12 reasons Agents of Mayhem isn’t just another open-world playground

When writing about Agents of Mayhem, it’s tempting to call out the obvious similarities and influences. The amped up cartoon charm of Overwatch. The infinitely customizable character classes of Diablo III. The gratifying doo-dad hunting of Crackdown. The intricate combat and character interaction of League of Legends nee Defense of the Ancients. The cheery superhero team spirit of The Avengers. The breezy vulgarity of Archer. The purple hues of Saints Row.

But none of that tells the whole story. None of that gets at why Agents of Mayhem stands mightily on its own. This is not just an open-world Overwatch. This is not just Saints Row with superheroes. This is a masterpiece that’s been waiting for 30 years to bust out from the collection of talent at Volition. For a number of reasons, it demands a place among the best of the best. Twelve reasons, to be precise.

Open-world games have traditionally been about worlds. They have been about geographytraversalgraphicsexplorationmonsters. But the better open worlds have realized that good storytelling never stops with the setting. Good storytelling needs characters. Hence Metal Gear Solid V, Xenoblade Chronicles, Grand Theft Auto V, Arkham Knight, and The Witcher 3.

Volition has done a great job with the ancillary characters in Saints Row, but they’re always second fiddle to whatever character you cobbled together, whichever voice you picked, whichever outfit you were wearing.

The Saints played out a story around your nameless avatar’s crazy open-world shenanigans. Yeah, sure, that’s great stuff with Kenzie and Johnny Gat and Shaundi. Now my Sarah Palin is gonna shoot a dubstep gun at some alien cybercops. Woo-hoo!

But Agents of Mayhem isn’t interested in giving me some sort of faux agency so I can insert my ridiculous character into the cutscenes. Volition has rightly decided they’re better than me at inserting ridiculous characters into the cutscenes.

They have furthermore inserted these ridiculous characters into the gameplay, bringing them to life not just with good writing, good animation, and good voice acting.

They bring them to life with the game design they’ve learned over three decades. Instead of putting these design smarts into one lead character — your hero in Saints Row IV was a generous and absurdly amorphous bag of superpowerful superpowers — Volition presents an ensemble of a dozen distinct characters, sprinkling the superpowers among them to tell their stories.

Here’s where I’ll skip any further elaboration, because it’s Volition’s story to tell. Unfortunately, the marketing has featured all of the characters. Even the reviewer’s guide provided by the PR folks includes a breakdown of each character. That’s too bad.

While I understand marketing has a game to market and PR has a bunch of us press yahoos to appease, Agents of Mayhem itself should introduce its cast.

Since I happily ignored the marketing and the reviewer’s guide, I had no idea who was coming next, what powers she might have, how he’s animated, what gun he uses, what sort of upgrades she has, his tone, her style, how he looks and talks, their relationship, his backstory, her motivation, their cutscenes. I had no idea what to expect and I was delighted to meet them.

Each and every one. Agents of Mayhem is a joyous rogue’s gallery of unexpected rogues. Well, unexpected if you haven’t watched the trailers.

It’s not just writing. Everyone knows Volition can write cool characters. So here’s where the Overwatch comparisons are most apt, which are really Team Fortress comparisons if you want to give credit where it’s due. Each character has distinct abilities, a unique style, a specific way of fighting.

There are twelve separate bundles of gameplay in Agents of Mayhem, each wrapped in clever writing and affectionate animation, each a playful surprise with a gimmick or two.

By breaking free of the gangsta culture that Saints Row inherited from Rockstar, by instead adopting the silliness of superheroes and secret agents and stuff out of left field, by maintaining a cartoon playfulness without taking themselves the least bit seriously, Volition has a newfound freedom to play. And boy, do they play.

The main gameplay trick is that at any given moment, you’re using three characters. “Big whoop,” you might figure. “I used three characters in Mass Effect.”

But what you didn’t do was use three characters simultaneously.

“Yes I did,” you’re thinking.

No, you didn’t. You used one. The computer used the other two.

“But I could given them orders,” you think.

Which the computer carried out.

“What’s your point? There are plenty of good party-based RPGs and even action games. You even mentioned Xenoblade Chronicles up there.”

Agents of Mayhem is not a party-based game. It’s unabashedly single-character. You are only ever using one agent. When you leave the base, you pick three. At any given moment, you can teleport tag-team one of the other two agents you’ve brought along.

I can’t recall whether Volition bothers with any ingame justification for how this happens. I don’t think they do. When the agents depart the base, they dive into a glowing portal, but only one of them emerges in the city. I guess the other two are hanging fire in some pocket dimension?

So Fortune fires a gun and with a flick of my thumb and nary a bampf, Hardtack replaces her before the bullet finds its target. How? Why? Who cares.

This is a fundamental part of the design. It quickly becomes second nature to use the other two agents, each a tap of the d-pad away, one to your right, the other to your left.

As sure as any shooter gives you a pistol, a shotgun, and an assault rifle, but only one at a time in your hands, you’ve got three very different agents. All distinct, all brimming with customization and upgrade options.

They don’t just level up. They level out. They give you more options. Ridiculous amounts of options, each with a piquant narrative flavor, each with gameplay that’s never just, “…uhh, this makes you do more damage.” And you don’t always earn these options predictably.

There are no trees. There are instead surprises. You’ll find upgrades hither and yon, sometimes randomly, sometimes by design, never making a character merely better, but always giving you more choices for how he or she plays. Think the skills in Diablo III.

The longer you play a character, the more ways you can play it. Now multiply this times twelve. That’s Agents of Mayhem.

So your choice of three characters is each a choice for how the game will play. Feathered into these choices are how you’ve built each character. Or freely rebuilt. Again, think Diablo III for how it doesn’t lock you into choices. This means the synergies are yours to test and rejigger at will.

You decided which characters to level. You decided which core powers to upgrade. You decided which gadgets to equip. You decide how a character plays, and which characters to bring. Volition does two things to make your choices matter.

The first is that all your choices are visibly expressed during gameplay. There is nothing in Agents of Mayhem that doesn’t have some graphics component. If you’ve set up a character to shut down enemy weapons, and a second to come in and stun, and the third to race around while hasted doing extra damage to stunned enemies, you will see that happen.

All of it has a clear visual indication. Inoperable weapons, stuns, hasting, extra damage. You can see it all. The results of your choices are laid bare before your eyes.

There is nothing here that says “Trust us, it’s under the hood.” Agents of Mayhem can get as frantic as any open-world game with shooting and exploding and punching, but it never hides or denies information. As with the recent reboot of Shadow Warrior, the foundation for the crazy over-the-top action is an intricate combat system that welcomes your participation.

The second reason your choices matter is that Volition lets you set the difficulty level along a spectrum of risk/reward. In Saints Row IV, the combat was balls-to-the-wall crazy with superpowers and magic and guns and grenades and AI sidekicks. But the power curve was a brittle line. As you rose above it — you definitely rose above it — all the intricacy of the gameplay fell away.

Eventually, you were just spewing damage out of a firehose. If you want, you can play Agents of Mayhem this way (when Volition introduces a new character, the intro mission that teaches you his or her powers is set to difficulty level one).

But the harder you set the difficulty, the faster you’ll earn experience points to level up your agents. If you’re eager to see where these characters go, what they can do, how they level up, how you can make synergies with other characters — and especially if you have a favorite(s) — you’re going to look for a comfortable spot where combat matters.

You’re going to find a place where the game pushes back hard enough so that your choices make a difference, so that your synergies pay off, so that you’re not just spewing damage from a firehose for a minimal return.

The focus on characters reminds me of two other games. In the Ratchet and Clank series, the weapons leveled up as you used them. They got more powers. They pulled the game forward.

Since Insomniac was so good at thinking up clever weapons, this was a fundamental and gratifying part of their games. But if you think Insomniac’s weapons have personality, wait until you meet Volition’s characters.

Which is why the game this most resembles is Freedom Force. Irrational’s superhero game imagined their own silver age of comics, free from any licensing boondoggle, part imagination, part homage, all smartly written and funny.

Their gameplay didn’t flex the characters quite as much as Agents of Mayhem, but they had the right idea. Their writing, artwork, and voice actors were brimming with affection and commitment.

The basic experience of Agents of Mayhem is the same basic experience as Freedom Force. Talented and experienced designers imagining a cast of powerful characters, shaping their imagination into gameplay, and sharing it with you.

For years, Volition has been chasing Grand Theft Auto, keeping pace with it, passing it, running ahead of it in certain ways, eventually declaring “aww, fuck it” and veering off to find their own path.

This is where it’s brought them. To this delight that is chasing no one, that stands on its own, full of character without sacrificing customization, freedom without sacrificing focus, accessibility without sacrificing challenge, homage without sacrificing originality, breadth without sacrificing depth.

An important part of what makes it work is the superheroes theme. A few years ago, I reviewed a superhero boardgame called Sentinels of the Multiverse. The opening of that review applies here:

There are a few sequences in The Avengers when the various superheroes team up for combo moves. The Hulk positions a shard of armor plating and Thor hammers it into the giant space worm’s back. Captain America uses his shield to bounces Iron Man’s beam through several bad guys. Hawkeye needs to command a higher view of the city so Iron Man flies him up there (“Clench up, Legolas”). Black Widow catapults herself off Captain America’s shield to grab a passing airship. Are director Joss Whedon and his team indebted to the kind of combo moves I’ve been doing all along with my Marvel Ultimate Alliance characters or my Marvel vs Capcom tag teams? And doesn’t it go farther back to the comics that inspired them? You can only do so much with lone gods and superheroes. It’s in the aggregate that they’re most interesting.