On any list of games as guilty pleasures, the Saints Row franchise would surely feature prominently. The open-world third-person shooting games, featuring the dubious exploits of Johnny Gat and his gang, were riotous romps that refused to take themselves at all seriously.

Now, Saints Row developer Volition is readying Agents of Mayhem which, while it differs fundamentally from Saints Row, is effectively a spin-off of the franchise. We managed to grab an all-too-brief 90 minutes of hands-on action with the forthcoming title.

Plot-wise, Agents of Mayhem takes a cartoonish, comic book-style approach thoroughly in-keeping with its graphics. It's set in a futuristic version of Seoul – rendered in a colour palette best described as neon, with Saints Row-referencing purple to the fore – and puts you in charge of a squad of three agents, between which you can swap at any point. Those agents are employed by an outfit called Mayhem, which is locked in a struggle to save Seoul (and the world) from the dastardly intentions of the evil Legion.

Like Saints Row, Agents of Mayhem isn't rocket-science. Although we did find a few instances of narrative in it, it's really all about jumping into as much third-person shooting action as you can handle.

The game starts you off in the Ark, Mayhem's headquarters. There are various things you can do in there, such as purchase Requisitions, which give all your agents buffs, or research Legion (enemy) technology. But it's mostly about picking your mission. When you do so, your agents more or less fly down to the city below.

The agents themselves have distinctly superhero-like abilities. For example, they all have a triple-jump (double-jumps are for wimps), and can fall from any height without injury. Ammunition isn't restricted, but the guns do overheat.

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The three agents in our squad were pretty distinctive, with their own personalities, attributes and play-styles. The tank-like Hollywood packs an assault-rifle and a devastating melee attack. Rama wields a bow and moves quicker than Hollywood. Fortune dual-wields automatic pistols.

The agents also have a dash-move and shields. On the right bumper – we played the PS4 version of the game – you can trigger a special attack (with a cooldown period), while the left bumper uses a gadget. The triangle button is used for context-sensitive interaction, or as a scanner that reveals hidden loot and entrances to Legion lairs.

The first mission we took on was actually one we encountered randomly during a spot of free-roaming – Agents of Mayhem is properly open-world, in that you can even abandon one mission half-way through and jump into another. We were dispatched to investigate goings-on at a nuclear fusion reactor, which was supposed to be under construction, but had apparently been fired up.

At its heart, Agents of Mayhem is a third-person shooter, in which you must invariably take on several enemies at once, so it helps that your agents have superhero-style abilities.

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Picking the right agent for your circumstances is vital, too: although you have a squad at your command, you can only play as one agent at a time (there are co-operative missions in the game, but we weren't able to try that in the hands-on session). Swapping between agents is a simple matter of tapping left or right on the d-pad; during play we purchased a perk which caused an enemy-injuring tactical nuke to explode whenever you swapped agents.

We stuck with Hollywood in our first encounter: his assault rifle proved pretty handy, as did the special grenade-like ability we had equipped for him, plus his melee attack does a lot of damage. Rama was more of a sniping character – we could charge her attacks and upgrade her so that she targeted vulnerable body parts, causing more damage – while Fortune proved to be a pretty handy all-rounder, more nimble than Hollywood, although much less effective at close quarters combat.

Attention has to be paid to your agents' shield: when it's exhausted, multiple enemies are typically able to inflict a lot of damage, so triple-jumping around to avoid fire and allow the shield to regenerate is sensible (dead enemies often yielded health-restores, as well as cash).

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If an agent died during play, it puts them out of action for the rest of the mission. However, as we learned, they can be resurrected if you earn a Saints Row-style purple power-up adorned with a fleur de lys. Losing all agents ends the mission, but it's possible to restart from the last checkpoint. So, in order to prosper, it's vital to make frequent use of special attacks and, where possible, use the right agent.

Building up the Mayhem meter by cutting through swathes of enemies is also useful: when it's full, special Mayhem abilities are available. The ones we saw were both spectacular to behold, with mini-cut-scenes of their own, and very handy against groups of enemies thanks to wide areas of impact.

The missions we completed inour demo session proved to be multi-stage affairs, light on storyline but offering a decent amount of variety, with an operative back on the Ark talking us through proceedings via a radio link.

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For example, the fusion-reactor mission culminated in a mini-boss showdown against a Legion character called Hammersmith (with long greying hair and a collection of cheesy one-liners). To dispatch him, we had to take down two layers of shields and one of health. While he was something of a bullet-sponge, he would regularly unleash devastating laser-attacks which needed to be evaded. Various missions feature hacking mini-games too.

We also chanced upon a mission which brought a new Mayhem agent, Braddock, into the Mayhem fold. Her arrival followed a main story mission entitled Operation Let's Go, which involved racing around Seoul by jumping into cars (the cars felt quite stuck to the tarmac, but didn't corner brilliantly, so braking well before hairpins and the like was de rigueur).

An ex-US Marines training sergeant, Braddock has a burst-fire automatic rifle which lets loose short volleys of high-calibre bullets which cause a huge amount of damage: one burst seems enough to take down pretty much any enemy. Plus she has a single-kill knife melee attack, and a great Mayhem ability in which she calls in a laser air-strike by lighting a cigar and chucking it to the point of attack.

As our agents levelled up and amassed battlefield loot, it became possible to upgrade them, and we investigated the various systems designed to do just that.

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Firstly, it's possible to choose which special ability, which Gremlin (the Ark's resident boffin) will equip. There are general upgrades which can be applied to weapons and various core attributes – letting agents, for example, cut the cooldown time for their special abilities, or bringing bigger ammo clips. There are also upgrade cores, which can be hoovered up from among the battlefield loot: each character can have three equipped, which brings about permanent upgrades (such as extra penetration against shields), but all the cores we acquired were spread across all our agents, so we had to think about which ones to upgrade and how.

First Impressions

Agents of Mayhem isn't going to win any prizes for intellectual ambitiousness – as you would expect from a Volition game. You couldn't say, on paper at least, that it's wildly original: it certainly isn't the first third-person shooter we've ever seen. However, it feels absolutely spot-on to play. The agents have plenty of personality and are great fun to control, with just the right amount of snap, and some deeply satisfying special attacks. It's as if Volition has taken note of what makes Overwatch so compelling.

Fun is definitely Agents of Mayhem's watchword: it provides non-stop action in an amusing, cartoonish universe that feels like it would provide a cathartic chance to blow off steam after, say, a heavy day at the office. It's the sort of game that allows you to disengage the brain and kick some ass. Although, having said that, we found plenty of depth in it, as far as selecting your squad, getting your agents into their most devastating configurations and tinkering around with things like researching and developing technology nicked from Legion are concerned.

Currently, Agents of Mayhem is still slated for an 15 August 2017 release, so we won't have to wait too long for it. But after our initial play session, we reckon that if you're a fan of the likes of Saints Row or Borderlands, it should go down pretty well indeed.