It has all gone horribly wrong. I had thought that Kate’s hurled vial of perfume would blind the guard long enough that Cooper could slide in, kill the other guard and carry the body off in plenty of time while Dr. McCoy sniped the third guard up on the tower. I thought wrong and now there’re bullets flying everywhere. Ah well, I guess that’s the fourth plan I can cross out. Time to load up the last save again. Welcome to Desperados 3, the first game in the franchise since 2007’s spin-off Helldorado, and developed by Mimimi Games, the talented folk behind 2016’s Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun.
To my delight, Desperados 3 is a real-time tactics game that actually encourages save scumming, the fine old art of saving the game roughly once every five seconds in case everything goes more wrong than one of Peter Griffin’s schemes. In fact, it encourages it so much that by default a message will pop up in the middle of the screen every minute, reminding you to save the game. I’d highly advise changing this because it’s bloody annoying. And accessing a save is exactly two button presses away. I actually wish I had got PC review code, because on an SSD I can imagine reloading the game would be nearly instantaneous. On the Xbox One there’s a pause of a few seconds whenever you save or load.
Each of the five members of your motley crew of misfits comes packing their own skills, strengths and weaknesses. Big-boy Hector, for example, has a massive bear-trap called Bianca that enemies somehow can never spot despite it being roughly the size of an actual bear. He’s also capable of running while carrying two dead bodies, and is the only one of the crew who can take on a Long Coat in a melee fight. On the other side of things you’ve got the lovely Kate O’ Hara, who has to drag bodies very slowly. But she makes up for that with her blinding perfume vials, a near-silent Derringer pistol and the ability to disguise herself so that she can amble around without the enemy giving her a second look. She can also flirt to distract guards and even lure them away. Dr. McCoy, meanwhile, has a long-range pistol and a handy medical bag that lures in curious foes before delivering a burst of stunning gas into their faces. Then there’s Cooper who boasts a deadly throwing knife, an infinite supply of coins that can distract guards and dual-pistols for taking down two targets at once.
The fifth and final character is the most intriguing of the bunch, hence why she’s getting a whole paragraph to herself. She’s also the one that might just put fans of the series off, because she introduces voodoo into proceedings. Her name is Isabelle, and she has some very cool tricks. First, she can connect two targets together so that anything which happens to one will happen to the other. This opens up a wealth of new possibilities to play around with, like connecting a hog-tied guard to another enemy and then chucking the hog-tied fool off a cliff. Even a distraction like Kate’s flirting will affect both targets. Or if you want to get really strange you can link the fate of a chicken to a guard, because reasons. Important, vital reasons. Isabelle also has a handy cat who can momentarily distract a guard with its sheer cuteness. But her real party trick is that by sacrificing a chunky of health she can take control of a foe and force them to do as she wants, including shooting someone, though that takes them a while to do so you need to pick a smart moment. And yes, you can take control of the chicken, if you like.
Here’s a good example of a situation: in the city of New Orleans I was tasked with getting a letter that was held by one of three targets. While I could just kill all three and search their bodies I wanted to be a little more elegant, so after doing some casual eavesdropping on the public streets I determined the exact target. Now, Kate can pickpocket people, so I set out to get her a disguise so that she could waltz into the target’s property unchallenged. But I couldn’t find a moment where the target wasn’t in view of a guard and thus Kate couldn’t work her magic. So, with the help of Dr. McCoy I cleared out the rooftop and got Isabelle up there. With a clear line of sight she took control of my victim and walked him up to the rooftop away from prying eyes where Kate then picked his pockets for the letter. Mission done, I controlled the poor sod back down the party and nobody was ever the wiser. The whole thing felt organic, like the way I did was unique. I love that feeling of doing something the developers never even considered, even if I’m sure they absolutely did, such is the care and attention lavished throughout Desperados 3.
Each mission will give you either some or all of your crew and you can jump between them at will. With the right stick you can scour the environment, while tapping left on the D-pad lets you bring up a guard’s cone of vision. The level design is superb at making things feel impossible with tricky patrols and overlapping cones of view mean that just stepping out of a bush will probably get you killed faster than the people in the first five minutes of a horror film. The ultimate form of teamwork is Showdown mode. On the standard difficulty this pauses time entirely and lets you plot out actions for as many characters as you like. Then, with a tap of Y you can execute the plan, each member of your crew doing exactly what you commanded simultaneously. If you want more finite control, each person’s part of the plan can be activated separately. Cooper’s tossed coin might draw a guard’s gaze to McCoy’s bag, giving Kate enough time to knock out a pesky guard and drag him to a nearby bush. Watching a well though out plan that involves every member of your crew combining abilities feels so good that it’s almost sexual. Likewise, hastily leaping between characters and barely managing to keep everything from crumbling around you feels exhilarating.
Another thing the level design does very well is introduce new wrinkles into the gameplay that serve to keep things interesting. Thick, sticky mud, for instance, means you’ll leave footprints that guards will spot and then follow, something that can be useful for ambushes or a pain in the ass when you forget about it and have your plans thwarted by a nosey enemy. Other levels bring in puddles of oil that can be set ablaze, public zones you can explore freely, hints that can be picked up by listening to conversations and much more. The core gameplay is already outstanding, so these extra little layers are almost unnecessary but still very much appreciated. They add more replay value to a game that is already strong in it.
Even on the regular difficulty this isn’t an easy game, and I frequently found myself staring at the screen for minutes at a time as I pondered how the hell I was supposed to get through all those guards. There are numerous badges you can earn for doing various things, and there’s always one for completing a level in a certain time. And honestly, I was baffled at them as they asked me to complete a level in under fifteen minutes, while my completion time was over an hour. Ramp up the difficulty and you barely get any health, almost no leeway in being spotted and very little ammo for your guns. Plus, Showdown mode no longer pauses time, so you can’t rely on its magical powers of stress relief anywhere near as much.
I reckon there’s easily over a dozen hours of content to be had on your first play through of the meaty campaign, and hours more if you go back and try to earn the optional badges. But if you really fancy having more to do then the special Baron Challenges remix a few of the existing levels, giving you a different mix of characters, new objectives and tricky modifiers. As an example, one challenge removes all lethal abilities and asks you to take out four targets while making them look like accidents. It makes you rely on pure stealth and distraction. These extra challenges should add another hefty chunk of content to the game.
The emphasis is pretty firmly on staying stealthy as much as you can, but it wouldn’t be a western without the possibility of slinging some guns. Cooper has his two pistols, while Hector has a double-barrelled shotgun that can take out a group of baddies. Naturally this generates a lot of noise, so choosing when to go loud is important. You can survive a prolonged firefight, but the control scheme doesn’t make it easy, at least on console. I’d imagine even on PC trying to jump between characters, move them around and target enemies would be a royal pain in the arse.
In fact, the control scheme is one of Desperados 3’s few weak points. I played the game on Xbox One and while everything is manageable there is a fair bit of stuff the developers had to pack into a controller. They did their best, so you can swap between skills and characters with LB and RB respectively, or hold them down to bring up a radial menu. The D-Pad gets used for things like bringing up a guard’s cone of vision, placing down a marker that triggers to let you know if anyone’s vision passes over it and more. You’ll grow used to all the controls over time, but even after nearly 20-hours with Desperados 3 I can’t say it ever felt completely smooth, especially in the more manic moments where you need to act quickly and precisely. I’ve got no doubt that being on PC would make things a lot easier.
Should the alarm actually be raised you’ll have to deal with extra guards patrolling the area and enemies will begin searching for you, although they have the hide-and-seek skills of a sleepy toddler, so being discovered while hiding in a bush five feet away from the victim is actually pretty rare. In fact, the A.I. in general aren’t all that impressive when they are removed from their patrols or spots. They mill around like they’ve lost their contact lenses.
Whenever you finish up a level Desperados 3 excitedly gives you a bunch of information that celebrate your successes or remind you of your total suckage. First, there’s a detailed map that shows every move you and the guards made, as well skills used and so on. By default, it plays at 32x speed but you can slow everything down for a better look at what was going on. Then you get a screen filled with various statistics such as how long you controlled each character for, how many times you used their skills, their kills and much, much more.
If you’re worried about jumping into the third game in a series then I have good news: although the name makes Desperados 3 sound like a straight sequel, this is actually a prequel, so newcomers like myself can jump straight in without having to worry about needing to know about the previous titles. This is a classic western tale of revenge as John Cooper tries to seek out a man known only as Frank. Along the way Cooper encounters some new friends and allies.
Your crew have about as much depth as a children’s paddling pool that was filled by a really anxious parent, but they are also a very likeable bunch thanks to solid acting and some fun dialogue that set up the group dynamics, like McCoy and Isabelle’s contentious relationship. And honestly, it’s enough. The story is forgettable and the character’s are painted in broad strokes, but it holds up the brilliant gameplay and is enjoyable enough that you won’t want to just skip straight through every cutscene.
I did also run into a couple of bugs along the way, though some of them should hopefully have been squashed by a hefty update the developers put out over a week prior to Desperados 3’s launch. For example, a couple of times the game got stuck loading a specific save, forcing either a restart or going back to an earlier save. I also ran into an instance of a character being invisible during a cutscene, with only their clothing and gun being visible. And there were a few cases of getting snagged on various bits of scenery. I went back and played through numerous levels and couldn’t replicate some of these issues, so my fingers are crossed that they’ve been eliminated.
Desperados 3 is not a case of the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s a case of the awesome, the great and the good. There’s a few weak points here and there, but overall this is a sumptuous piece of real-time tactics. It’s rewarding and satisfying to play, doesn’t hold your hand and makes you feel like a badass when you pull off the perfect plan. And when everything goes wrong and the bullets are flying it’s always your fault. You can see where you went wrong, and so you just reload a save and tweak your plan a bit. We’ve already had some terrific tactical games this year, but this is the best of the bunch. Utterly, utterly brilliant.