If Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive looks a lot like the Wild West version of Pyro Studios' Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines, it's a case of where appearances aren't deceiving. Instead of being set in World War II, this character-based real-time strategy game puts you on the old American frontier. You'll gather up a group of desperados to recover money stolen from a railroad, and then you progress through a series of clichÃ©d plot twists centering on dirty dealing, double crossing, and lots of Mexican banditos led by a villain named El Diablo. Familiarity doesn't always breed contempt, though, and the game's atmosphere is engaging and even charming, precisely because it plays so well on our Hollywood vision of the West. Unfortunately, the vivid and inviting setting can't make up for some substantial gameplay flaws.
Desperados does a great job with its Western theme...
In your adventures, you'll control the main hero, John Cooper, plus his gang of five desperados, each with around six unique abilities. For instance, Cooper can climb sheer rock faces or perform a quick triple shot with his Colt revolver to take down three opponents at once. Explosives expert Sam Williams tosses dynamite at enemies or startles them with a snake he keeps in a sack. One-eyed Civil War veteran Doc McCoy heals other characters and knocks enemies out with sleeping gas. Kate O'Hara, an expert poker player, seduces villains by sliding her skirt up to reveal her garter, and she can temporarily blind opponents by reflecting the sun in her mirror. A nimble Chinese girl, Mia Yung, fires a blowpipe dart at enemies to make them hallucinate or can distract them with her pet monkey, Mr. Leone. The hulking, clumsy Sanchez entices villains into a drunken stupor with his tequila bottle and clears buildings by throwing people out the windows.
In 25 levels with integrated tutorials, you'll lead Cooper and his gang through a variety of story-based adventures. In typical missions, you'll rescue a fellow desperado from a heavily guarded paddle steamer, break into a heavily guarded hacienda, or sneak across a heavily guarded town. In other words, the mission settings are varied, but the same can't always be said about the gameplay.
...but the gameplay itself isn't as successful.
To best your ornery, trigger-happy foes, you'll need to use a blend of stealth and cunning, plus a little good old-fashioned head busting and gunslinging. You'll often use your characters' special abilities in concert to solve dilemmas. For instance, you can have Kate employ her seductive charms to lure an amorous henchman around the corner, only to get punched in the face by Cooper. Coordinating all your characters can be a real chore, though, since they do nothing on their own. The characters should have at least been given some autonomous actions, like ducking for cover or returning fire when rushed by villains.
To beat the missions, you'll need to take advantage of terrain by ambushing the bad guys from rooftops, hiding in tall grass, or crawling below ridges. You can scan the whole map at any time and can check each enemy's field of view independently, even if you can't see him directly. His line of sight shows up as a sweeping green cone, akin to Commandos or Metal Gear Solid. Guards usually act intelligently and will go on a heightened state of alert if you make too much noise or leave dead bodies lying in your wake, so you'll need to consider every action carefully. In a pleasantly realistic touch, even innocent bystanders will get in on the act and shout for help if they spot something fishy.