Yahtzee reviews Agents of Mayhem.
Riddle me this, my little colostomy bags: what do you do to follow a series like Saints Row, the anarchic adventure in escalation that, in the course of four games, organically went from a humdrum crime sandbox to a load of hilarious nonsense about the president of the United States being competent? Well, you'd probably start by picking up all the sweet wrappers and energy drink cans it dropped, but then what? Another sequel? How are we going to escalate this one? The president has to fight two evil alien space empires, during a skiing holiday, wearing a silly hat?
No. Saints Row escalated to its final, gushing purple orgasm and it's time to move on with a new IP. "Aw," said Volition, "but we can still make it a shoot-y, drive-y sandbox, can't we?" Of course, Volition; after all, it's what you know, and there can never be enough sandbox games, apparently. "Can we put some characters from Saints Row in it?" I don't see why not, Volition; cameos and callbacks are fun and rewarding for the long-term fans and only mildly annoying for everyone else. "Okay, can we use the same logo as the Saints Row games?" Volition, you seem to be having trouble grasping this "moving on" concept. Come up with a new theme. What's another thing you're interested in? "Um, we quite like Saturday morning cartoons." Of course you fucking do!
And so we have Agents of Mayhem, a cross between Saints Row and G.I. Joe - a "Saints Joe", if you will - and possibly the first-ever example of a single-player hero shooter. The connection to the Saints Row series is a little bit weird; Pierce and Johnny Gat both show up, but have completely different backstories, so I'm going to say we're dealing with an alternative universe where the 3rd Street Saints either never came about or aren't as protective of their branding.
The story is, a highly-organized high-tech terrorist group, consisting mainly of colorful characters with silly nicknames, tries to take over the world, and in response, a heroic, high-tech counter-terrorist group is formed, also from colorful characters with silly nicknames. All of this is established with little cartoons, in case you haven't quite grasped the "Saturday morning cartoon" influence. Meanwhile, the actual gameplay takes place entirely in the ultra-modern city of Seoul, South Korea, which the baddies have targeted for particular punishment. That's a bit insensitive, considering the current geopolitical situation that means I may, before this video goes out, have to change the above line to "the nuclear-blasted hellscape of Seoul, South Korea".
Anyway, after the usual induction, I'm dropped into the sandbox and Agents of Mayhem unrolls its full-city map for my perusal, whereupon I get up and check behind it to make sure it's not folded up or something. Where's the rest of it, Volition? Don't tell me it all got broken off by nukes. No, wait, hang on, I get it; there's more than one city. It's an international terror group, so after we've wrapped up the three or four things to do in Seoul, we're going to head to Rio or Milton Keynes. Phew! Thank goodness it's not just this one embarrassingly tetchy little map that would draw sniggers in the sandbox game locker room. Why are you giving me that hurt look, Agents of Mayhem? Guess this is what we're stuck with, but hey, on the other hand, I've thought some "full" sandboxes can be too big, especially if all they're doing is putting a commute between missions, and it'd be more expedient to keep things tight and jack up the encounter rate per square yard. And this map certainly is tight; it's tighter than a virginal prom queen from a very Christian family with severe cash flow problems.
Volition do seem to like getting their money's worth out of their sandboxes; they made the Saints Row 3 map last for three fucking games like a man wearing his underpants inside-out. So don't worry; Seoul is packed with enough car races, foot races, and random battles to make you go, "Oh, this isn't terribly original." And of course, there are the inevitable outpost takeovers that make all the icons appear on the map, a grand total of about three of the buggers. But sometimes, the enemy retake the outpost and you have to re-retake them, which, I suppose, is functionally the same as a game with seven or eight arse-achingly identical outpost-taking missions (paging Dr. Ubisoft).
But I do think it's odd for a game that's otherwise so economical with its content to include the ability to steal cars, considering that A.) you can spawn your 'roided-up Agency super-car at any time, and B.) every civilian vehicle in the game is a rather humiliatingly slow bubble car that handles like a fucking Roomba. I suspect it's only there because it's the sort of thing one expects in a generic city sandbox, like race missions, an easygoing attitude to vehicular homicide, and lampposts held in place with fucking lollipop sticks.
The phrase "economical with content" was my thoroughly diplomatic way of saying "repetitive"; seems like every bloody mission involves going to the same secret underground enemy base as always and shooting everything in it. How the fuck did they build them all? Tell the South Koreans all the rumbling of earth-moving equipment was actually the gentle patter of North Korean missile tests? Everything to do with the city feels like a generic gameplay-fest whose primary purpose is to provide a rich vein of grinding in which to build up all your characters, the core element around which all revolves: we acquire XP to level up and improve their stats; we complete missions to unlock new gadgets and Legion Tech to improve their abilities; we find the hidden crystals to activate their super-abilities, although I fully unlocked all of them and still had about twenty crystals left over, so I guess the M.A.Y.H.E.M. base isn't going to be wanting for paperweights anytime soon.
Essentially, it's a game about unlocking all the dudes and finding your favorite combination of dudes to play with, while relegating your other dudes to the Assassin's Creed-esque off-screen missions, which really don't take long enough, usually around five to ten minutes, about enough time to go down to the sandbox and commit one parking violation before it's time to go back to base, collect the reward, and set up the next one. The trouble with leveling up our characters as a core mechanic is the question of why we're doing it. To get better at the gameplay? The gameplay whose purpose is to let us level up characters? Where does that end? Are we supposed to be doing it because we like the characters? Well, there's the fucking rub, isn't it?
As I said, Agents of Mayhem is a single-player hero shooter, and I think hero shooters are usually multiplayer for good fucking reason. Multiplayer is an infinite-gameplay model in which story is a bonus; yes, I'm sure the Overwatch wiki would regale me with story if I ever reach a suicidal level of boredom, but in the game itself, all context is just a splash of color on a stream of cathartic time-wasting. A single-player campaign, on the other hand, is a journey in which characters need to show off something more than a gimmick and/or extremely broad national stereotype, and dividing that journey between twelve or thirteen protagonists doesn't give us room to get attached. Their character arcs consist of two optional missions each; there are ninth-tier pro wrestlers with better development. Can we ask much more of a game modeling itself on an artistic medium that existed mainly to sell action figures and lunchboxes? Well, yes! Lunchboxes, for a start!
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