E3 LA report: How's it feel to be an agent of Mayhem?

E3 LA report: How's it feel to be an agent of Mayhem?

So I went to E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, in Los Angeles earlier this month, wrote two stories — about the Sony and Microsoft press conferences — and then fell silent.

I must apologize. At first it was technical difficulties, then sheer laziness. I know the stories I want to tell, but I’ve been having trouble finding the words. And then I realized why: I’ve been trying to relate someone else’s narrative — i.e., the buzzwords and propaganda game developers and PR people want me to write — instead of writing from the heart.

Here’s an attempt at shaking off that malaise:

The local connection

Of course, I feel compelled to truly start with the game Champaign’s own developer, Volition Inc., is working on — “Agents of Mayhem.” On June 14, I got my hands on the game for a little less than an hour.

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It is/will be a third-person action-adventure set in a fictitious version of Seoul, South Korea, where a disaster has come and gone and the citizens have largely finished rebuilding the city into a high-tech futuristic metropolis, though portions of the old world still linger. Which just sounds like the real Seoul to me.

Players will put together a three-member team from a roster of 12 “heroes” and go on missions. I’m really not sure how this will work, given that  “Agents” is supposed to be an open-world game, and Volition wasn’t ready to spill the beans. But I’m guessing you’ll pick three and navigate your way around the city to mission locations when you want to accomplish things. When you want to switch team members out, you’ll head back to headquarters. I know there’s an HQ because that’s where you’ll go to level up characters, including altering their abilities and weapons, according to Volition.

In the show’s demo, four agents were playable — the previously revealed sky pirate Fortune, sailor Hardtack and reality-TV star Hollywood, plus newcomer Rama, a bow-wielding sniper with a vaguely Egyptian look. The rest of the group — Kingpin, Yeti, Scheherazade, Oni, Braddock, Daisy, Red Card and Joule — remain unknowns.

Anyway, the demo set me off on a mission to try to recruit the world’s most advanced AI, a K-Pop music star named Aisha, before the forces of L.E.G.I.O.N. could get to her. The intro before gameplay began, and probably many of the cutscenes overall, was a meld of 3-D footage from the game engine and classic, colorful 2-D-style cartoons. Honestly, it felt like an homage to the style cultivated by game designer Suda 51.

It plays like a standard run-and-gun affair, with tight aiming controls as you point a reticule and pull the trigger. But all the characters — whom you can switch between on the fly with a press of the D-pad — bring unique abilities into play with the touch of a button. For instance, Hardtack, whose primary weapon is a shotgun, not a harpoon, is a close-range fighter with a special ability to teleport a distant enemy right in front of him. And repeated use of the special ability builds up a “mayhem” meter; once full, that character can unleash an individualized super move. For the flashy Hollywood, it’s a whole bunch of movie-quality explosions.

The character individuality carries over beyond their move sets. All of them have unique dialog, so if you replay a situation but switch characters, it’ll play out differently.

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“Agents of Mayhem” looks nice, with imaginative scenery painted in vibrant hues. And it handles terrifically: The controls were responsive and easy to remember. And yes, Volition’s signature slightly crass, more-than-slightly-juvenile, humorous style appears to be quite intact.

So I have no doubt this will be a hit.

That said, it didn’t really feel like anything I hadn’t played before. The demo was very linear — go here; shoot these guys; trigger this; shoot these guys too; etc. — no matter what character I was controlling. I kind of hope they make it so you can take different approaches to situations on different playthroughs, based on the characters you’re using, but I honestly doubt that will happen.

And as far as “Agents” being part of the greater “Saints Row” universe, all I could get out of Ryan McCabe, lead agent gameplay designer, is that the world will be full of “callbacks”: the fleur-de-lis, the use of purple, the appearance of Ultor, etc.

Of course, given his job, he’s focused on giving us “big personalities” to play with.

“I love the agents. It’s what I work on,” he said, noting that Fortune was his first, and he designed her by envisioning what he wanted a sky pirate to be, complete with the “blunderbuss sounds” of her guns.

The overall goal for Volition is to give us an “over-the-top” adventure hearkening back to comic books and Saturday-morning cartoons, though with more amoral heroes and villains than traditional children’s fare.

And no, there won’t be any multiplayer.

“Being single-player allowed us to focus on the narrative,” McCabe said.

I think that’s a good focus to have.

Behind bars

A game that I was quite intrigued by is one many of you probably haven’t heard of: “Prison Architect,” a simulation where you design, build and run your own prison.

It’s the exacting detail that players can delve into — if they want — that’s the draw for me.

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Not only can you build the prison exactly as you want — a high-security hellhole or luxurious white-collar country club — but everything you do also has an added touch of realism. If you order construction of a building, the materials will be literally delivered; then your workers will cart them over before they start building. And you’ll have to map out where the electrical goes and hook it into your overall power grid — and you have to make sure you manage your electrical load. And when construction is done, they’ll have to carry out the garbage.

You can also micromanage your prisoners’ schedules and cell amenities, to punish, reward or control overall morale.

Basically, you can micromanage everything that goes into running an actual prison, as well as set up the game you want to play. Unlimited funds to build the prison of your dreams, or a tight budget to struggle against? You can pick. Failure conditions? Turn them on or off. Prison gangs? An option too. And we’re not just talking about turning on an option for violence between groups. No, we’re talking gangs taking over rackets and establishing pockets of influence.

The controls, which were demonstrated for me, seemed well implemented, so you could easily do what you want and you won’t have to navigate through endless menus along the way.

There’s a story campaign to play through, narrated through morally ambiguous tales of individual prisoners. And players will be able to share — and rate — their prison designs through the “World of Wardens.”

It’s was scheduled for release today on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Xbox 360, priced at $29.99.

‘Dark Souls’ on easy

I stumbled on “Necropolis,” a game with relatively rudimentary graphics, in the Microsoft section while wandering the E3 show floor.

Honestly, I picked up the controller just because lines for so many other games were so annoyingly long and I had an appointment to get to in 20 minutes. In other words, I wasn’t expecting much.

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And I really didn’t know what to think when the game designer, who happened to be manning the demo station, described the game as “Dark Souls” meets “Spelunky.”

But he was right. That’s exactly what this is, and I like it.

Basically, you control a sword-and-shield fighter (though you can gain spellcasting and ranged weapons as you go along) who’s wandered into a strange dungeon, where a floating, talking pyramid sends you off to fight in order for you to grow in power — though you’re really looking for an exit.

The controls and basic gameplay mechanics are almost identical to “Dark Souls” — carefully block and attack while keeping an eye on your stamina — though the game adds in crafting, resource gathering and quests to unlock better equipment (though enemies drop stuff, too).

Friendly fire is always on for allies and enemies (there’s four-player drop-in, drop-out co-op), so setting up the monsters to do some of your work for you is also a part of the game. And it’s always changing since the dungeon is procedurally generated as you go along.

It’s coming from Bandai Namco for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, though I’m not sure when.

Joel Leizer is The News-Gazette’s Playing Critic. Contact him at jleizer@news-gazette.com.

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