There’s a really good chance that many of you have not played any of the Desperados games before. Don’t worry, neither have I. It’s a series that has passed me by over the years… and many years that has been. The original game was released in 2001, back when Infogrames existed to publish it, and it had a couple of sequels in 2006 and 2007. All has been quiet on the frontier since then and it might have been the end of an era if it weren’t for Mimimi Games deciding to develop another Wild West outlaw adventure for a new generation. Releasing across PS4, Xbox One and PC, Desperados III is aiming to dust off the real time tactics genre and offer substance as well as story in a rootin’ tootin’ cowboy shootin’ romp through Colorado, New Orleans and New Mexico. Will it stand up after a high noon shootout, or is it destined to be swinging from the rope?
It might be Desperados III, but it’s actually the fourth game in the series, and a prequel to the first one to boot, so if you’ve no background then it might be slightly off-putting. Not to worry, there’s no need to have any idea what’s happened/going to happen with the characters. Setting this chronologically as the first one means there’s no baggage to haul around and newcomers can just enjoy what’s going on – which is a whole lot of outlaw shenanigans that wouldn’t feel amiss in a Rockstar epic. Centred largely around John Cooper who’s on the trail of the man that did his ‘pa wrong, this is a tale of battling against extreme odds, finding help where least expected, and savagely murdering anyone and anything in the way. With 4 companions in Kate O’Hara, Doc McCoy (no, not the outer space one), Hector Mendoza and Isabelle Moreau, the notorious five travel through slices of pre-industrialised America hunting the elusive “Frank”, fighting the DeVitt Company, and solving each others problems on the way. I’d say it was heart warming, but they’d sooner cut your heart out than sooth it.
This is an isometric real time tactics game which means it’s all about planning an approach to a given situation, executing it… getting it badly wrong and starting again. With the story laying the foundation for each level, you’re presented with a goal and simply need to get to it. Between the characters and the goal lie an inordinate number of goons and/or civilians, and the main aim is to sneak through to the objective. Stealth isn’t the only option, but going loud will not end well, so consider it as the main way to play. There’s a lot of help on hand in the form of cover, bushes, rooftops, ammo caches and hiding places that make the creeping around easier, and each character has some unique skills that are useful on their own, and essential when combined with the rest of the team. Each “squad” member controls independently and can be moved and controlled anywhere at any time, unlike turned-based tactics games; and the AI enemies are forever in motion and on the look out. Desperados III likes its lookouts, and their line of sight.
Key to moving around unseen is by avoiding the viewcone of an enemy. Every one of them has one, and when highlighted it shows what they can see, and where is safe to move through – whether that’s a mad dash for cover, or a considered crouch walk to get by. Getting caught in a viewcone starts it filling with colour as the guard decides what to do, giving a small window to make a run for it, but also bringing nearer the time when an alarm will sound. Set one off and any nearby NPCs will start looking for whoever it was that got spotted, and even bring in additional help that doesn’t go away afterwards. With each of the characters having limited ammo, cooldown on their ranged attacks, and not much in the way of health, being spotted is far from ideal… which is where the absolutely essential quicksave comes in. A tap of a button and the whole state of the game is stored so that should it all go Pete Tong it’s easy to get back to a safer place. Saving and loading is a part of the gameplay and failure is expected (often), even down to a configurable timer that reminds you to hit the save button by putting a prompt in the middle of the screen.
Fortunately, hiding in bushes is not the only trick up our heroes sleeves, they’ve got knives, guns and beartraps ready to use. Each is a lethal killer and can put their skills of death dealing and distraction to good use when no one’s looking – and non-lethal is available if you really want it. What this means for gameplay is that stumbling across a section of the map filled with guards, you take stock and spend the time working out where they’re looking, how they’re covering each other, and whether you can systematically take them down to clear a path. Come up with a plan and then kick things off by moving the team into position and starting the controlled carnage. It’s satisfying when it goes right and there’s something compelling about trying to get every last enemy on the map without being seen. The trial and error approach comes into its own when you get used to quick-saving and loading and with no penalty for doing this on the easier difficulties, it feels like the best way to learn as Desperados III can be tough on you for not paying full attention.
To even the odds slightly there is Showdown Mode which when activated pauses time and allows the setup of a series of moves for each of the team that’s available, and start the sequence off with a single button press. This opens up a real wealth of options because it co-ordinates the members without you needing to focus on every single one. It’s a “nice to have” when there’s just two to control, it’s fun with five, and essential in the later levels of the game. With the right planning it’s possible to take down large groups before anyone can even think of the word alarm, let alone raise it. If things don’t quite go to plan then just reload the last save, and if the guards move around too much and the timing’s off, there’s the ability to trigger the moves in stages by character. It teaches the basics in the tutorial level, and it seems simple enough, but it’s surprisingly deep when there are multiple characters with several skills each, and you realise it’s not only used for silencing the villains of the piece. Getting the full team together takes the best part of two acts, but when they are all on hand it almost becomes a whole new game.
Each of our players have special skills and abilities. John’s is double targeting revolvers and coin tossing, Hector has his beartrap and a loud whistle, Kate can disguise herself and blend into off limits areas, Doc is the sharpshooter, and Isabelle is a black magic wielding all powerful witch… sort of. The skill sets complement each other, and Desperados III forces thinking about problems and trying new combinations of skills by switching up the pairings. There are three main enemy types, each with varying degrees of falling for your rouses, so it pays to know the strengths and weaknesses of each. Exploiting those means the difference between successfully clearing an area quickly, or getting stuck in the save/reload loop for an hour. With each level being pretty expansive and multilayered, it can take upwards of 2 hours to get through some, especially for the cautious, and the game takes a degree of pleasure in telling you what the speedrun target is at the end. It doesn’t feel like a long time in any of the levels though – the constant action and re-attempts make it fly by. It’s one of the biggest time sink games I’ve played in ages.
To highlight just how slow you’ve been there’s a really nice animation at the end of each stage that shows your route, what you did at each point, when you saved and reloaded, and when you killed. Speeded up it makes almost a type of analysis tool so you can judge your performance – usually long periods of wandering followed by lots of saving before a series of rapid takedowns in my case. Seeing the whole map for the first time at the end gives it all a sense of scale, and for some levels it highlights areas that you never even visited. There are optional objectives in some missions, and even a few that are set in towns where wandering around is encouraged to get intel without the constraints of being in restricted zones, so it’s not a linear experience. Plus, the team and skill combinations mean that there are multiple ways of getting to the end, and that’s before the environmental kills are factored in. No two playthroughs are likely to be the same, though to help switch things up there are challenges opened up later in the game where a mysterious character resets some of the levels with modifiers to amp up the tension.
Massively helping with the tone is the presentation and the isometric style really allows a surprising amount of detail in the world. It feels like the Wild West in every frame, and whilst there are a few tropes, it doesn’t rely on just trotting out the same old schtick in each level. When it starts to include mud and sand that leave footprints that give your position away, or get used as lures, it makes you realise the amount of work gone into crafting the environments. Equally, the use of dark and light and the considerations for cover and distance all support a tangible stealth experience that feels rewarding rather than frustrating. Then there’s the story that makes you care about what’s going on, and the interplay between the characters that brings them to life via the convincing voice acting. There’s rarely an hit on framerate with the saving, audio is sharp and clear, and the only things that stood out as a bit of poor design was Isabelle and Hector having conversations whilst I was trying to eavesdrop on some guards, and that when interactive objects are in close proximity it’s a bit faffy to highlight the one you want to use. It’s even designed that John, Hector, Doc, Kate and Isabelle have their own colour scheme on screen, and that’s reflected in the Dualshock 4 lightbar.
Real Time Tactics games might sound a bit daunting to some, and even more so on consoles, yet Desperados III pulls of an engaging game with some great mechanics that’s easy to pick up and play on a gamepad. There’s a lot to like in the way its presented and how it treats you as a player, and the amount it offers in variety and freedom of choice. If you’ve ever had a hankering to strap on your chaps and start a duel or a clean up a small frontier town, then this will probably be the game for you. It’s full of charm, violence, bad language and replayability, and won’t leave you in its dust if you’re struggling to keep up.
A PS4 review copy of Desparados III was provided by Mimimi’s PR team, and the game is available from the 16th June on PS4, PC and Xbox One for around £50 depending on your preferred platform.