Can Spellbound Entertainment’s Wild West strategy game Helldorado improve on the 3D evolution of its flawed predecessor?
(Germany 2007, developer: Spellbound Entertainment (now defunct), publishers: Black Forest Games/THQ Nordic, platform: PC)
After criminal Angel Face is brought down by John Cooper and his friends, Doc McCoy is kidnapped and poisoned by the criminal’s widow who forces them to do not so legal tasks for her if they want to have him back safe and sound.
Finished storyline and returning characters
The storyline continues where Desperados 2: Cooper’s Revenge unceremoniously ended with its cliffhanger, and while it’s not exactly memorable, the plot is a bit more engaging and has a few twists near the end.
There’s a bit more character interaction thanks to more and longer cutscenes, but one won’t remember much of them, with only the conversations between NPCs during levels adding to more immersion.
Shining and rough mission design
Thankfully the mission design is more varied with some imaginative objectives, e.g. delaying the departure of a train by making the engineer drink multiple rounds of tequila without the soldiers taking the bottles away from him. Unfortunately, there are a few instances, as in this example, when one has to sit idly by before certain characters move into position, with them often lingering around in one place too long.
A few missions are also too easy and don’t require much strategy, e.g. Kate having to meet the US president on a ship that is full of guards. But with her seduction skills, she simply leaves behind a trail of admirers without doing anything else. While there is a scoring system that rewards players with silver, bronze, and gold medals, depending on their performance, it doesn’t change the story or unlocks any extras.
Unlike the previous games, most levels focus on individual characters and their special abilities. Sometimes one takes control of one character in a level and continues with the next one after a certain checkpoint that gives a new objective. While this takes away some strategic freedom, it’s actually a good thing, because before one often played with one or two characters and let the rest simply stay behind, only to to send them to the final meeting point after a level was cleared of enemies.
Less killing and more sneaking around
The previous game‘s levels could often be completed by simply using the head-over-shoulders view and shooting one’s way through enemies. This time, stealth is the key to success, as many levels either task the player not to kill anyone or not to be seen. As the number of enemies is nowhere near as high as in other titles of the franchise, this becomes much more feasible.
Adjustable difficulties and some helpful additions
It doesn’t mean one won’t have to do a bit of trial and error, but the number of cheap deaths is kept at a minimum, probably because one has more difficulty modes to choose from. The new sound indicator also helps, as it shows how close one can sneak to an enemy without alerting him.
Another new feature are combo actions that become effective when two characters work together, e.g. Sam tying a piece of dynamite to Hawkeye’s arrow for explosive results, or John and Sanchez engaging a group of enemies in a brawl fight to beat them unconcious. These combos aren’t necessary to complete a level and don’t replace the quick action mechanic which allows pre-planned actions at the press of a button, but they add more strategy and fun to the often same-y gameplay.
Old problems still fashionable
Moving the camera around to find the best position is still a hassle with the 3D environment, but at least icons on mission-critical targets/characters helps. An initial overview of a level is again missing, though, so that one has to first read mission descriptions at the start of each one to have a clear idea what to.
Technology with ups and downs
The graphics are again something of a mixed bag, with the environments featuring some nice visual effects, e.g. birds circling around, leaves falling, water reflections and some generally great play between light and shadows. It’s also nice that if one zooms in, the characters don’t end up in a pixel mess, as was the case in Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive. If only they wouldn’t look so ugly in the jerky cutscenes, which have way too many terrible facial expressions that ruin the atmosphere.
Voice acting is slightly improved, although it won’t win any oscars in the writing department, as can be seen with Hawkeye’s wooden delivery of lines, Sam’s bro attitude that would be a better fit in a GTA title, or Doc McCoy’s comments on Mexicans, which seems to be okay if uttered in front of Sanchez. Still, the ambient sound effects and especially the music add to the Wild West atmosphere, alleviating the presentation problems somewhat.
An improved if not wholly successful sequel
Helldorado is more fun to play than Desperados 2: Cooper’s Revenge, although one shouldn’t expect a particularly good story or memorable characters, let alone convincing writing. The gameplay still suffers from the 3D perspective at times, but with more varied missions and a clearer focus on stealth, it’s much closer to the original Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive, even if its playtime of around 10 hours with the normal difficulty mode is a bit disappointing.
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