Agents of Mayhem shows how hard it is for a hero shooter to stand out these days

Time was, in the heyday of Team Fortress 2 and Borderlands, it still felt noteworthy to be playing a shooter featuring character classes with unique abilities and eccentric personalities that complemented their arsenal. But nowadays, the 'hero shooter' subgenre is getting awfully crowded. Overwatch, with its mass appeal and pristine levels of polish, stands triumphantly at the top of the heap. Battleborn, Paladins, and Garden Warfare trail behind it; Quake Champions, LawBreakers, and Gigantic plan to join the party soon. And with so many alternatives out there, Agents of Mayhem - the next game from Saints Row developer Volition - seems like it's going to have a really tough time standing out.

The titular anti-heroes in this single-player, third-person shooter are the biggest part of the problem. During an hour-ish hands-on demo featuring five missions, I got to take nine of the game's 12 agents for a spin in the open-world streets of a futuristic Seoul, South Korea. Right off the bat, our protagonists all feel close to being special without actually making the cut, because many of them have personalities that can be stripped down to basic combinations of familiar archetypes. Hollywood is Johnny Cage with a gun. Fortune is a high-tech pirate with a droid pal. Hardtack is a Blaxploitation take on a sailor. Oni is a half-masked Yakuza assassin who can turn invisible. The Agents' appearance, two individual powers, and constant banter all tick the checkboxes of what constitutes a hero shooter, yet they never really left an impression on me besides Fortune. Not because I particularly like her design, persona, or twin pistols, but more for the way she can triple-jump into an air dash, which made moving around a lot more fun.

There are some standouts in the roster, but they might make an impression for the wrong reasons. Agents of Mayhem takes place in the same universe as Saints Row, and that means the return of some familiar faces - like Kingpin, who's actually Saints mainstay Pierce Washington. Sadly, without the other Saints around to bounce one-liners off, Pierce feels like a shell of his former self. I was all set to love Daisy, a foul-mouthed roller derby champ with a rockabilly hairstyle and a colossal gatling gun - but then I got to play as her, and was inundated by a spate of unfunny quips that are trying their damndest to nail edgy humor. Lines like "Talk to the clam!", "It's on like Robot-tron!", and "Hell yeah! Daisy for the win!" seem destined to fall flat in a world that moved past the in-your-face, smarm-at-all-times stylings of something like Borderlands 2 or Sunset Overdrive. It already felt beyond played out in those games, so to hear that brand of writing in 2017 is just... unfortunate.

Your enemies and environment don't fare much better in their efforts to produce something memorable. There are seven bosses, each with their own quirky backstory, yet the two I faced were defeated as soon as the encounters were getting interesting. As for their army of minions, fighting waves of Hell Troopers all starts to feel incredibly samey after a few minutes. Some enemy types will charge at you for melee strikes or blast you with sniper shots from afar, but the combat never demands more than strafing, shooting, spamming abilities, and occasionally jumping just to add a little variety. You'd think that the constant explosions, bullets, lasers, status effects, and purple-particled Agent powers that cover the screen would create a continuous level of excitement, but all that spectacle blends together into a sort of visual white noise.

Breaching the secret bases housing these LEGION baddies amounts to plowing through a series of chrome corridors and wide-open rooms full of bright red explosive boxes and nondescript grunts. Meanwhile, exploring Seoul reveals an open-world city that looks polished, yet feels sterile and soulless. Unlike Crackdown, Sunset Overdrive, or Volition's own Saints Row 4, traversing the world on foot is sluggish and boring. One particularly disappointing moment involved scaling a skyscraper with Oni via a series of stilted jumps and unsatisfying wall climbs, only to reach the roof and find nothing but a flat green surface (which I don't even think had a texture, if memory serves). I can't recall a single landmark or building that stood out to me as I cruised down the sparsely populated streets in my uninteresting future car, guided directly towards my destination via gigantic holographic arrows.

It's not all bad. If you do happen to love the Agents, you'll appreciate the fact that every hero spouts their own unique dialogue during the missions, so you can replay encounters to see what your favorite Agents have to say. You pick three Agents to bring into the field that you can swap between at any time, and while I didn't hear any exchanges between my trios that matched the delightful chit-chat between BioWare companions, they will excitedly ask to be tagged in if you're fighting an enemy type they're especially strong against. Every Agent's suite of unlockable outfits and weapon skins are unlikely to provide stat buffs, but they all look great in game, with silky smooth animations. Speaking of great animations, every Agent (and boss) is introduced via a bite-sized vignette reminiscent of Saturday morning cartoons, full of bright colors, spiffy action sequences, and intriguing character development.

But Agents of Mayhem might be putting the cart before the horse by placing so much emphasis on how over-the-top its characters aim to be. The casts of MOBAs like League of Legends and Dota 2 or hero shooters like Overwatch and Team Fortress 2 are so beloved because players spend countless hours enjoying the game, getting increasingly invested and attached to their favorite heroes. And if the act of playing Agents of Mayhem just isn't engaging, its heroes have no chance of leaving a lasting impression. Overwatch has a roster so strong that even people who don't enjoy the game appreciate Blizzard's characters and their diehard fans, thanks in part to how diverse and distinct those heroes are. In contrast, Oni's vaguely Asian accent borders on self-parody, and Kingpin's character art literally features him pointing his gat at you sideways while grabbing his crotch. We'll see if Agents of Mayhem has a chance against its hero shooter competition when it debuts for PS4, Xbox One, and PC on August 15th, 2017.

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