Developer Deep Silver Volition spent much of the last decade working on Saints Row, an obscenely over-the-top sandbox series that made even Grand Theft Auto's shenanigans look tame by comparison.

A quick look at the plot of Saints Row IV, for example - which saw players assume the role of a gang-leader turned POTUS turned alien abductee with superpowers - demonstrates that the franchise never took itself too seriously.

For its next outing, Agents of Mayhem, the developer wants to retain everything excellent about the zany tone of Saints Row, while also channeling it into fleshed-out characters and a more focused story. 

Does it deliver? And how does it stand up under the inevitable comparisons with Saints RowWe got to find out during a hands-on preview that put us behind the big guns and slick skills of a handful of AoM's heroes.

A concrete cast of characters

Our preview began at the game's start, with us controlling and swapping between the trio of Hollywood, Hardtack, and Fortune. The three characters were tasked with escaping an underground lair, while, of course, leaving a path of death and destruction in their wake. Thanks to each characters' signature special and mayhem abilities, we had little trouble achieving either.

Much of Saints Row's off-the-wall personality and charm stemmed from players' ability to customise characters before letting loose in the its anything-goes cooperative open-world.

AoM, however, shelves both the ability to craft your own avatar and play with friends. Instead, the unapologetically single-player game introduces 12 original, armed-to-the-teeth agents. Upon comparing these titular operatives to a “GI Joe-type team”, Project Design Director Anoop Shekar explains the shift from Saints' successful formula.

“If you have an agency with a team, you've got to have a bunch of people who can operate in that agency. We thought it was very important that you get to play as these iconic agents that are very recognizable and very defined.”

According to the on-screen set-up that opened our demo, these misfit agents are “on the frontlines of a global war against the forces of evil.” Said “evil” is Legion, a terrorist organisation harnessing the power of teleportation technology and dark matter to apparently tear the entire world a new one.

Charismatic carnage

All agents have their own basic attacks, but it's their special and mayhem abilities that truly let the leash off their power and personalities.

Hollywood, for example, shoulders a standard assault rifle, but separates himself from the third-person shooter pack with “Attention Seeker” and “Blockbuster.” The former is his special, which sees him couple a raunchy crotch thrust with a grenade toss, while the latter - his mayhem ability - grants him with more powerful, unlimited ammo, a pair of cool shades, and action-movie theme music.

Fortune, meanwhile, packs a pair of very effective pistols, but smacking them together triggers “Cannonball”, a special that fires an energy burst at clusters of foes. As we quickly discovered, though, repeatedly using this skill fills her mayhem bar, allowing “Stunning Glory”, a helpful drone that distracts enemies, to be unleashed for a short period of time.

Hardtack's special and mayhem abilities include an enemy-teleporting harpoon and sticky-mine launcher, respectively, but we actually preferred his standard shotgun attack. All AoM guns seem tuned to offer optimal ear-rattling pleasure (even “silenced” pistols), and Hardtack's hand-cannon is no exception.

We dispatched most of the mission's foes, low-level bullet fodder dubbed “Helltroopers”, with combinations of Fortune's and Hollywood's special and mayhem attacks, but we busted out Hardtack's thunderous shotty when it was time to turn a turret into a heap of twisted metal.

Hello Daisy

Players can always swap between their three chosen characters, and switch them out at the agent's home base to try out different combinations. Unlocking new agents initially, though, requires completing a solo, narrative-driven episode dedicated to that specific character.

During our demo, we played agent Daisy's unlock mission, which shed some-light on the minigun-toting roller skater's back-story, while showcasing her unique way of dealing with bad dudes.

Titled “The Morning After”, the mission saw a hungover Daisy recalling the previous night's debauchery, which seemed to include pissing off a fast-food restaurant's mascot.

Mostly though, the brief objective had us tearing through Robocop-looking bad guys from behind Daisy's mini-gun and skating skills. Her special allowed us to cut through threats with a powerful ram that'd earn you a penalty at the roller derby, while her mayhem move significantly upped the damage done by her gun. Oh, and she also randomly flips people off.

Needless to say, Daisy's an early favorite among the game's agents.

RPG incoming

Our demo was clearly focused on showing off the operatives' specific skills, but multiple menu icons, user interface elements, and other unidentified intel hinted at additional RPG-flavored depth: experience points, skill trees, and upgradable gadgets all seem to be on the agent-shaping agenda.

Other elements that stood out included the ease in which we could swap agents on the fly, their ability to fluidly traverse vertical environments with a triple-jump, and how the twitchy combat consistently satisfied our trigger fingers.

We knew little about this Saints Row successor prior to our preview, but based on this hands-on tease we look forward to learning more when it crashes - like a drunken roller girl - onto consoles and PC come 15 August 2017.

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