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Agents of Mayhem might be the sleeper hit of 2017

Saints Row meets Overwatch by way of G.I. Joe in this wild open-world game

It was 2014 — well before the game was even in development — when Ryan McCabe knew for sure that he and his colleagues at Volition were onto something special.

The studio had just released Saints Row 4 to critical and fan acclaim. A standalone expansion, Saints Row: Gat out of Hell, was in the works with a separate developer, but Volition itself was looking ahead to the future and its first title for the next generation of consoles.

As McCabe, a lead designer at the studio, stood behind a one-way mirror watching a focus group, Volition didn’t have anything to show on a screen for its next game. The pitch the group was getting was all concept art, character descriptions, snippets of information.

When the pitch was over, a representative from the studio asked one of the outsiders they had brought in a simple but loaded question: “What does this game seem like to you?”

The man thought for a second and then answered, “It seems like G.I. Joe versus Cobra Megafight 2020.”

If the man listened closely, he might have heard McCabe on the other side of that glass, letting out an ecstatic, “Fuck yes!” That was the precise moment that Agents of Mayhem became a real thing for him, and soon after it would become the primary focus of all of Volition’s development talents.

Agents of Mayhem is meant to be a clean break from the Saints Row series, but it also clearly builds on what Volition has become known for. It’s an over-the-top, open-world third-person shooter with a focus on characters who feel overpowered to the point of practically being superheroes. Also, it’s full of goofy jokes.

The silly tone is obvious just from looking over the cast of a dozen playable characters in Agents of Mayhem. There’s Daisy, a rollerskating derby girl who also happens to carry a massive gatling gun and swears and drinks like nobody’s business. Or Hollywood, a movie star turned real life action hero in the same vein as Mortal Kombat’s Johnny Cage — and just as cocky. Or if you really miss Saints Row, you can play as Kingpin, a character fans of that series may remember under the name of Pierce Washington. His special move is that he drops a boombox that makes all the enemies in the area dance.

“I would be shocked if somebody can’t find a character of our 12 that they can connect to,” McCabe tells Polygon. Gone are the days of full character customization as Saints Row allowed for, but in its place is a varied cast, with each playable agent bringing their own gameplay style as well as their own personality. McCabe expects each player will find a favorite — although you can actually take three characters with you at a time and swap between them on the fly.

According to McCabe, the idea of doing a character-focused game like this came from multiple directions. For one, Volition looked at how Saints Row fans talked about the game online and who they cosplayed as at conventions. It turned out, players didn’t seem to care much about their created main character — known as “The Boss.” Rather, fans shared scenes centered around and dressed up as side characters like Shaundi and the aforementioned Pierce.

On top of that, Volition saw the increasing popularity of hero-based games like League of Legends and Dota 2. Players built strong connections to individual characters they loved, which created a deeper bond with the game.

But these types of games tended to share one important characteristic: They were all multiplayer. Volition dealt in single-player titles, and they viewed that as a benefit here, an untapped space building off of a powerful trend.

“There really isn’t anything else like this in the single-player market right now,” McCabe says. “The fact that we are single-player and are offering people that maybe aren’t able to totally get into a character [in another game] because it’s multiplayer-focused — that’s something I think we can do really well.”

Volition/Deep Silver

McCabe recalls the day the studio huddled together and watched the reveal of Overwatch, Blizzard’s popular hero-based shooter. Development was already under way for Agents of Mayhem, but many members of the team held their breath, terrified that their concept was already being put into play by a much bigger studio.

“It was a very interesting time in the studio,” says McCabe. “Until we saw gameplay, and that it was multiplayer only. Then we were like, ‘PHEW.’”

In addition to the whole single-player-only thing, Agents of Mayhem sets itself apart from other hero-based shooters by embracing the open world structure the studio learned so well in the Saints Row franchise. The new game is set in Seoul, South Korea, where a group of unsanctioned heroes called MAYHEM — Multinational Agency for Hunting Evil Masterminds — is trying to stop the operations of another organization called LEGION — League of Evil Gentlemen Intent on Obliterating Nations.

As the names probably suggest, Agents of Mayhem is channeling some pretty specific sources — particularly ‘80s action cartoons.

“We love G.I. Joe,” says McCabe. “We love He-Man. We love all those cartoons, and shows like The A-Team. There really weren’t a ton of games touching on that. So we saw a unique opportunity to work on something that we responded to and loved internally and that we feel there’s a larger audience for.”

What really makes Agents of Mayhem hum, however, is not its inspirations or similarities, neither the tongue-in-cheek roots of the Saints Row games nor the child-of-the-’80s DNA. It’s how all of these elements are glued together with what might be Volition’s tightest and most full-on fun gameplay ever.

At an event last week, Polygon was able to play an hour-and-a-half of Agents of Mayhem, with sections spread out from across various points at the game, from the very first mission to a boss fight past the halfway point. What was clear to us within minutes of putting hands to controllers was just how good it feels — how second-nature swapping between different heroes becomes, akin to swapping guns in another shooter except it also changes up your special abilities and the general “feel” of running and jumping around in the world.

Volition/Deep Silver

One point of comparison that came up is the Borderlands series. Enemies have big health bars and numbers tick off as you shoot them, as in Gearbox’s popular RPG shooter games. But in Agents of Mayhem there’s more of an emphasis on movement — on the simple joy of navigating an environment, of triple-jumping to a higher vantage point as Hollywood, shooting down some enemies from a distance and then hopping down and swapping to Hardtack and taking out the remaining baddies with a single shotgun blast.

A key aspect of this gameplay loop is “mayhem abilities,” the unique special power that each character accesses via a bar that fills up as you fight enemies. Mayhem abilities vary greatly in function but they all serve a similar purpose: a super-powered move that either wipes out a big group of enemies or makes it easier for you to wipe them out.

A few examples: The sky pirate Fortune summons a drone that floats around stunning enemies so you can take them out with ease. Hollywood puts on sunglasses as explosions inexplicably go off all around him. The bow-wielding Rama shoots off a special plague arrow that creates a giant trap on the ground. Each of these is presented in a stylish way, playing up how powerful they are and really driving home the personality of each character.

The characters will also grow through certain missions in the game. In addition to a main story arc, each of the 12 agents has individual unlock missions (which make them available to play) and personal missions that expand on their backstory and help explain how they got involved with MAYHEM.

If there’s anywhere that we’re still not convinced of Agents of Mayhem, it’s in these more narrative-driven elements. While the Saints Row games became known for sharp (if silly) writing, they weren’t particularly great at making deep, memorable characters — fan appreciation for Pierce and Shaundi aside.

The unlock mission for Daisy has her recounting a night of blackout drunkenness by retracing her steps and then playing through flashbacks of the debauchery that took place. Meanwhile, a personal mission for Marine sergeant/hardass Braddock has her tracking down and attempting to take out a rogue trainee from her barracks.

In both cases, the humor fell a little flat and the characters came across as, well, kind of unlikable. This may be tied in to one of Volition’s taglines for Agents of Mayhem: “bad versus evil.” The idea is that MAYHEM are not necessarily good guys — they’re just trying to take down a much more full-on evil group.

Volition/Deep Silver

Taken out of context and in the bite-sized chunks we played, it’s hard to tell how well that concept will play out over the course of the full game. It runs the risk of making the characters just a bunch of jerks, which isn’t really what we want from a hero-based game where we’re trying to find characters we feel a connection with. But it’s also possible that over the course of the full game Daisy’s drunken antics and Braddock’s gruff cruelty will grow on us. Maybe by next year, we’ll be planning our Hollywood cosplay.

Creating Agents of Mayhem and not tying it directly to the Saints Row franchise is a risky move, and Volition knows it.

“Doing new IP is not something that a lot of people are willing to invest in,” McCabe says.

The developer was purchased by Koch Media, the parent company of publisher Deep Silver, in 2013, as previous owner THQ filed for bankruptcy. And according to McCabe, Deep Silver was eager to let Volition try something new.

“There are similarities between Agents of Mayhem and Saints Row,” he says. “We still own the color purple. But what’s important to us at Volition is knowing what we’re good at, where we excel. We make over-the-top, open-world action games with a lot of humor.”

Agents of Mayhem may not carry the Saints Row name, and that has certainly led to less buzz around it thus far. But it absolutely seems to contain the Saints Row soul thus far, and is worth keeping a close eye on as it nears its Aug. 15 release date for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows PC.