Superpowered: An Analysis of Agents of Mayhem

Note: This article contains some spoilers for Saint's Row The Third and major spoilers for Saint's Row IV.

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When you've spent your career making games with over-the-top plots and one day you manage to release a game with the most over-the-top plot possible, where do you go from there? It's a question that Volition Entertainment had to ask themselves after they released Saint's Row IV in 2013. Saint's Row the Third delighted audiences with its overblown and absurd take on the action game genre, turning them into toilets in a Tron-style cyberscape and letting them meet Burt Reynolds. But by the end of Saint's IV, players had been inaugurated as the President of the United States, crowned the head of an intergalactic empire, and owned a time machine. There weren't many more gizmos for them to earn or medals to pin on their chest after that. But even in that fourth rendition of Saint's Row, there was evidence that Volition might be able to put out a new game with the same flavour without trying to one-up themselves.

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If you love Saint's III and IV, part of that love was probably down to these games not just firing off jokes but putting an almost hilarious amount of effort into their telling, turning them into whole levels of play. These stages took us to B-Movie Mars, had us lucha wrestle a crime boss, and challenged us to break out of a 50s-style family comedy. The main missions of Saint's were effectively a sketch show with the skits all mining a different vein of pop culture ephemera. The complexity and absurdity of these sketches increased both between Saint's III and IV, and within each of the games as we made our way through the campaigns.

We can view the upward curve we travel along in Saint's as being one of increasingly elaborate pop culture escapism, and looking at it that way, there was always another horizon for Saint's to travel to. What if this developer made a game that was comprised entirely of one of those sketches? What if one pop culture nod became the whole experience? There were wisps of this concept in the side project Gat Out of Hell as Saint's dwelled more on a single genre aesthetic than it had before: the aesthetic of the heavy metal album cover. However, even that experience was somewhat of a cultural pick 'n' mix: we met Shakespeare at a nightclub and liberated Vlad the Impaler from a nursery. It wasn't until Agents of Mayhem in 2017 that characters, settings, style, and play in the Saint's universe were all united within a single pop culture citadel. Feel free to skip the next paragraph if you're already familiar with the premise of this game.

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Agents of Mayhem is a revelrous recreation of the after-school superhero cartoon. It's the kind of media property someone would make to sell action figures but without the action figures. It takes place on the surprisingly chipper battlefield of a futuristic Seoul where the evil Doctor Babylon and his army, LEGION, wage war against world leaders and the eponymous Agents of Mayhem. Led by the effortlessly suave Persephone Brimstone, the Agents are effectively an Avengers Initiative which has recruited a league of heroes from around the planet to put a stop to LEGION once and for all. Mechanically, this game is a single-player-only RPG shooter which mainly takes place in a seamlessly connected open-world city, but which sometimes has you braving your way into instanced enemy bases. Unless you're in one of the special single-characters missions, you can, at any time, switch between one of three heroes, each with their own weapon, stats, augments, special powers, and health pool. You can also change which three characters you have in your hand between missions and unlock more characters by completing side quests.

The way Agents handles its characters, both ludically and narratively is what defines it. From the start, you'll notice that while Saint's had you stepping into the shoes of the boss of an organisation and the other members of the gang acting as helpful NPCs, Agents has the boss of the organisation serving as a supporting character, while the average members of the group are all avatars you get to embody. Your role as a player this time isn't being in charge of the organisation; it's being the organisation, or at least, the organisation's field team. The play considers every one of these people as important as any other and lets everyone take turns in the protagonist's chair, but while the gameplay suggests these characters are united in combat, the script fails to create chemistry between them because the squad members almost never talk amongst themselves. The character currently switched in as the protagonist is only scripted to strike up conversations with certain supporting characters back at base, or occasionally, the villains. In fact, the game's structure makes inter-squad dialogue impossible and if it's hard to see why then think about it from the writer's perspective.

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Remember, because the player is picking who they deploy in any one mission, they are deciding the three main characters in almost every scene. Let's discuss a hypothetical scene and label the characters in the three slots for it A, B, and C. Say that these characters come across a gruesome enemy-controlled spire jutting out of the ground and Character A shares their thoughts about it. Now, depending on who the player has selected for this mission, Character A could be any one of fifteen characters, and every one of them is going to speak about that spire differently. Based on their personality, they'll comment on different details, ask different questions, and use different language.

The writers penning a line for every character in every speaking moment in the game would put a strain on production, but it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that the developers could produce, record, and animate fifteen different scripts for the game. But then it gets more complicated because let's say that in our example scene, Character B responds to Character A's remark. You can't just pick one of fifteen character-appropriate lines for this response because Character B's reply has to address the content and tone of Character A's unique line while also embodying who Character B is. Now, let's say Character C pipes in with their own witty comment responding to A and B, and we already see an overload of different ways this conversation could branch. And you'd have to account for this fast-acting branching for every conversation in the game across all scenes. There are only three solutions to this problem:

  1. You write a different script for every possible combination of characters that the player could take into each mission. With fifteen characters (including those from the DLC) and three agent slots, that's 2,730 scripts[1], so that one's a non-starter.
  2. You have one or perhaps a few generic scripts from which the characters pull their dialogue. It keeps the squad interacting but often in a manner that's incongruous with their personalities.
  3. You keep the squad from talking amongst themselves. There's a lot less camaraderie between characters, but you also don't show the audience an off-kilter screenplay that undoes your character work.
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Volition went with option three, but none of these methods makes you look like a competent writer. The game does try to make up for this by finding brief respites during which these co-workers can chew the fat and show off their personalities a little more, but the downtime only comes in drips, meaning that so does the development of the agents and their relationships. This is one consequence of weaving Agents entirely from the thread of genre escapism where Saint's had the genre fiction be this alternate dimension that characters dip in and out of. In Saint's, the gang could step away from the action to something resembling the real world and make a connection before opening the door to that madness again. But Agents is, through and through, a superhero action game[2], so characters barely exist outside of the next chance to knock down the next villain's door; this means if a conversation can't be had while round-housing robots in the head, it's unlikely they'll have it at all.

I'd also opine that Saint's felt as "wacky" as it did not because the developers did the silliest thing in any given situation but because the characters were coming from a slightly more mundane world and were then thrust into these ridiculous sub-worlds. This created a contrast between the regular and the weird, and the characters could act as audience surrogates, laughing along at how much stupid fun every stage was. Now that there's no point at which the camera pulls back from the pop culture stew, there's no knowing wink at it. Some of these heroes always have time for a laugh, even when the fate of the world hangs in the balance, but where Saint's had a semi-ironic appreciation of its subject matter, Agents is far more earnest. This could, again, be down to the format constricting it, the same way it does the character interaction. There's nothing wrong with developing a more serious game but such seriousness requires a stripe of dramatic writing that you won't find in this superhero slugfest.

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It's also possible that Agents has trouble sculpting its characters and story because Volition seems to have a below-average budget for cutscenes and because there aren't many setpiece moments during the campaign. On that second point, most battles we fight in the game are staged in a permutation of one of a few generic enemy bases. Whether you're crashing Steeltoe's wedding or hot-footing it around Ariadne's Lewis Caroll-inspired labyrinth, their levels are still more high tech research labs than they are a church or a wonderland. It never feels like you go somewhere wholly themed around these characters as you did in Saint's which ties into a related issue. If a writer is to show us who characters are, then those writers need to include allies, antagonists, settings, and conflicts that play off of the characters' histories and personalities. Additionally, the writer tells us about these people by showing us how they react to those four elements, and Agents doesn't commit to that.

Superhero stories, in particular, tend to define a character by their origin tale and then not develop them past it so experiencing their origin is essential for us if we're to understand who they are and what motivates them. Imagine a version of Spider-Man where we don't know about Uncle Ben or a version of Captain America where the baddies aren't directly opposed to the values of freedom and liberty that Captain America represents. For each character in Agents of Mayhem, we get a brief animated cutscene that explains their backstory before Mayhem abducts them from the locale which contextualises them and absorbs them into the collective. After that point, their actions are juxtaposed against settings and enemies which have little to do with them personally. For example, the city of Seoul doesn't tell us anything about Rama who is from a plague-ridden village in Mumbai, and the mad scientist villain of Doctor Babylon doesn't represent any specific fears or challenges faced by Daisy, a rowdy roller derby enthusiast. Agents of Mayhem is using the superhero team-up framework of crowd-pleasers like The Avengers or Justice League but without any equivalent to the masses of prep work which make those stories possible.

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I'd advise comparing Agents of Mayhem to the 2012 Avengers. Like Volition's superhero property, The Avengers yanked a diverse set of superheroes from their original frames and pasted them into a new one, and its characters are generally memorable and draw you in. But The Avengers also did something that Agents doesn't: with the exception of Black Widow, Marvel Studios made films about every one of their characters before extracting them from the worlds that birthed them. Even if you hadn't seen all those films, prior fiction based around these characters meant that you had a chance of picking up who they were through cultural osmosis, especially Thor and The Hulk.

All the characters had had time to soak into the pop culture carpet as they'd been around since the mid-20th century, or in the case of Thor, since the 7th century. Black Widow also came across as the weakest of The Avengers precisely because the franchise holders wouldn't give her the same extra-textual support as the other characters. Yet, even Black Widow has received so much more introduction as a character than any agent of Mayhem does. The game has poor comprehension of the superhero team-up format and is trying to blend the stories of twelve wholly original heroes[3] without any outside texts explaining who they are and with about a minute of exposition spent on their backstories.

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It would be far more edifying if we could play through these characters' backgrounds before using them as part of Mayhem, with introductory missions like taking to the football pitch as Red Card or barking orders at recruits as Haddock, but what we get are sixty-second no-frills motion comic versions of this. I'd explain this away by saying this is another instance of Volition's production values lagging behind their ambition, and maybe it is, but there's also a clear split between the volume of resources that have gone into Agents as an open-world shooter and the volume that have gone into Agents as a superhero narrative. The game is this absolutely mystifying mix of a glistening, professional 3D environment and the kind of anaemic story presentation you'd expect from an indie studio learning how to make interactive entertainment as they go. And why you'd commit so few resources to the characterising elements when the game wants to be so much about these characters and who they are, I can't fathom. Maybe something went wrong in production, or perhaps Volition didn't foresee how much their methods would hamper their storytelling, I don't know.

This pattern of Volition's vision outstripping their production levels is at the core of their game. We've talked about it so far as the ball and chain around their storytelling, but it's also palpable in the level design. Although you're raiding enemies bases on the regular, every one of those compounds is the same set of visually and architecturally identical rooms clicked together in different configurations. You can see every raid dungeon area in the first couple of hours, but the game carries on using them for another twelve; even longer if you complete the side content.

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And then there are a lot of little missing components that also feel like a result of the game being underproduced. For example, I wish there was an animation or popup which alerted me when the cooldown for my special ability is over; it would save me from having to keep darting my eyes back to the small timer in the lower-right every time I wanted to know. And I wish that the game had taught me what status effects like "Enfeeble" or "Precision" entailed before stuffing my inventory with items that carry those effects. If nothing else, the interface could tell me where to find the information on them; as it turns out, it's confusingly included in the ~15 buttons in the pause menu where all other options are more technical tools like "Eye Tracking" and "Erase Save Data". These niggling issues might sound like they have more to do with design than production, but they're the kind of wrinkles that you usually see ironed with enough rounds of QA which is something that the developer can provide as long as their coffers aren't running dry and the dev cycle isn't truncated. Certainly, the rotten performance of Agents on its release suggested that Volition could not provide adequate QA for it. This game is a contender for the most technically fragile AAA title released in 2017; systems as basic as collision were continually breaking down in the early days.

But for as much as Agents suggests kinks in its production pipeline, it also feels somewhat like a victim of its genre. It's not always sure how to challenge you while honouring both the RPG and action-oriented facets of its play. An action game should reward you for remaining alert of danger and avoiding it, but the snipers in this game can punch through your shield and a handful of your health with a single bullet and have impeccable aim whether you're moving or not. You can hide behind cover to avoid their fire, but sometimes shelter isn't available. Or there are debuffs which slow you, stop you from jumping, or even immobilise you. Even in traditional RPGs, I'm not a fan of these handicaps, but they're especially irritating in a system like Agents's where half the fun is meant to be the adroit dodging and aerial acrobatics.

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At any time when Agents of Mayhem thinks it's being challenging, there's a good chance it's just being annoying, and most of my deaths in my time with it weren't because I wasn't paying attention to my surroundings or wasn't watching my health, they were because I got hit with three or four attacks in a row which stun locked me and took me from full health to 0 HP. Trying to use your characters' special abilities strategically is also aggravating: Each hero's Mayhem power is a spectacular burst of energy that you want to save for the most fearsome of encounters, but you can never be sure whether you've reached the zenith of difficulty in a mission or not. Sometimes you activate Mayhem and find that you should have done it a room or two later, other times you hold onto it for that perfect moment and complete the mission without that moment arriving.

These issues of Agents' genre conflict line up with its issues of production in the game's length. Agents is over much faster than other progression-based RPGs. I licked my plate clean on this one, beating the main story, finishing all side missions, completing all of the "Global Offensive", clearing all VR rooms, buying all the ARK upgrades, unlocking 88% of achievements, and gobbling up two-thirds of the collectables, but even after all that, I'd only squeezed 24 hours out of the game. This isn't a cut and dry issue of it just being "too short"; length in itself is not a virtue. But other RPGs are as long as they are because it takes a long time to elevate characters to a high level and win them upper tier loot, so developers provide us with a lot of content which gives us the opportunity to raise character levels and collect those items without feeling the game has stagnated. More than most RPGs, Agents of Mayhem needs a lot of that grindstone: it has fifteen characters who all have a max level of 40, yet most players are going to get bored to tears even maxing out one character.

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But you know what surprises me most about Agents of Mayhem? This character game that fails to characterise, this progression game that fails to progress? It's that I like it. Expectations are often the great decider, and I think you're much more likely to enjoy this superpowered romp around Seoul if you can accept that it's not another Saint's Row game. This advice comes with a couple of disclaimers. Firstly, as I've done here, I do think it's still useful to compare this title to Volition's older, wiser open-world crime experiences as Agents is trying to push the same buttons of knowing and confident character-driven genre comedy that Saint's did. Secondly, this game and its marketing copiously alluded to Saint's Row, and if you didn't see the expectations that created first-hand, you can guess.

When Deep Silver announced the game in the summer of 2016, the trailer they published included the signature Saint's Purple, introduced a story which tied into one of the Gat Out of Hell endings, featured the line "The sequel just got greenlit", included a representative of Saints's Ultor Corporation, had a character accuse Persephone of running "A street gang", and had the Third Street Saint's trademark fleur de lis appear behind her. So it wasn't stupid to think that this was a Saint's sequel. Representatives of Volition around the time worked hard to dispel that myth but trailers spread faster and more freely than PR interviews, and the issue was compounded by there being no particularly visible marketing between then and the game's release telling us what Agents actually was. So if you went in expecting a charismatic and personable experience and didn't get that, I understand, and Deep Silver must shoulder the responsibility of running a marketing campaign which failed to communicate the contents of this experience.

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But while Agents is not a worthy torchbearer to take over from Saint's, it's one of the best RPG shooters I've come across. You can basically split action roleplaying games into two camps now: The first wave of ARPGs where a lower grade of game feel was the price we paid for a combination of hand-eye coordination play and progression play, and the second wave where we stopped having to make that trade-off and the games contained both reliable progression systems and fluid action. That second wave likely starts with Borderlands, but Destiny took the concept a step further, and this might controversial, but Agents is an improvement on the feel of Bungie's RPG. Agents's unique achievements as a shooter RPG are that it manages to do it all in third-person, mostly in a wholly interconnected map, and with jumping and climbing mechanics which make you wonderfully light on your feet. It often flexes its "action" muscles in a way that these other ARPGs didn't because it doesn't just incorporate boilerplate aiming and strafing mechanics but also platforming and plenty of dodging. And at last, we have a loveable RPG that doesn't bog you down with inventory management.

Agents of Mayhem manages to say goodbye to inventory organisation by not including randomly dropping gear and taking a generally simplified approach to character equipment. This means you're not watching your free time ebb away as you compare fractional stat differences between Item A and Item B. While you never get that moment of feeling that you hit the jackpot when a legendary drops from an enemy corpse, that's because, instead of putting effort into making you value inanimate objects, Agents is making you value characters instead. ARPGs have always been about trying to reinterpret foundational RPG concepts through the language of action games. That's frequently meant that players have to line up attacks instead of having them auto-target or that each weapon has its own unique handling, but one of the most vital edicts of RPGs is that classes should all be distinct from each other. Whether you picked a warrior, archer, or mage changed what it meant to be in combat and upgrade your avatar. However, ARPGs have often failed to use their action mechanics to distinguish classes to the same extent traditional RPGs have. While class archetypes in ARPGs may have different stats and special abilities, their movement models, and in shooter RPGs, aiming models, are often identical. They fall short of character-focused action games like Overwatch or League of Legends which are careful to match unique characters to unique tactile experiences.

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The characters of Agents are essentially the classes of any other RPG, and by tying the weight, balance, and firing physics to these characters instead of their guns, the designers create a sharper distinction between those characters and better personify who they are. While the script may not act as enough of a mirror against their personalities, you can see, for example, Hardtack's ruggedness embued in his booming shotgun or Scheherazade's ninja prowess in her exclusive use of deadly melee attacks. While there have been hit shooters that have managed to fabricate only four or five of these types of shooting models, Agents has unique handling for all twelve of the characters in the base game (possibly also the DLC characters, although I haven't personally touched them).

Each of these characters may essentially only have one weapon option, but switching characters here serves the role that changing out weapons would in any other TPS. And having firing patterns tied to characters instead of to weapons makes it easier to remember how to get back to that firing pattern. It's more natural to recall that Yeti fights with the freeze gun than it is to call to mind how precisely the "Serve Peacemaker" is going to dispense its rounds. Agents has also solved the problem of how to give audiences the varied play of the MMO raid in a single-player engine. You can't get the co-operative experience of a party all playing to their strengths and covering each other's weaknesses, but the designers can let you assume the role of multiple party members in combat by allowing you to flick between them with the D-Pad. And the same way another shooter may encourage you to switch between firearms by having you run out of ammunition in one, the dwindling shields and differing abilities of the agents nudge you to swap between them regularly, and so experience multiple different types of handling and special abilities in one mission. While picking one class in another RPG often means being locked into one style of play for tens of hours, the play in Volition's ARPG is a damn sight more pliable because its concept of classes is far more dynamic.

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It's hard to imagine a world in which Agents of Mayhem wouldn't have been a nightmare to bring to fruition. Open-world crime games and MMO-likes are two of the most production-intensive genres of video game you can pursue, and in Agents, Volition tried to smash them together. Lacking the production fuel to realise enchanting characters and bottomless RPG content simultaneously, they cut corners with both, although, when pressed, it's the personality of the game that Volition was more willing to dispose of, a decision it's hard to imagine them ever having made with Saint's Row. Agents also reveals how giving the player a firm grip on the game's cast can make writing impossible. Yet, the resources that this developer has committed to the play, the most fundamental part of the experience, have paid off with interest. The action in this action RPG blows that of similar games out of the water, and Volition has discovered a future beyond Saint's Row in deeper play and in spending more time with one type of genre fiction instead of changing costumes every other mission. It's okay to play Agents and miss Saint's Row, but for anyone who longs for the lively spontaneity of Volition's previous games, you can find it here in the way that bouncing between characters is as natural as springing off of buildings. Thanks for reading.

Notes

1. It's possible that you're asking why the developers wouldn't need to write 3,375 scripts to account for all heroes given that there are three character slots and fifteen different characters (15^3 = 3,375). Remember, however, that once you place an agent in a slot, you have one fewer agents to select for the next slot, so you get a pick of fifteen characters for Slot 1, fourteen characters for Slot 2, and thirteen characters for Slot 3. To calculate all possible combinations, we perform 15x14x13 which gives us 2,730.

2. We might argue that, technically, some characters in Agents of Mayhem are not superheroes as they don't have any superhuman powers, they're just very skilled combatants. However, I'm referring to Agents as a superhero game in that it follows the format and themes of the superhero genre.

3. Including DLC characters, there are fifteen playable agents in the game. However, three of them originate in Saint's Row: Johnny Gat, Pierce Washington who returns as "Kingpin", and Kinzie Kensington who returns as "Safeword". Hence, there are only twelve original characters.

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