Stories of the Wild West are somewhat analogous to point-and-click, real time strategy games: the legends of old, the notorious of difficulty, the tall tales of actually finishing one of these lengthy games.
Fortunately, there’s a new wave of RTS games keeping the genre alive. In recent years we’ve seen XCOM lead the new revolution, whilst hybrid games like John Wick Hex and Shadow Tactics have cropped up. These have taken the mantle on, yet at the same time, made it more accessible to those that aren’t aware of the legendary/notorious status they bring. Well, except for XCOM with its “98% chance to hit” nonsense.
It’s fitting to see Desperados return, after a hiatus of some fourteen years. One of the earliest of the “hard of nails” RTS games, alongside Commandos, it’s adapted to modern times whilst still retaining its difficult roots. A hybrid of real time, micro-management and advanced lateral thinking, it’s high time to see John Cooper and crew return.
But in keeping true to form, it’s not as initially as approachable as some might like. Ergo, will it hold up in a time of readily accessible, hand-holding gaming? Saddle up, partner, as we mosey into review town…
What Brings You To These Parts, Stranger?
If you’re not familiar with your Commandos and Desperados, allow me to give you a quick history lesson on them:
Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines led the way in 1998, favouring a look not far off from Command & Conquer, in that it was top-down/somewhat isometric environments. However, instead of being an all-out war sim, the focus instead was on a small team of units that favoured stealth. It was notoriously difficult (for young me, at least), that hadn’t really been done before. You had to look after each member of your varied team, depending on the mission, making full use of their respective skills.
Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive followed suit in 2001, replacing the WWII theme with the Old West and cowboys. Still just as tactical, with the emphasis on stealth, gadgets and forward-thinking. It spawned two sequels before 2010, yet never made to consoles.
Fast-forward nearly fourteen years and Shadow Tactics developer Mimimi Games hav taken on the mantle. Incorporating a more active, real time component, it’s still not an inherently easy game to get it into. But when it gets rolling, there’s definitely some fun to be had.
You Shouldn’t Oughta Have Done That
When I say it’s not an easy game to get in to, I don’t mean it’s the kind of game that absolutely punishes you right from the go.
Rather, it’s a game that wants you to play by its rules and not try and deviate too much from it. The core principle is tactics: planning ahead, scouting enemy routes and generally trying to keep two steps ahead of what they’re doing.
Thankfully, you are given a tutorial mode that accommodates new players to the genre. It doesn’t completely hold your hand, but rather encourages some lateral thinking as a prelude for things to come. The movement controls take a bit of getting used to, especially for PC players adapting to console, but it’s nothing too mind-breaking.
The main gameplay style is simple enough, eschewing that hardcore, old school philosophy of tough-but-fair PC gaming. Instead of point-and-click, you have independent control over your unit(s). This means that you have more control, rather than panic about cursor placement and where they are. Quickly switching between them on the fly is a welcome addition, rather than having to drag a cursor over to a team member.
As you progress, you’ll encounter levels that have you play as more characters. This, in turn, adds to the difficulty but at the same time, gives you more variety and skills to divide and conquer. However, if you balls it up too much, the game does give you some leniency to escape. It’s not completely foolproof, as the emphasis is still towards the sneaky side of things. It’s just nice to know it’s not a complete washout if things go pear-shaped. Which can, and will, happen as you try and cut your teeth.
Haven’t I Seen Your Type Before?
Fans of the originals may be surprised to learn that this is actually a prequel to the first Desperados. Telling the tale once again of John Cooper, it follows his exploits before taking on the infamous train robber El Diablo in the first game.
This time around, he’s after a Frank DeVitt, as he recruits a crew to help him on this mammoth task. It’s no easy feat, though, as Cooper’s quest takes him across the lush views of the Rocky Mountains, the arid locales of the Mexican deserts, as well as the eerie swamplands of New Orleans.
Joining him, technically for the first time, is suspicious doctor/hitman Doc McCoy, the looming giant Hector, runaway bride Kate O’Mara and a somewhat mysterious lady from New Orleans, Isabelle Moreau. Each member of this unlikely crew bring their own strengths and weaknesses to the proceedings, with each level presenting ways of utilising them accordingly.
Cooper is your run-of-the-mill gunslinger, carrying two pistols for shootouts and showdowns, as well as a throwing/hunting knife for stealth takedowns. McCoy carries a rigged bag to bait and stun bandits, as well as long distance sniper pistol. However, he can’t climb or throw bodies over his shoulder. Hector, by comparison can, as well at put to use the massive bear trap he lugs around with him. But unlike Doc, can only heal himself if he takes some damage.
O’Mara, however, fills in as the Spy-type of the group. She can fool guards with outfit changes, pick pockets and sneak into most places undetected. Moreau, somewhat stereotyped by virtue of being from New Orleans, can use spells and poisons to manipulate, control and generally confuse enemies.
The theme is teamwork, with each character having a multitude of skills to utilise as you progress. Not everyone’s skills are available from the start, unlocking only by way of progression through the campaign.
I’m Positive He’s Dead
As each mission starts, you’re treated to a little in-game cutscene that offers you a quick lay of the land. Interspersed in the dialogue is your objective, but if you don’t pick up on that, the game is quite happy to remind you.
Whilst the first few missions have you killing a certain number of targets to finish, as the game opens up, so does the variety. Kate O’Mara’s first on-screen appearance, for example, has you stealing something as a main objective.
As you take control of whoever you’re given for the mission, Desperados offers you the reins. In the finest tradition of stealth games, the variety of ways and routes to proceed is staggering on some levels. Not so much the first introductory train robbery mission, that serves as more of a transitioning tutorial.
Yet the next one, where you meet Hector in the town of Flagstone, is a subtle anarchist’s playground. You have four targets to take out, in any order you wish, as Desperados gives you full autonomy on how to do it. Rather than just having to completely stay out of sight, the game does let you pass through civilian and restricted areas with ease.
These levels are a sandbox, in essence, letting you pick and plan your method of attack. Going in guns blazing and drawing attention to yourself is suicidal, though, so don’t try that. Instead, take in the environment, see what potential hazards and hiding spots there are first. You have full camera control to pan and rotate to get the best view of the surroundings, with various on screen prompts that can highlight potential exploits.
It’s akin to Hitman 2016’s Opportunity system, except it doesn’t hold your hand to it. Rather, it [literally] highlights things like boulders, shop fronts or church bells that can be nudged onto unsuspecting targets. Of course, that’s just one available option. You can use Cooper’s throwing knife, Hector’s gigantic bear trap, or Doc McCoy’s sniping pistol, if they’re available. You could even lure them into the bush you’re hiding in and take them out before they raise the alarm, if you like personal touch.
I won’t be trite and say “the possibilities are endless” because, well, they are. You can’t summon gods of fire to smite them, for instance. But you have the versatility to execute your plan in creative and inventive ways, should you wish.
I Got My Eye On You, Boy
However, the real challenge in Desperados are the enemies that litter each level. Far from your average expendable grunt, guards in this game will be the bane of your life if you don’t keep your wits about you.
As you can see from the above screenshot, these guards have a larger field of vision than a Metal Gear Solid soldier. However, there is some leeway. They can’t instantly call you out from 100 paces and send reinforcements. It more depends on what you do that gauges how they react. Passing a cone of vision from hiding spot to hiding spot, let’s say, just piques their interest but they won’t pursue. Keep low behind carts, rocks and other obscuring items and you’ll never get spotted at all.
If you’re quick enough, you can take out one guard before another cottons on. This also applies to any in the immediate vicinity, as most actions generate sound. Using skills or items will show you what area of noise you’ll create, if any, allowing you to lure the intended foe to their doom. For the most part, provided you don’t do anything too heinous right near someone, you should be alright. You can utilise a vision tracker to see what they can see, if you need to.
There are tougher enemies as you progress, adding some spice to the mix. Poncho wearing guards won’t move from their spot to investigate lures or traps, whilst some enemies can only be taken out by heavier hitting melee attacks that some characters can’t do.
It adds another level of tactical thinking to each mission, rather than just letting you barrel your way through and laying waste to everything in your path. As I said earlier, in a pinch you can sometimes fight your way out to relative safety, but stealth and not getting into firefights is generally the preferred order of the day.
However, Cooper and crew do have one special advantage up their sleeves…
Last One To Draw… Loses
Desperados III’s unique balance-tipper is its Showdown Mode. A Mark & Execute mode, this allows you to gain the upper hand if several foes block your progress at once.
Stopping time (in all but the hardest difficulties), Showdown lets you place hits on targets that when triggered will fell them all near-simultaneously. I say near, because unless it’s firearm/throwing knife targets, you have to move an outline of your selected character to a target that will play out when the sequence is executed.
So, if three guards are overlooking an area, and taking one of them out will be too obvious, this is where Showdown comes into play. You could use McCoy to snipe the furthest one, Cooper to throwing knife the weaker guard, whilst Hector rushes up and axes the poncho-wearing bandit. Lining something like this up and watching it play out in real time is a triumphant feeling. You feel like an NFL coach, watching a tactical play unfold before you.
Yet what makes Showdown great is that it’s not perfect. There’s still that fallibility if you’ve not thought the variables through, or undershot how far someone has to run to get the last guard before they sound the alarm. You are still the master of your squad’s destiny, as it were. You can’t just rack up the easy execution system and call it a day before the next handful of soldiers.
And as I mentioned up there, Showdown doesn’t freeze time on higher difficulties. It brings them to a crawl, akin to Metal Gear Solid V’s Reflex Mode, but you have to be quicker. It creates a fight or flight mechanic for those that seek challenge: do you try and eliminate them before they hit the alarm, or high tail it into a hiding spot…?
Ride On Into The Next Town
At its heart, Desperados III is still fashioned on the old point-and-click stylings it was founded on. It’s still a challenge, and you’ll still be hammering that quick save for every sentry you take out, because there’s nothing more frustrating than getting caught out mid-mission and having to backtrack.
What makes it great is that it’s not too above itself to retain that old school mentality of notoriously hard, “get good” playability. There is a challenge for those who seek it, though. Higher difficulties yield different parameters, like Showdown not stopping time, and challenges are available when replaying a mission. These range from certain kills pulled off, environment hunting and certain time/difficulty parameters.
Yet there is that accessibility for those new to the genre, too. For me, someone not very versed in RTS games, I found it easy enough to control one or more of my team at once, juggling between my well-laid plans. The only thing that kept hindering me was forgetting to move or reset the camera, but that was more user area.
Desperados wants you to take in each level, like looking down on a living, breathing model village. But you’re not there to admire the miniature shrubberies, oh no. You’re there to enact vigilante justice.
If you have played Shadow Tactics, you will recognise Mimimi’s craft immediately. Think of this as akin to one of those pinball games you can download: it’s the same game, but with a variety of skins. Yet that’s not meant as a negative, because Shadow Tactics is an extremely tight and well coordinated game. I didn’t finish it, but Toby did and he swears by it.
Even if you’ve not played a Desperados game, nor Shadow Tactics, but enjoy your Command & Conquers, Halo Wars’ or Starcrafts, think of this as a more scaled down, equally tactical version of those.
There’s a level of challenge for everyone, whether you want to try something new and finish the story, to the punishing Desperado difficulty that will throw everything at you. The in-game challenge system offers replayability and essentially tests of skill, and the trophy/achievement list is designed for those who enjoy the long haul.
So this review is going to be a glowing recommendation, based on two factors: I have no real wealth of RTS history to throw it against, and I’m having an absolute blast with what I’m playing already. Much like any game, I’m trying to find my feet with its extensive tactics and takedowns approach, but I’m fully invested in the ride.
I’m also the fastest quick-saver in the South West, because I make a lot of mistakes.
It may seem daunting at first, but stick with it and a massively varied stealth and tactics game opens up over time. Yeehaw, etc.
Desperados III is available from 16th June, 2020 on PS4 (reviewed on Pro), Xbox One and PC.
Developer: Mimimi Games
Publisher: THQ Nordic
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
If you enjoyed this article or any more of our content, please consider our Patreon.