Volition hoping you'll like a bit of 'Mayhem'

Volition hoping you'll like a bit of 'Mayhem'

CHAMPAIGN — Do you have what it takes to thwart the forces of evil?

Champaign-based game developer Volition Inc. certainly hopes you'll at least give it a try.

Its latest game, "Agents of Mayhem," will be released today for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One game consoles and personal computers. It retails for $59.99.

It's the studio's first release since 2015's "Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell," which was co-developed with Chicago's High Voltage Software, and its first new intellectual property since Volition's acquisition by Koch Media — and its Deep Silver publishing arm — in early 2013.

"So basically we were trying to figure out what sort of new projects we wanted to tackle as we were finishing up 'Saints Row 4'" in 2013, said Anoop Shekar, Volition's studio design director, who has been with the company since 1998 and has worked on most of its franchises.

"Obviously, potentially another Saints title would have been on the table, and we talked about some of those things, but we also thought it was an opportunity, based on how 'Saints Row 4' ended, to try something new while still leveraging a lot of our strengths that we had from the past."

They decided on "Agents of Mayhem," a game that's part love letter to old Saturday-morning cartoons like "G.I. Joe," yet with a modern tone that's irreverent, violent and often profane. Think Marvel's "Guardians of the Galaxy" movies, which Shekar admits were among several influences.

"So we had the team, different people in the studio, suggest different ideas, and when we came up with this idea for a whole super-agent game that just sort of stuck out to us as like 'This is really cool.' We were excited about it, and we hadn't really seen too many others do something like that, so we decided that would be the thing we would tackle next," said the "Agents of Mayhem" project design director.

In the third-person shooter, players control members of the Multinational Agency for Hunting Evil Masterminds, who are trying to foil the machinations of Dr. Babylon and his League of Evil Gentlemen Intent on Obliterating Nations, aka L.E.G.I.O.N.

The 12 agents — not counting two others available as pre-order bonuses — all have unique personalities and abilities, as well as different roles on the field of battle. The intent was to give players a team similar to the members of "G.I. Joe," but instead of Duke and Shipwreck, you've got the narcissist Hollywood and gruff bruiser Hardtack.

"Each of the agents is essentially totally integrated into the story, where they will all have their own unique responses and approaches to the game," Shekar said.

"We're looking at it as the agents themselves carry the story. Collecting all the agents is sort of the big thing."

But it wasn't easy having so many main characters.

"It was definitely challenging in the sense of the amount of stuff we had to write," Shekar said. "But because we knew going into it that you could play almost any mission as any of the agents, we knew we needed to make it where the agents would respond to all the dialogue but have their own individual responses. So we wrote that into the process."

"One thing we did when we created all these characters was to make sure each agent would be at least somebody's favorite," he said.

A unique mechanic — "agent swap" — is the main innovation in "Agents of Mayhem." Whenever players leave their base, the Ark, on a mission, they'll assemble a team of three. Only one character is actually used at a time, but with the touch of a button, one of the others swaps in. The point is to take advantage of their various strengths and weaknesses in order to most efficiently rampage through the forces of L.E.G.I.O.N.

"It's a typical open-world Volition game," Shekar said, with lots of space to roam and "vehicles you can commandeer from the street.

"It takes place in the city of Seoul (South Korea). It's our version of Seoul, so it's not like a 1-to-1 re-creation, but its basically something that will have recognizable elements for people."

"There's a lot more verticality to this world than our previous" games, he said.

But one thing you won't see are destructible environments, like in Volition's "Red Faction" franchise, which was auctioned off separately from the studio when its previous publisher, THQ, went out of business.

"When we finished 'Saints Row 4' and were moving onto 'Agents of Mayhem,' one of the things we ended up doing was rebuilding a lot of our tools and technology, almost from scratch," Shekar said. "We do have things we wanted to build, but with the limitations our old engine and technology had, we wanted to start fresh. That took a long time, which is one of the reasons it's taken a while for 'Agents of Mayhem' to be finished.

"It wasn't just building the game, but everything that makes the game the game. And in the process of doing that, we had to make decisions about what we were going to support.

"Destruction technology is something that we'll always be a fan of and we're excited about. We may come back to it at some point in the future, but it's not in the technology as it exists now."

As for what comes next for Volition, Shekar isn't saying but "We definitely have some ideas."

Hands on: Many difficulty levels, a triple jump, and swapping agents

Video-game columnist JOEL LEIZER briefly got his hands on "Agents of Mayhem" during a visit to Champaign-based developer Volition Inc., and shares some of his takeaways from the game itself:

Difficulty levels. You won't find the traditional "easy, normal, hard, hardcore" setup here. Instead, there are 15 overall difficulty levels to choose from — though five are locked away until you've played through the game once. The game will suggest a difficulty based on the level of the agents you've chosen for the mission, though you can raise or lower that before it starts. At higher levels, you'll face tougher enemies but earn better rewards, while taking it easy means you'll acquire less stuff for upgrading your characters. And if you find a mission too hard to beat at the difficulty level you've chosen, you can lower it at any time.

Upgrades and skins. Each of your agents is highly customizable using items and experience points you acquire by completing missions. That includes new weapons and abilities, plus cosmetic "skins" for characters, guns and vehicles. You can also build new gear — Gremlin Tech and L.E.G.I.O.N. Tech — including off-the-wall (limited ammo) weapons reminiscent of the toys in the 'Saints Row' games. No killing enemies with a giant sex toy, though.

Triple jump. A mainstay of most video games is the double jump, where your character can jump into the air, then push off the air to jump even higher. Volition is taking this physics-defying move one step further.

Why swap? Switching between agents isn't just about using one character for melee and one for long range, or one for taking down shields and another for blasting through armor. It's about keeping them alive. A wounded agent begins to heal up when swapped out, so if they've taken some hits, it's a useful tactic to swap temporarily.

A 'Saints Row' spin-off. Project design director Anoop Shekar said, "When we came up with this idea for the super-agent game, we kind of didn't want to have it still tied to Saints Row. (But) working on 'Gat out of Hell,' we had this idea Johnny Gat would be presented with this choice from God at the end after saving the world, and one of the choices that Gat is presented with is sort of re-creating the universe in a different way. And so we were sort of taking the idea of 'Agents of Mayhem' from that choice, where Johnny Gat was a cop in Seoul, (South Korea,) and so when you see him in 'Agents of Mayhem,' that's his role."

Animated. A number of cutscenes in the game are animated just like Saturday-morning cartoons. But they weren't drawn in-house. Volition hired Austin, Texas-based Powerhouse Animation, and it appears they did excellent work.

Try it out yourself

Champaign-based Volition Inc. plans to celebrate the launch of "Agents of Mayhem" with a free event Friday in downtown Champaign that's open to the public.

What: Play a demo of the game, hang out with developers, visit participating restaurants for game-themed food and beverages, and win prizes.

When: 5 to 10 p.m. Friday.

Where: One Main Plaza, outside Big Grove Tavern, Champaign.