At a certain point, the Saints Row series reached some sort of critical mass for self-aware zaniness. Somewhere between Rowdy Roddy Piper and Jane Austin, it simply couldn't go any further. Agents of Mayhem (or M.A.Y.H.E.M., for purists) pulls the zany lever back a few notches, around the level of Saints Row 2, to deliver a new take on what it means to share a universe with the Saints.
Which isn't to say that this is lacking in the qualities that made Saints Row stand out. It's still smartly dumb and drenched in pop culture. The mission we tried even opened with a brief, well-animated cartoon sequence that reminded me of watching action shows on Saturday morning--albeit a little more profane than in my memory. This one detailed the famous pop star Aisha who also happened to be a super-advanced A.I. Given that the evil organization Legion is composed of technophiles, she was in particular danger.
So basically, you were put on a mission to protect or save Hatsune Miku. It's not exactly subtle, given that Aisha is very conspicuously shown using holograms in her performances. Of course, the mission doesn't go exactly as planned, as Aisha has fallen head over heels for a Legion leuitenant, so the mission turns toward breaking up the wedding day. Naturally, that objective is titled "Press X to Object."
You're accompanied along the mission by a chirpy operator named Friday, and your own Agents have a tendency to issue quips at a regular pace. It's clear this is coming from the team that made the Saints Row franchise, but they're showing restraint. This is a more grounded, realistic story about amoral mercenaries fighting supervillain techno-fetishists.
And I use the word "agents" intentionally, because the game's core structure is built around a kind of stop-and-swap teamwork. This is billed as a strictly single-player game--a Deep Silver rep flatly rejected the notion of multiplayer when I asked--but it makes use of its ensemble cast by letting you select three characters per stage. The demo only had four available: the up-close bruiser Hardtack, the mid-range Fortune and Hollywood, and the long-range sniper Rama. Each character has their own personality, accented by dialogue moments and quips during battle. The larger game would allow you to pick multiple snipers or close-range fighters, but the structure encourages striking a balance.
Namely, only one hero is on-screen at a time, so your squad mates aren't hanging back and helping you as A.I. companions. Instead, you as the player have to manage juggling between all three, tag-teaming in a character that's best suited for a particular combat scenario while the other two rest up and heal their wounds. Most of the combat encounters in the brief E3 demo were manageable with any one of the characters, but it's easy to see how tougher combinations of enemies will require quick thinking and lots of swapping to manage the crowd.
Those combat scenarios are more intimate than Saints Row as well, thanks to a small shift in the camera's focus. Rather than a symmetrical behind-the-back view, this places the camera over the shoulder, making it feel more Gears than GTA. As a result you're exploring smaller spaces in greater detail, rather than racing or super-sprinting across miles of city streets.
Each character comes with their own special attack, like Fortune's stun or Rama's trap arrow, and using it often helps build up a super "Mayhem Power" meter. These special powers can easily clear a room, like Hollywood's power that set off a series of pyrotechnics that he was invulnerable to, letting him have a moment of casually walking through them fitting to his namesake. The demo also loaded us up with stars, which rendered a given agent glowing and invincible for a short time, in a naked homage to Mario. I get the sense that those powerful artifacts will be much rarer in the real game.
But, they will be discoverable, which is another important point to note. Agents of Mayhem borrows more heavily from RPG tropes than Saints Row ever did, with chests containing money for gear, and level ups for defeating enemies and completing missions. I had a very limited view of those elements in such a short time, but it does seem to encourage experimenting with a wide range of the dozen agents in order to amp them all up to their full potential.
Agents of Mayhem is wacky and over-the-top by the standards of almost any video game on the market, except for Saints Row. Tying it to the Saints universe may even unfairly saddle it with certain expectations. But Volition needed to hit the reset button, both to establish a new take on this world and to tone down some of the elements that had reached their apex. Agents of Mayhem has more room to breathe and grow, so we can look forward to lots more from this side-boot. At least until Jane Austin shows up.
This Agents of Mayhem preview was based on a pre-release demo of the game at an event where refreshments were provided by Deep Silver.