Volition’s Agents of Mayhem ostensibly takes place in the Saints Row universe, but aside from this game’s logo, appearances by Oleg and Pierce Washington, and an abundance of the color purple, one would be forgiven for not even noticing or caring about the connection. Which is part of Agents of Mayhem’s problem: It never settles on what it’s truly trying to be.
On its surface, the game is about a league of supervillains known as LEGION, led by the nefarious Doctor Babylon, who’ve cracked the ability to weaponize dark matter, and go on a worldwide tear of destruction, culminating in Seoul, where they run afoul of the Agents of Mayhem, a government agency cut from the G.I. Joe cloth of ragtag, wild, and woolly guns for hire all looking to take down Babylon for their own ends. So far so numbingly familiar.
Once Agents of Mayhem drops you in a laboratory to start learning the ropes of how to run and gun, switch between three available agents mid-battle, and how to execute their moves, the game shows something resembling its true face: that of a single-player hero-based shooter closer in nature to Overwatch or Dota 2. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially since both of those games would benefit from a robust single-player to both elaborate on their backstories and get players acclimated to their character rosters, but this game proceeds almost as if the story-based campaign is a secondary concern, an elaborate obstacle course preparing you for a nonexistent multiplayer.
A few scant hours into Agents of Mayhem, players can expect to have encountered every enemy variant they will face, with variations only in sheer numbers. That’s fine for when Overwatch wants to run a single-mission event that takes a half hour to beat, but empty and threadbare if you’re facing the same foes over the course of dozens of hours. At least your playable characters are eclectic, among them a cigar-chomping female drill sergeant, a vain Hollywood action star who decides to swap the blanks in his gun for real bullets, a fisherman who wields a harpoon, and a soccer hooligan irked because LEGION started targeting his favorite team’s games.
These characters come with their own styles of play, special maneuvers, and gameplay perks, but as much as the game keeps trying to emphasize that Agents of Mayhem is a team, each character is essentially interchangeable in the main plot. Individualized missions are used only as an introduction to each character and their mechanics, while subsequent missions are so nonspecific and tangentially related to each character that any other person from the roster can be swapped in with negligible effect on the story.
One of Agents of Mayhem’s better-conceived playable characters is an Amazonian, chaingun-wielding roller-derby girl named Daisy, whose introductory mission involves her waking up in a shipping crate and working through her hangover by trying to piece together the details of the previous night. It’s a great concept, yet it’s stymied during every step of the mission, which involves a series of leaden shootouts with small groups of generic enemies who take gunfire like champs. Her subsequent missions fall into a similar rut of delightful-sounding scenarios robbed of intrigue once it becomes obvious that you’re being sent on yet another mission to take out a bunch of rote enemy goons. Imagine, then, how unsatisfying it is to go on one of these eventual missions with a character who lacks for Daisy’s sense of fun.
Just about the only variety that the game offers players outside of perfunctory open-world filler comes from how you get to lay waste to LEGION. Throughout, you’re expected to find your favorite agents—whichever one suits your particular style of play—and stick with them long enough to level them up, unlock perks to do more damage and power up special attacks faster, and maybe find new palette-swapping skins out in the open world. But the process is hindered by arduously earned XP, miniscule improvements to stats from perks, and players being forced to use unfamiliar or disliked characters when a particular stage or boss requires that character’s specialized skill.
All of these nuisances would be workable in a game that possessed Saints Row’s gift for self-awareness, its commitment to telling a laser-focused character-based story even within the confines of blue comedy. Agents of Mayhem creates a universe of characters with either nothing to do or things to do that clash violently with the overarching story. At any given moment, the game’s tone flits between that of a cheeseball weekday-afternoon D.A.R.E. cartoon, a profane Team America-style parody of that exact thing, and a po-faced series of comic-book origin stories. Each playable character only fits into one of those aesthetics at a time, never meshing with the whole. Only occasionally do the stars align and the right character is the hero in the right story at the right time, with the game’s highlight being a series of missions involving the tracking down of August Gaunt, an evil Justin Bieber knock-off who uses his Auto-Tuned music to enslave his fans.
Coming from Volition, an American video-game developer so well versed in the language of digital anarchy, it’s bewildering how so much of Agents of Mayhem feels like a show of conformity. Despite an eclectic cast of playable characters and a fertile premise, the game spends much of its campaign chasing standards set by far more chaotic and innovative shooters. And for a game striving for chaos, mere competence constitutes a form of failure.