I have been a long-time fan of the Saints Row franchise. In fact, Saints Row IV still holds the record for the fastest video game that I have unlocked every achievement for. So I was excited when I heard that Volition was making another game, positive that it was going to be the fifth installment in the Saints Row franchise. I was disappointed when I learned that the game was going to be an all-new IP called Agents of Mayhem.
The announcement cinematic trailer immediately captured me with its tone, but subsequent gameplay trailers made Agents of Mayhem seem like a cheesy, watered down Saints Row rip-off.
Impressions of E3 Showcase
Generally I try to remain objective when it comes to video games. Sometimes games just have bad trailers. So when I found some free time in my hectic E3 schedule, I decided to check out the Agents of Mayhem demo.
It was absolutely fantastic.
The standard Saints Row mechanics are all there. Jumping, running, shooting, and driving all handle exactly the same. The structure is still there too. Missions are still interrupted by an overly excited nerdy girl, and the soundtrack had me grooving side-to-side while I was traversing the city.
It was the differences though, that pleasantly surprised me. The tone of Agents of Mayhem felt campier than Saints Row (I know, I did not think that was possible either), and there is a lot more interaction between the diverse cast of characters. Switching up between multiple playable agents also adds a level of strategy to the game that Saints Row never really did. I love Saints Row to death, but by the end of the third and fourth Saints Row games, The Boss feels like an unstoppable god.
Agents of Mayhem’s E3 demo was always quick to remind me that not all of the agents are suited to tackling each problem or type of enemy. I had to put a little bit of thought into a fight or how I traversed an area. It was nowhere near the level of most of the other games I play, but it definitely required more brainpower than just running around an enemy at super speed until they die. Frankly, that little bit extra does wonders for me. It really differentiates Agents of Mayhem from the two Saints Row games that came before it. I had a blast playing the game, and I left wishing I had scheduled more time at E3 to talk to the game’s developers.
Interview with Ryan McCabe
I was lucky enough to get the chance to connect with Ryan McCabe, Lead Agent Designer for Agents of Mayhem, almost immediately after playing the E3 demo. He was willing to answer a few questions I had about the game.
Jordan Ramee: Can you say anything about the game’s development? The Saints Row vibes are obviously there (don’t think I didn’t notice the mention of Stilwater in the E3 demo). And although there were some differences, the game’s controls felt like Saints Row IV. Did this game start as Saints Row 5 (FiVe? The Fifth?) and then split off as a separate game, or was it always a completely new IP loosely tied to the Saints Row franchise in both tone and mechanics?
Ryan McCabe: Agents of Mayhem has always been something that’s lived in the Saints Row multiverse, but as its own game. One of the endings of Saints Row: Gat out of Hell is the canonical ending from which the timeline where Agents of Mayhem was born. In that ending, God reconned the world to before the Saints became a gang, and they never formed. Essentially, it’s a world where the Saints as we know them never existed.
Agents of Mayhem is still a Volition open-world title, so you can expect our signature tone to come through in the characters and story. However, some of the characters we know and love from Saints Row still exist and are present here as playable agents. You have Kingpin, aka Pierce Washington, who has been around since Saints Row 2; and Yeti, aka Oleg, who was first introduced in Saints Row the Third. We’ve also recently announced Johnny Gat as a fully playable agent with his own missions, vehicles, and story arch.
JR: Saints Row has largely been about players controlling one customizable character that can do everything, not controlling a team of unique individuals that are each really good at just one thing. How did the team tackle the challenge of making a dozen noteworthy characters as opposed to only one all-powerful psychopath?
RM: Developing this cast of characters was a very rigorous process, starting from a post-it note with a vague description to a fully playable character. For instance, our agent Fortune started as a post-it note that said, “Hi-Tech Pirate.” From that, we would try to take different approaches to interpreting what that meant. Was it digital piracy? More traditional pirate? What does a near-future, but traditional pirate have for abilities? And in asking these types of questions, we would get to a point where we had a couple of different ideas for who they were and what their gameplay was going to consist of.
Sometimes characters came with a bit more narrative detail and our Agent Designers would use that information to develop their abilities. Other times we were missing something gameplay-wise, and we would state what we needed and a character would be developed around that. This required the coordination of several departments in the studio, as Agents require writers, designers, audio, vfx, animation, character models, and programming support. Lots of time, effort, and care went into the development of each one, much more than developing simply a new skin for a character.
JR: In the demo at E3, I noticed that the boss, Hammersmith, had multiple stages, each with a separate health pool that was weak to a particular type of Agent’s primary firearm. I didn’t have an Agent particularly strong against his first stage, as I switched in Rama to team up with Kingpin and Daisy. I still took Hammersmith out easily enough, but there was a noticeable difference in the amount of time it took to beat his first phase in comparison to stages two and three. Are there moments like that throughout the game, where the game may punish the player for not having the right tools for the job? How does Agents of Mayhem account for players occasionally picking Agents not suitable to a particular mission or boss?
RM: We actually tackle this in quite a few ways. There are indeed some enemies that have extra armor or extra shielding, and there are agents that can take either one of those down faster than the other, but for the cases of dealing with an enemy, if you have an agent in your squad that is better, they’ll call out and let the player know that they’re better suited for the situation. This is just a suggestion, though, not a requirement.
If someone finds themselves in a situation where they are failing constantly, we let them adjust their difficulty. We have 15 different difficulty levels for people to choose from, so if someone really cares more about the story than the challenge, they are able to put their difficulty to a lower setting. If someone cares a lot about leveling their Agents to the max and getting challenged constantly, the higher difficulties not only bring in more enemies, but enemies of higher ranks who have better tactics and more abilities.
There are certain mission objects that will require an Agent with a particular specialization. For instance, one mission may require you to have someone with the Master Programmer specialization to get through a difficult hacking situation. We’re up front with this information, though, so that players don’t get part way into a mission and get locked out of being able to continue.
JR: Saints Row The Third made fun of the Grand Theft Auto formula, and Saints Row IV was a play on The Matrix. Will Agents of Mayhem make fun of something else from pop culture? If so, then what?
RM: Agents of Mayhem is really our take on the 80’s cartoons and shows that we love and grew up with. A grown up version of something like an A-Team or G.I. Joe. We have these wonderful 2D animations for every Agent and LEGION Lieutenant in the game that tell a bit about their story, and these really call back to the Saturday morning cartoon feel that we wanted to hit with the game. There really wasn’t anything else like that out there in the single-player open world space, and we really feel like we created a game that hits on those themes, but with our signature tone and humor.
JR: I really loved sniping enemies with Rama’s bow and jumping at foes with a variety of Green Arrow-like tricked out projectiles. Her cringe inducing levels of humor also made me smile. Who’s your favorite agent? Why?
RM: My favorite Agent is one that we haven’t talked too much about yet, the mysterious Scheherazade. She was one that I personally did the design for, and is also one of the more unique characters from both a gameplay and narrative perspective. We’re going to be talking much more about her more soon, so stay tuned!
My biggest takeaway from the interview was the admission that Agents of Mayhem will have fifteen different difficulty levels. The demo at E3 only had three, and I personally have come to expect only three to five levels of difficulty in my games. I am very curious to see how a game juggles fifteen difficulties. McCabe was not at liberty to share.
Both my time with the game at E3 and my interview with Ryan McCabe have left me significantly more excited about Agents of Mayhem than the game’s initial trailers did. Agents of Mayhem is shaping up to be more than a silly Saints Row spin-off. I am definitely keeping it on my radar.
Agents of Mayhem is currently scheduled to release on August 15, 2017 in North America and August 18, 2017 in Europe. Gamers will be able to grab it on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, or Microsoft Windows.