Watching Saturday morning cartoons as kid, there was always one thing that bothered us about shows focusing on paramilitary groups such as M.A.S.K. and G.I Joe. No, it wasn’t the fact they were designed primarily to sell toys to impressionable young minds, it was the way none of the teams ever showed up en masse to foil the plans of whichever evil organisation they were up against. Instead, they’d only ever opt to send a few team members (at least one of which would be a laughably over-the-top stereotype).

With Agents of Mayhem – Volition’s loosely linked Saints Row spin-off – these sorts of shows have been a clear source of inspiration, and while this open world, third-person shooter definitely aims for a more adult tone – as you’d probably expect given the pedigree – its cartoon-like art style and animated cut scenes sell the concept pretty well.

Set in a futuristic version of Seoul, South Korea, the battles between the Agents of Mayhem and LEGION – a collection of supervillains – have become so frequent that the citizens of the city merely view them as part of day-to-day life. Whether it’s the frequent appearances of doomsday weapons around the city or the battles that erupt in the streets between the two groups – with copious amounts of collateral damage – it’s an unusual dynamic for you to come to terms with, especially since the Agents of Mayhem are portrayed as Heroes. Ultimately, though, this title doesn’t want you worrying about the little people too much, and instead wants you to use all of the destructive power you have – all of the time.

To this end, the roster of thirteen agents – if you include the Johnny Gat pre-order bonus – provide ample options for laying waste to any LEGION goons who get in your way. With each operative sporting a unique weapon as well as a couple of abilities, they’re designed in a similar way to those found in many recent multiplayer hero shooters. In this case, though, Agents of Mayhem is purely an offline, single player experience.

With no need to balance around multiplayer matches the characters can feel a touch overpowered on the recommended difficulty levels, especially with the generous auto aim that’s on by default. That’s not to say things don’t eventually get a little tricky – especially as enemies get tougher – and should you decide to turn up the difficulty level towards the upper end of the fifteen on offer, then you’ll be in for a much more stressful ride.

Agent swapping – triggered by pressing left or right on the controller d-pad at any time – is at the heart of the gameplay design, and experimenting with different trios of characters is a great concept that encourages you to unlock and get to know the capabilities of every agent. You’ll no doubt quickly find your favourites – be it Daisy, a roller-skating, mini gun toting loud mouth, or Kingpin, the Stillwater gangster who likes to party – but since the agents are essentially your arsenal of weapons, mixing up which three you take out into the open world is an absolute must.

Enemy encounters are really fast paced, and it’s rewarding, for example, to use Fortune to take down an enemy's shields before switching to Gat mid-movement to bust through their armour with his shotgun. Managing each agent's shields, health, and ‘Mayhem Meter’ – which controls the use of their ultimate ability – through frequent switching can keep you in the thick of the action for longer, and those occasions where you manage to control the battle in such a way that everyone’s mayhem ability comes up at the same time can be truly gratifying. It’s just a shame that even on a PlayStation 4 Pro, the frame rate does struggle to keep up when the action is at its most frenetic.

It’s not just cutting down hordes of enemies that makes the combat in Agents of Mayhem so fun - it’s also just how mobile all of the heroes are. Even the slower moving members of the team have a triple jump, and when you throw in the air dashes or cloaking abilities of the more nimble agents, you’ll be dodging attacks left, right, and centre while repositioning yourself to avoid getting swarmed.

This pleasing freedom of movement also translates to the modest open world which, while not very large by modern standards, has a lot of verticality to its design. This, in turn, allows ample opportunity to jump around the rooftops of Seoul, or drop from huge heights without having to worry about splatting on the pavement. On reflection, the character movement feels very much like that found in Saints Row IV, though it isn’t anywhere near as overpowered in this instance since cars are still a viable mode of transport, and you’ll actually need to plan out how you’re going to get up certain tall buildings.

In terms of story it's a pretty straight forward arc that has you taking on a number of LEGION lieutenants in order to foil their evil plans. With plenty of memorable, well-voiced characters, it feels very reminiscent of the later Saints Row games, and while it delivers a fun window into the Agents of Mayhem world – especially with the agent specific missions that give each character a moment in the spotlight – there are parts that feel disappointingly familiar. Yes, that means there’s yet another a mission where you’re transported into a virtual world.

While the main campaign will no doubt keep you entertained despite occasionally treading familiar ground, the side content proves to be much less interesting, especially since it takes the form of usual uninspired open world filler. Hello street races and enemy outposts.

In addition, if you’re the type of person who obsessively has to clear everything off the map, then Agents of Mayhem will likely annoy you as LEGION have the nasty habit of retaking the four outposts that you can capture. While this sounds annoying – and it is when you first realise what’s happening – it does serve a wider purpose of providing a never-ending source of experience, cash, and crafting materials, all of which play a key role in the upgrade system.

This rather extensive system not only has you upgrading each individual agent, but also the wider agency as well. Ability variants, socketed mods, and skill upgrades mean that there’s a huge number of improvements that can be made across a variety of different areas of your operation. In fact, they come at you so fast – especially if you use lots of different characters – that even if you’ve just been messing around in the open world you’ll always feel like you’re making some form of meaningful progress.

Conclusion

Few would consider the combat in the various Saints Row games particularly memorable, so it’s surprising to discover that the frantic, fast paced battles and excellent agent switching gameplay end up being the true heroes of Agents of Mayhem. While it’s disappointing that the open world feels surplus to requirements at times, it’s the 80s cartoon atmosphere and absorbing upgrade system that also help ensure that this is more than just a Saints Row spin-off.