Agents of Mayhem is the deepest Saints Row lore

Agents of Mayhem may be dispensing with the crude adult humor and street gang motifs for which developer Volition is known, but fans of the studio’s past games will still have a lot to look forward to when this third-person action game hits the ground running in a couple months.

“Oh, he looks like Pierce,” I remark as I move through character select. Agents of Mayhem (hereafter AoM) may have you controlling only one character at a time, but each deployment sends you off with three agents, whom you can cycle between at any moment with a tap of the D-pad. The guy I’m looking at now is called Kingpin, and he really is a dead ringer for Pierce Washington, a core teammate from Saints Rows 2-IV. Right down to the purple baseball cap.

No giant soda cans in this one, at least.

No giant soda cans in this one, at least.

“It is Pierce,” gameplay design director Anoop Shekar says says happily, watching beside me.

“How did he get back to Earth?” I ask, half-joking. Saints Row IV ends with the Earth blasted into smithereens and Pierce et al flying through time and space, so to see him pop up in AoM’s team roster seems like it poses a minor continuity error. But it’s not as though anyone would ever begrudge a studio like Volition for fudging the details in the name of fan service.

To my surprise, though, Shekar is extremely ready for this question. AoM actually takes place in a divergent reality, he explains, created during one of the endings in Volition’s Saints Row IV spin-off game, Gat Out of Hell. In this timeline, the Third Street Saints never formed, while Pierce “Kingpin” Washington united the gangs of Stilwater under his own rule. We put the demo on hold so I can see the animated intro video explaining all this. Every playable character has one.

That’s the essence of Agents of Mayhem: it’s goofy, sure, but it’s also meticulous in its details. From Saints Row callbacks to weapon and skill customization, it’s clear that Volition is after a higher degree of polish here. A few nitpicks aside (some of the NPC animations are kinda janky, for instance), I’d say it very much delivers.

Pierce is not the only Saints Row cast member we’ll see in AoM, either. Seven foot beef roasty Oleg from Saints Row the 3rd is here as well, although he’s made of ice now for DEEP LORE reasons we didn’t get into. And customers who preorder the game will unlock Saints Row series favorite Johnny Gat, who in this timeline is a hardboiled cop from Seoul. (If you don’t preorder, I’m sure it can eventually be bought separately. That’s how these things tend to work.) The team on-hand wouldn’t tell me exactly how many Saints Row characters we could expect to see, but it sounds like there are a few yet unannounced.

Exploration and side missions have also been built out considerably since last year’s hands-on, much more closely resembling the dotted quest maps of past Saints Row games. There’s also a version of SR’s notoriety meter, where nearby enemies can be alerted to your presence and start to swarm the place. It’s much the same as it’s been in the past, but this time they can also firebomb the hell out of you.

Oh, and there are vehicles now as well. While the level of customization there seems to be reduced versus Saints Row, each car has multiple skins, some of which are preferred by a particular character. And yes, tunable radio stations return, although probably not with quite the same variety of music for which Volition is often (and rightly) praised. Shekar demurred when I asked whether Kingpin aka Pierce had a singalong mission in this one.

Combat is denser and less forgiving than it seemed during last year’s hands-on, though the diverse character offerings mean you can probably bail yourself out of most situations. When I played, my team consisted of Kingpin, cigar-chewing tactician Janel Braddock, and Daisy, a brawny roller derby champion with a minigun. In addition to customized loadouts with modifiers like scopes and alternate barrels, you’re also able to build out your character’s abilities in different ways. There aren’t a ton of options — think more the branching skills from XCOM more than, say, Skyrim — but it’s plenty to play with, with two main paths of development per agent. And then there are the special moves and variations on genre mainstay mechanics, such as (for instance) Kingpin aka Pierce lobbing his loaded submachine gun into a crowd of enemies, spraying everyone in the vicinity. Another special attack traps enemies in bouncing force-field bubbles.

“When you played Saints Row IV, shooting was fun, but it was a little one-noted,” says lead agent gameplay designer Ryan McCabe, who like Shekar is a Volition veteran, having served as combat designer on that game. His favorite character design, Scheherazade, is unfortunately not playable in this build. “This time around, we wanted to make something deeper, something the player can really get into.”

This, he said, is also why Volition opted for a cast of predefined characters in AoM, rather than the player avatars of the Saints Row series.

“We’re known for our characters,” says McCabe. “So we wanted to develop a well-defined cast for the player to connect to.”

It says a lot that of AoM’s cast, musically-inclined, ambiguously gay gangster Pierce Washington is maybe the most sedate personality on the roster. I mean, there’s another guy on the team who hurls a whale harpoon at people: Saints Row has always been a madcap series of larger-than-life “lovable rogues,” but Agents of Mayhem really comic books it up.

If your favorite memories of Saints Row are dildobats and spraying literal shit onto suburban homes, Agents of Mayhem probably isn’t the kind of edgy that you’re looking for. What Agents of Mayhem does carry over from its predecessors, however, is a fondness for over-the-top characters — and also the deepest, deepest of lore.

Agents of Mayhem releases August 15th for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.