actually seem to have all that much character to them. Equally sad is that the game casts a stereotypical English character, yet has her pronounce "data" as "dar-ta" (WHO DOES THAT?!), and end every sentence with "yah?", seemingly proving that whoever wrote this has never actually met an English person before. In terms of the general story and missions, too, Agents of Mayhem feels like it's weirdly lacking in humour - despite its Action Man style plot, and the odd bit of crude humour, it's nowhere near the laugh-a-minute experience you might be expecting. In fact, the plot in general seems to take a back seat to the heavily combat based missions, with the briefing mostly being relayed as you drive to the mission location - something that's not all that great, as it makes it hard to focus on.
There are a few other bugs (and poor design choices) that let the game down too. For starters, it's nigh on impossible to tell when you're about to die, with no audible warning, and very little in the way of visual changes to let you know that your demise is imminent. If you lose your shield, and get down to about half health, the interface on the screen will turn a faint shade of red, but it'll then stay that way, even when you've only got a tiny amount of health left. Where you'd expect the whole screen would start pulsating, with warning sirens going off telling you to find cover, there's nothing to suggest there's any urgency here at all - and you'll often find yourself losing agents because you didn't realise they were quite that close to dying.
The driving interface isn't as good as it really should be, either, from basic errors like the lack of a visual prompt to tell you can get into a car (with so many autonomous vehicles going around Seoul, it'd be nice to have that there), to the waypoint system, which does puts arrows on the road to show you how to reach your destination, but then also sometimes puts them going both towards and away from you, down different sides of the road. In missions, there's often surprisingly little in the way of markers to show you where you need to go next, too - and with nothing in the way of a minimap, and with the game often choosing to highlight random open world things you can do, mid mission, at the expense of showing your next waypoint, you can often find yourself stumbling around trying to find where you're meant to be going next.
In all, then, while it may be very by the numbers, Volition should still be commended for trying something new. It'd be easy to release a game with the Saint's Row branding and watch the cash roll in, but the team instead decided to take a gamble. While it's a bit unusual that it's the open world that seems to let the game down - something the team have huge amounts of experience with, and should really know how to handle - the concept here is a strong one, and one that can hopefully be built upon in future. With stronger writing (particularly for the characters), and a bit more polish, Agents of Mayhem could grow into another great open world franchise. In the mean time, if you're after some open world action with a bit of a superhero flavour, this could be well worth a look.