Wild West games: “Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive” (PC)

Does Spellbound Entertainment’s Wild West-themed strategy game Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive still have what it takes to impress after 20 years?

Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive (PC)
(Germany 2001, developer: Spellbound Entertainment (now defunct), publishers: Infogrames (now defunct)/THQ Nordic, platform: PC)

Bounty hunter John Cooper has to bring bandit El Diablo, responsible for numerous train robberies, to justice by gathering a group of his old partners.

Back in the Wild West
The story is a true Wild West tale about a small group of individuals fighting against all odds, in this case many bandits, to get rid of a bad guy. It’s not the most epic or even original plot, especially with the main villain remaining in the background, but familiarity with Western movie tropes helps to set it apart. Calling the story suspenseful would go too far, but there are a few unexpected turns of events, even if one won’t remember much of it afterwards.

Many people to remember
The main characters are memorable and their different attitudes make for some funny scenes, creating a team of misfits one is eager to tag along with: Cooper as the quintessential gun-ho hero, Doc McCoy as a physician with a pendant for poison, and seductive Kate O’Hara. Later the company is joined by explosive expert Samuel Williams, rough bandit leader Pablo Sanchez and fragile but brave Chinese girl Mia Yung. Their interactions before the start or during missions could be out of an adventure game, giving the player an incentive to make sure they survive. This is a good idea, because if any character dies, it’s game over.

Many abilities to memorize
Each character has their own unique skills and using these actions at the right time feels more like a puzzle than a strategy game. However, one still requires fast reflexes, as timing is just as crucial as planning, e.g. luring an enemy by the sound of a watch (or Kate’s charms) and then disposing of him with a knife thrown by Cooper. Listing all the abilities here would take too long, but suffice it to say that one should better learn their hotkeys, as there’s usually not enough time to hit the specific action buttons.

Learning about each ability and remembering what individual characters are capable of can be a daunting task, especially since some of the latter are only introduced in the last missions. This is too bad because these would have made some parts much easier, e.g. Sanchez being able to clean out buildings with 3 enemies inside, carry two instead of one downed bodies like Cooper, and even use a gatling gun to mow down the opposition.

One has to be careful not to miss end-of-level hints, because these usually include essential information for each character’s abilities. There are short and fun tutorial missions that are part of the storyline and allow the player to getting to grips with the skills as well as to getting to know the characters. However, a lot of information is held back from the player that could have been useful in some situations, e.g. using Kate’s mirror to light Sam’s dynamite fuse from afar instead of just blinding enemies with it.

Time for some quick action
The Quick Action mode allows the player to assign specific actions to one or more characters, e.g. selecting various enemies with Cooper’s gun, which then only requires one instead of more mouse clicks. This is extremely helpful and becomes even mandatory in one mission when the heroes stand at a train station surrounded by bad guys with the only means to escape by shooting all of them at the same time.

Mission time
Mission objectives are generally varied and take place in many locations, e.g. a town, canyon, or fortress, sometimes during day and night. So in one level, Kate has to steal clothes and apply for a dancing job, while the others use her distraction in the next level to open a safe next to the bar where she works and afterwards rescue her. One even has to play off bandits and army men against each other in a town in order to reach a train unnoticed with bullets flying around and explosions everywhere.

However, knowing the goals and reaching them are two different things. One usually has to get rid of many enemies first, taking into account where each character is positioned at the start of a level and how to make the best use of abilities, especially those that need supplies, e.g. Doc’s K.O. gas bombs or Pablo’s stones for hitting enemies unconconscious. Levels can be completed using different strategies, as a mix of stealth and shooting is often possible, in some cases even recommended.

The 25 levels take a very long time to complete (sometimes hours for one mission), mainly because the number of enemies is overwhelming and their AI is often erratic, so a lot of trial-and-error is involved, usually with the same stealth approach which can become quite repetitive.

A tough and sometimes unfair challenge
Some levels are frustratingly difficult because of unexpected events: While the changing objectives make levels more interesting, it’s not much fun if all planning goes awry because enemies suddenly appear out of nowhere, often making a previous savegame necessary. Quicksaves as well as multiple savegames per mission become almost second nature with each new step.

For example, in one level one has to enter the fortress of Mexican bandits that is full of enemies. After finally reaching the leader, one has to beat him unconscious and carry him all the way back. But as new bandits suddenly arrive out of nowhere, new strategies have to be formed and one’s heroes should better not be overrun without knowing what hit them.

In another level, one has to free a hostage and escape with horses right under the noses of the enemy. But as the moment the bandits realize they’re gone and one isn’t fast enough to reach a canyon in time, the mission is over. The less said about an obscure pentagram trap that requires treading on the right platforms in the correct order and the tedious final boss battle, the better, even though these fit the Western adventure atmosphere.

It doesn’t help that character control is sometimes clunky, the heroes’ response time is too slow and pathfinding less than optimal, as the characters often won’t do what one asks them to or run in directions one doesn’t expect them to. In some cases, there are some scripting bugs as well, e.g. some NPCs not following behind the group.

Wild West presentation
Despite already being 20 years old, the game’s graphics are still good. This might not be true for the pixelated if well-done cinematic cutscenes, but the backgrounds are detailed and the characters are easily recognizable, while there are some nice effects like fog and rain, too.

The sound department fares just as well, although it’s only the great Western music with its banjo and guitar parts and the environmental sounds that add to the Wild West atmosphere. The English voice acting is subpar, as most characters come across as too forced with their accents, especially Cooper’s drawn-out tough guy snarl. It’s not a deal-breaker, but this time the German version wins with much better performances.

A hard Wild West time
Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive has lost none of its unique Western atmosphere in the strategy genre after two decades. While the English voice acting isn’t the best (compared to the excellent German one), the music and background graphics ooze cinematic atmosphere.

However, only the most hardened strategists will see the end of the game, as the difficulty is so high that one sometimes spends hours on a single mission. With around 30 hours playtime, it’s a tough but rewarding challenge with its varied missions, memorable characters, and puzzle-like gameplay that might have started as a Commandos clone, but plays in a league of its own.

Score: 8/10

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About nufafitc

Being an avid gamer, cinemaniac, and bookworm in addition to other things the internet and new media present, I'm also very much into DIY music, rock and pop in particular. Writing short or longer pieces about anything that interests me has always made me happy. As both an editor for German website "Adventure-Treff" and UK website "Future Sack", I like to write reviews and news about recent developments in the movies, games and book industry.
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