‘Desperados III’ review: sneak or blast through intricate Wild West dioramas

A potent reminder of how good real-time tactical stealth can be

Desperados III begins with a flashback mission. As a child you follow your father through a nest of villains, sneaking through bushes and learning to distract guards by throwing stones. Eventually, things become too dangerous, and your dad must leave in order to see things through on his own – don’t worry, he’ll be back for you, he says.

Before he goes, you ask for a gun. But you’re not ready for the responsibility that brings, not until you can hit that tree with this knife from 10paces away, your dad tells you. He sets off, and your character – a young John Cooper – is left in a lonely corner of an enemy compound failing to pin his knife to a tree trunk again and again. Flashforward to the present, and a train has been stopped in its tracks and is in the process of being robbed. An unlucky bandit opens a carriage door at the backend and is met with John Cooper, now an adult, wielding the same trusty knife his dad gave him. Bullseye. It’s a beautiful match-cut. A vulnerable boy suddenly phased into an experienced gunslinger; his journey of revenge begins proper.

Developed by Mimimi Games, who just a few years ago resuscitated the real-time tactical stealth genre with the excellent Shadow Tactics: Blades Of The Shogun, Desperados III will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s played the earlier games, or indeed the original Commandos series which kicked it all off. Missions begin by giving you the lay of the land with a panoramic sweep of the level, which are all beautifully detailed and intricately partitioned with multiple routes throughout. A lot of details seemed to disappear when games moved from finely-drawn isometric environments to proper 3D in the early noughties, but Desperados III does a lot to remedy this. Ornately designed, each level is like one of those luxurious miniature dioramas you spend hours ogling in the museum.

Desperados 3
Credit: Ewan Wilson

In stealth games, information is always key. Desperados’ slick user interface is easy to read and navigate. You can click on enemy guards and gunmen at any point to highlight their cone of vision. Some guards will have rigid patrol paths, whilst others will lie lazily in the sun just waiting for you to pop up from a bush. Together they make up little networks, so toppling one will probably mean others will be alerted, in a great chain reaction. Later missions can be incredibly complex, littered with hundreds of enemies, so you have to work methodically and pick your targets carefully. It’s all about working around sightlines and finding gaps in patrols, either luring guards out of their cycles or, when you do eliminate them with a swift knife blow, dragging their corpses away to hide or dispose of.

It can be tricky work then, especially as you’ll eventually have to control a gang of five, like an octopus wrestling with 4D Chess. The slightly generic John Cooper is joined by several other characters, a few of which, like John, are from earlier Desperados games. Each of them completely changes how you approach things. Your first companion is Doc McCoy, a bounty-hunting physician and sniper. He combines well with Cooper, the two of them able to set up assassinations – or takedowns if you want to be non-lethal and merciful – simultaneously taking enemies out of the loop.

Perhaps your handiest tool is the shift key, or “Showdown Mode”, which pauses the action entirely and allows you to set up moves and execute actions more precisely. This is handy for setting up multiple takedown manoeuvres. The Doctor can also lure guards away from their clockwork pathways by dropping his physician’s bag, which will, when peeked in, detonate in a plume of smoke allowing you to sweep in and muffle them to sleep with a chloroform-soaked rag.

More distraction-related abilities come in the form of Kate O’Hara. Whilst Kate is, to be momentarily crude, a mechanically interesting character, using costume changes to freely walk among bandits, flirting with them to draw sightlines away from your crew, and even briefly seducing people into following her, it’s a harsh reminder of how frivolous and stereotype-laden the game can be.

Kate, thankfully, isn’t a damsel in distress – she’s capable, but her capabilities come in the form of scented perfume clouds and a dainty Derringer handgun. Desperados isn’t trying to be a serious, brooding Spaghetti Western (for the best, perhaps), but a kitschy cowboy cartoon that’s relatively uninterested in saying new things. The story is light – it’s about revenge – and the characters all feel as though they’ve been, sometimes insensitively, pulled from an old-fashioned stock catalogue: the cheeky gunslinger, the surly bounty hunter. More uncomfortably, as well as a drunken hispanic character, the only Black character, Isabelle, is a witch with mind-altering “voodoo” powers.

Mimimi Games really should have fought harder to work outside of these age-old stereotypes. Desperado’s men are heroic and directly violent, whilst its women are sly and manipulative. It’s a missed opportunity then, as returning to the series after this many years really should have involved thoroughly reworking old characters like Kate O’Hara, as well as introducing the new ones more carefully and considerately.

Stealth isn’t your only option in the game. When things go wrong in Desperados, they go very wrong. Suddenly a body will be discovered, or someone up high who you hadn’t accounted for will spot you. When the alarm is raised, reinforcements pour out of enemy camps, meaning you’ll be massively outgunned. It’s possible to run and hide and wait for things to blow over, but Cooper also comes with two eight-shot revolvers, so he’s no slouch. It’s quite possible, at least on the regular difficulty setting, to go loud and brute force your way through encounters.

To counteract this, every action has a cooldown period so you can’t just pause things and obliterate entire platoons. There’s also limited ammo. Once Cooper has shot 16 times, or the Doctor has used up all his rifle bullets, you’ll be left with only knives and syringes. There are ammunition boxes too, but they’re rare and only offer limited replenishment.

Hector is another important character: a gruff outdoorsman with a deadly axe and a giant bear trap. He can whistle to lure guards into it, the trap snapping them up instantly. He also has double the health points of the other characters, and even a hip flask of tequila that heals him. This makes him an absolute tank, and ideal for when your stealthy plans fall apart. Oh, did I mention he carries a double-barrelled shotgun that decimates everyone in close proximity?

Desperados is meant to be hard, I think. It’s a lot of fun experimenting and finding cracks in its systems, or messily brute-forcing your way through fights, but these things aren’t always possible, and so you’re back to playing it as a stealthy puzzle-box. Some of the best levels, like New Orleans or the town of Flagstone, are divided into public and private zones. These missions are reminiscent of IO Interactive’s Hitman games, your squad dipping in and out of off-limit areas and blending in with the crowd. These missions also have discrete areas where you’ll find different targets that you can tackle in an order of your choosing, each of which come with a unique assassination opportunity: a church bell that can be loosened to land on the baddie below, a raging bull that can be angered with a well-timed coin toss, and a barrel of whiskey at the local saloon that can be spiked with laudanum. On top of these are various other environmental hazards that can be used to your advantage, precarious boulders looming over large groups of outlaws and so forth.

There are a lot of moving parts in Desperados III. There’s a lot to account for, and even more ways for you to push, prod and be inventive with its many interlocking systems by using and combining your extensive array of character abilities. I feel as though I’ve missed out on a lot, that I’ve barely scratched the surface – and with a tactics game that’s exactly how you want things to feel. Occasionally your patience with skulking about might wear thin, but even when things explode and get messy there are ways for you to claw it back (with liberal use of the quick save/load function, anyway).

Desperados III is now available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

Our Verdict

Desperados III is an intricate tactical stealth game that encourages experimentation and offers a multitude of ways to play through its finely detailed, sweeping puzzle-box levels.

Pros

  • Complex, interlocking tactical stealth systems
  • Characters with interesting abilities that combine in unexpected ways
  • Multiple approaches to scenarios and encounters
  • Beautifully detailed panoramic maps

Cons

  • Story is a little light and by the numbers
  • Some very bad character stereotypes
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