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Volition blasts into new era with Agents of Mayhem

Walking around the second and third floors of One Main plaza, home of video game developer Volition, there was a feeling of readiness. Instead of a frantic flurry of people finishing their tasks at the eleventh hour, the employees looked relaxed. Their work was basically finished. It’s Monday morning, and after more than four years of preparation, the release of the company’s brand new game, Agents of Mayhem, is imminent.

For those unaware, Mayhem is a departure from Volition’s prior work in more ways than one. The game, set in a futuristic Seoul, Korea, is heavily inspired by the cartoons of the eighties and nineties the developers grew up on, and follows a team of elite agents on a quest to save the world from the evil organization L.E.G.I.O.N. It’s a fun, Saturday-morning premise that’s matched with an equally cheery aesthetic: lots of the game’s story is told through 2D animations (capturing that G.I. Joe vibe), and the open world the player roams is filled with bright, bold colors.

This is a turn for the studio after the hyper-mature Saints Row series, which had the player taking control of a member of the “Third Street Saints” gang and wielding dildo bats (warning: photo linked is a semi-NSFW, dildo picture). Mayhem doesn’t shed Volition’s signature style — it merely focuses it. There’s still a lot going on that I would describe as “outside the box,” but it’s over-the-top in a less aggressive way. For example: instead of playing as a morally reprehensible construct, you take control of heroes like Fortune, a character described to me as a “high tech pirate.” Furthermore, much of what sets Mayhem apart from other open world games is that it gives the player the power to switch between these agents on the fly, while in most games (including Volition’s previous games) the player is stuck with a single character that they are able to control.

But the departure from the Saints Row series is significant for the team on many levels. The gaming industry today is dominated by developers that spend their time and resources investing in sequels and continuations of existing franchises, instead of taking a chance on new intellectual property. And while Volition could have chosen to follow up the highly successful Saints Row IV with yet another sequel, it instead chose to forge new ground with Mayhem, crafting a mostly stand alone adventure (with the right dose of easter eggs and references to past Volition projects for longtime fans).

But what struck me was Volition’s clear desire to make their product accessible to anyone. According to project design director Anoop Shekar (pictured here), Mayhem features a whooping ten difficulty options (for context, most games only feature around three). Shekar explained that the studio hopes that Mayhem will also serve as a jumping on point for people who are new to video games as a medium:

“We also wanted players who aren’t necessarily great with third person camera controls to be able to be successful. We want people to actually lower the difficulty, make the game easy so that they could see the story and enjoy these characters […] we spend tens of millions of dollars on these games, and we want as many people to play them as possible […] there’s a lot of competition for people’s time, and if we’re making it harder for people to get into the game, we’re doing ourselves a disservice.”

One way Volition is working to reach out to new gamers is through a week of upcoming launch events, which will be happening all over town.

Playing Agents of Mayhem, it feels like Volition may have found a nice middle ground by making a game that appeals to both veterans and newcomers alike. And regardless of the execution, the studio’s decision to craft a brand new IP as an homage to the cartoons of their childhood that’s built to appeal to everyone is as unique as it is admirable in the games industry. Champaign-Urbana is lucky to have such an awesome studio in it’s backyard.

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