Agents of Mayhem lives up to its name

This follow-up to Volition's Saints Row series retains its off-the-wall humor while advancing stylized gameplay in an all new direction.

Volition is one of few game studios outside of the Double Fine and Telltale set known for the indelible personal character of its games. Love them or hate them, the Saints Row series evolved from humble origins as a Grand Theft Auto also-ran into an incisive parody of the open world crime genre, with an adorable cast and -- of course -- a first-rate soundtrack. When lead writer Steve Jaros left the company for Valve in 2014, you could be forgiven for assuming Saints Row's highly specific tone and charm would leave with him -- but judging by our first hands-on with Agents of Mayhem, it seems those fears were ill-founded. Agents of Mayhem is every bit the silly, comic book romp of the latter Saints Row games, paired with a surprisingly accessible third-person combat system.

The premise of Agents of Mayhem -- which Volition confirms takes place in "the larger Saints Row universe" -- is that a supervillainous organization known as LEGION has thrown the entire world into chaos. ULTOR, the fictitious mega-corporation behind the Third Street Saints' media empire, bankrolls an Avengers-esque cooperative of anti-heroes to counter the threat, and as players, we assume command over 12 of these agents.

From there, the familiar hallmarks of open world gameplay start to emerge: there's a central HQ, akin to Saints Row's spaceship or cribs; there's the city of Seoul, which serves as the game's main setting; the money and item drops; the quest markers... It's nothing too original, but Volition isn't out to reinvent any wheels when lowering the suspension and changing the colors of the hubcaps will do just fine. Instead, what immediately distinguishes Agents of Mayhem's Seoul is that it's bright -- lead writer Jason Blair asserts the development team used "All The Colors," emphatic capitals implied, "and we challenge you to find them all" -- and that its inhabitants are just as poppy, from cutesy-poo idol singer AIs to burly shotgun-wielding sailors who bellow "AHOY, MOTHERFUCKER" on a first meeting. Mayhem, in short, is all character, just as its predecessors were.

Overwatch for the Anti-Social

But where Agents of Mayhem really shines, even from this relatively early build, is its central combat feature. Players form teams of three agents, but only one of them is present on the field at a time -- the others are cycled in with a quick button press or keystroke. Dive in with speedy midrange gunner Fortune to stun enemies with her Quicksand ability, then switch to close-range shotgunner Hardtack (that aforementioned sailor) to one-hit kill them at close range. Or snipe from the rooftops with archer Rama and then detonate a "Michael Bay style" finisher as Hollywood. Played at low skill level, it's an incredibly forgiving way for players to learn as they go without sacrificing too much forward momentum; played at higher skill, you're a one-person MOBA team.

In much the same way as Overwatch's system discourages "maining" a character, by instead encouraging players to switch roles as a match progresses, Agents of Mayhem asks players to assess the layout of a combat situation and alternate skillsets accordingly. You can still cycle through a few favorites -- and given Volition's traditional don't-give-a-fuck approach to balance, enough character upgrades will probably turn any of them into an unstoppable wall of destruction -- but the fast-pace switching system works so well, you probably won't want to stick to just one character. Additionally, just as the Boss sassed back during missions in Saints Row, your player characters love to get their two cents in -- and responses will differ depending on who you've selected at a given moment.

Fortune oversees near-future Seoul, the game's main setting.

The Volition 'Special Sauce'

If you watch the announcement trailer closely, you'll see that Agents of Mayhem is doing a few peculiar things with its animation style, and to great effect. Not only are character silhouettes nudged closer to a comic book style, the animation uses 2D smoke effects alongside its 3D models to really capture that graphic novel look, something you might recognize out of Atlantis: The Lost Empire or Batman: The Animated Series.

It's subtle, but it's nerdy (in a good way). If you're an animation geek, it stands out, and more importantly, this small touch shows how Volition has nudged its familiar look in a new direction. There's still the Saints Row stamp in there -- and the signature Fleur de Lis, at a few points -- but everything has been refined; stylized; brought to a crisp edge-point.

Notably absent from the first gameplay hands-on is any of Saints Row's more crass humor -- but I've personally never seen that as integral to the Volition formula, not when at their heart the Saints Row games were always about a surprisingly childlike bunch of goofballs (puckish rogues, to use the games' own term). Some players may miss the dildo bats and stripper escort missions, but Agents of Mayhem is as much a new direction for the studio as it is a continuation of a familiar brand. For my part, I'd argue that all the essential elements are still there.

There are aspects of the gameplay which could use some refinement, but we're still roughly a year away from release. Agents of Mayhem will see a lot of polish before it arrives on consoles and PC in 2017. Despite this, with such a strong first outing, there's plenty to remain optimistic about. As I said when the game was first teased, this is going to be one to watch.