For my mind, Saints Row used to be a fun riff on Rockstar’s tried-and-true Grand Theft Auto template, but somewhere around the series’ fourth entry, developer Volition made a fatal mistake: it tried desperately to be different. What was once a good-natured comedy about gangs vying for territory quickly descended into farce. We got an alien invasion replete with bombast ramped up to 11, and jokes forced through clenched teeth. Saints Row stopped being subversive, and started being boring.
Unfortunately, the winds of change have failed to blow. Agents of Mayhem is a spinoff entity that’s rather more latter-day than vintage Saints. It takes place in a futuristic version of Seoul, rebuilt after the end of Gat out of Hell. It’s a gleaming, glistening jewel of a city, with burnished metals and sleek cars inspired by a Philip K. Dick novel. It’s bright – bright - with a look ripped from the pages of a comic book, and at times reminiscent of Microsoft’s Crackdown. But after spending 30 hours in Seoul, I can barely call to mind a single memorable area. The world is oversaturated in color, the map is small, NPCs are lifeless and it’s all very rigid. You can’t hop into cars driving around the city, while missions will end if you stray off the beaten track. Emergent moments? Forget about it.
The other thing is this: if you’re making an open world, isn’t it better sticking to a world we recognize? One of the guilty pleasures of these games is seeing a recognizable city brought to life on screen. Take Grand Theft Auto V, with its Californian stereotypes lined up in a row and whacked around the head with an irony stick, or the painstaking brush strokes that bring windy San Francisco to life in Watch Dogs 2, or New Orleans, circa 1960, star of the show in Mafia 3. This glinting, glossy version of Seoul never feels like a place you’re ever going to live in. It’s just a playground for shooting stuff, and in the end, that’s sorta the point.
Yep, combat is the order of the day, so best you get your trigger finger ready. You’re in the shoes of MAYHEM, a crew of wisecracking super-soldiers tasked with putting an end to a nefarious organization called Legion. You can take three operatives into battle from a pool of a possible twelve, and you’ll steadily grow your numbers as you progress through the main story and optional side activities.
On the ground, it’s easy to swap between each agent on the fly without losing any ground in battle. That’s clever, because every agent has a different strength. Hardtack is good up close – a dollop of brawn clutching a beefy shotgun; Rama can cloak herself and pick foes off from afar with her bow and arrow. Yeti is made of ice (literally), while Kingpin has a boom box that makes enemies dance. Hollywood is the best-all rounder; good at a distance or up close, thanks to his trusty machine gun. And so on.
Combat consists of jabbing on the D-pad to swap agents as they get low on health, and keeping the right trigger depressed at all times. Seriously, don’t bother to stop shooting. Ammo is unlimited, powers are in plentiful supply, and things explode on the screen like they’re going out of fashion. You shouldn’t boot up Agents of Mayhem looking for cover mechanics or tactical play. This is lowest common denominator action, and it’s funny that any characters needed a cloaking ability at all.
That being said, there is a pleasing sense of verticality at work. Every agent can perform a triple jump (watch out for Yeti using his gun to send him shooting through the air), which means you can tackle foes from different vantage points. It’s also true that combat gets better as the game goes on as tougher foes are introduced. But it’s all so resolutely one-note: hammer home the triggers and watch your enemies’ health bars dwindle and disappear. Rinse and repeat.
This same sense of fatigue becomes apparent in the story missions, too; unfortunately, Mayhem suffers from objective-itis. If you’re not following a blinking objective – which are often as rudimentary as “Enter the Next Room” – you’re pressing a button and watching enemies spill into the area. Yes, every sandbox game is guilty of this to some degree, but there’s never any relief to be found in exploring the world, and worse, Mayhem is riddled with bugs at the time of release. In my playthrough, objectives often failed to be marked as complete, leaving me in limbo and with no choice but to restart the quest. Day-one buyers, you’ve been warned.
In other ways, Agents of Mayhem is something of an oddity – a shouty game that doesn’t have much in the way of personality. It tries to remedy this by piling stuff on your plate – unlockables, XP, new gadgets, new ways of making things go boom – but all of this filler isn’t enough to mask the fact that the core mechanics are one-dimensional, and have been done to death.
I wish I could say Seoul has plenty to do and much to see. But it doesn’t. Sidequests mostly hew the same ground – a lot of them involve destruction – and while it can be fun to unlock new agents and get a glimpse at their disparate personalities, Mayhem would benefit from a change of pace. Heck, a spot of shopping used to be one of my favorite diversions in the early Saints Row titles. And yet in the right light, it can look hallway pretty, neon lines stretching across the horizon at night, and bright summer sun offering a breath of fresh air by day.
There are also some lovely touches. I like the way Yeti uses his gun as a jetpack, or how Daisy runs around the city on roller skates, or the fact there’s a central hub called the ARK. where you can browse new toys or look at cars handed out to you by the Quartermile (ten in total, most of which you have to unlock). Speaking of vehicles, there are shades of Need for Speed behind the wheel as cars hug the tarmac and stick corners as if glued to the road. Watch out for the flaps that burst open from the car’s rear as nitrous oxide billows in all its glory, and listen to your car’s AI as he quips some of the only funny lines in all the game.
Ultimately, with 50+ missions, optional side activities, and even a global conflict board where you send agents to tackle tasks “overseas” (think Metal Gear Solid V), there’s a ton of stuff to do. A lack of real multiplayer means this is a solo ride, and it’s sadly best reserved for the masochistic at heart; that single-minded gamer who can’t help but unlock every character, finish every side quest and snare every trophy. For the rest of us, we’ll bide our time until the end of the year when November comes around and the holiday season kicks into high gear. Way back in 2006, August was the month when Saints Row was born. Sadly, with Agents of Mayhem hitting stores this week, August might also mark the month the series is retired for good.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which we were provided with.
Agents of Mayhem offers one-note action anchored to a city lacking in soul. In the end, it's hard not to pine for the way things were, when Saints Row was a bright new player on the scene.