Is a clone a good thing or a bad thing? Three years ago Pyro Studios released Commandos, a squad-based military strategy game that was all about sneaking around and killing silently. Now, just a month before Pyro is set to release Commandos 2 (hopefully), Spellbound Software and Infogrames have teamed up to release Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive. Desperados is definitely a Commandos clone -- it has too much in common with the other game to be considered anything else -- but it’s a really good clone. Spellbound Software kept the same style of gameplay and the same level of detail as found in Commandos, but then they added in some quirky humor, excellent production values, and even a story to tie the missions together. So while Desperados might seem a little familiar to anyone who has played Commandos, this is a case where a clone is definitely a good thing.
Desperados takes place during the height of the Wild West, during a time when men with guns ruled the land. You get to take on the role of John Cooper, one of those men with guns, and early in the game you decide to collect on a bounty offered by the Twinnings & Co. railroad company. It seems that a bandit named El Diablo (“The Devil”) has been terrorizing their trains, and even though nobody knows who he is or where he can be found, the $15,000 bounty is too much for you to resist. So during the rest of the game you’ll first have to put together your gang -- no easy task since your friends seem to attract trouble -- and then you’ll have to track down El Diablo to his secret hideout so you can end the threat and pick up your paycheck.
The game comes with a single campaign of 25 missions. Six of those missions are tutorials for the six gang members you’ll eventually find (including Cooper), and the rest follow your exploits as you hunt down El Diablo and his minions. Mission objectives range from rescuing people to eavesdropping on conversations to thwarting ambushes to robbing banks, and you’ll find yourself meeting those objectives in western towns, crocodile-infested swamps, underground passages, and more. Plus, Spellbound did a good job of varying things like the weather conditions, the available gang members, and how much noise you can make, so that all of the missions play a little differently and the game doesn’t get stale.
Gameplay in Desperadoes is very similar to Commandos. Each mission map features numerous patrolling guards, and you either have to sneak past them or disable them to meet your objectives. However, you don’t have to kill them. Cooper and two other gang members can simply knock people out, and that’s important because there are often civilians on the maps, and while the civilians can alert the bad guys to your presence, you’re not allowed to kill them (you are playing the good guys after all). The missions also force you to decide how stealthy you want to be. In Commandos stealth was key, and getting discovered often meant you’d lose the mission, but Desperados is much more forgiving. In fact, even though your gang members have numerous ways to lure enemies out of position so you can kill them quietly, it’s often much easier just to shoot things out. Part of this, I think, is by design (Wild West battles weren’t very subtle after all), but part is also due to the poor enemy AI. It’s very easy to create killing zones in the game, and the enemy guards have no problem walking up to a place where several of their fellows have died so they can die, too. Supposedly they’re “investigating” the dead bodies, but it would nice if at some point guards would realize that certain areas aren’t safe. As it is now, you can clean out almost all the patrolling guards on a map just by luring them around a corner or up to a rooftop and shooting them one by one. That being said, endless cycles of sneaking up on a guard, killing him, and then dragging his body away can be tedious, so the poor AI just made several of the maps friendlier to play rather than seriously hurting the game.
One place where Desperados does have a problem -- and Commandos had the same problem -- is that there isn’t any real way to coordinate the actions of your gang. Desperados is played in real time, but you can’t pause the game to give orders. So if you want two people to do things, you have to select one and do an action and then select the other and do an action, and that just doesn’t work very well during the heat of battle. Spellbound tried to help matters by allowing gang members to store “quick actions,” but each gang member can only store a single action at a time, and most useful maneuvers -- such as jumping out from behind a wall, firing at an enemy, and then hiding again -- require more than that. Plus, the quick actions aren’t exactly convenient to create on the fly, and so I only used them two or three times when I played the game. As a result -- and like in Commandos again -- you’ll have to complete the missions using one character at a time, and you’ll probably end up using a single character to do the bulk of the work (I used Cooper). That’s not necessarily bad, but it means a lot of your gang’s skills will go to waste.
But, as a whole, the gameplay is a lot of fun. Spellbound did a good job of making the missions challenging without making them too challenging, and, although certain sequences can be frustrating, they’re also immensely satisfying once you get past them. Plus, the save and load times are really fast, so when you get into a difficult situation, you won’t spend more time saving and loading than you will playing the game (a problem I wish Black Isle would address with their Infinity engine). And although you’ll find yourself killing guards a lot in the game (most missions have 30+ guards to kill), the variety in the locations and conditions help to prevent the missions from becoming boring, and I don’t think Spellbound could have done a better job in creating the campaign.
But if the gameplay in Desperados is good, the graphics are outstanding. Desperados uses a 2D isometric view, and all of the locations from the game’s 25 missions (even the tutorial missions) are detailed and vivid and authentic. Heck, they even look good during the night and stormy missions. And if that wasn’t enough, Desperados includes no less than 21 computer-animated cut-scenes. The cut-scenes are all impressive (ranking right up there with Blizzard’s best efforts), and Spellbound even animated some difficult or unusual things, like horse riders chasing a train and Matrix-style slow motion sequences, that really add to their appeal.
The sound in Desperados is also pretty good. There is quite a bit of spoken dialogue in the game (mostly as thinly disguised mission briefings), but the voice actors deliver their lines cleanly and clearly. The only downside is that the actors were a little over the top with their accents and attitude (like with Cooper playing the ultra cool cowboy), but this is forgivable considering that nobody is actually annoying to listen to, and considering that the gang’s acknowledgment lines are well done. Also, Desperados comes with nearly an hour of background music, and Spellbound did a pretty good job of having the music reflect the “mood” of the mission.
Desperados also performs well on a technical level. I’ve already mentioned that the save and load times are really fast, but the game’s pathfinding is also excellent, and, most impressively, even with the cut-scenes and spoken dialogue and music and detailed locations, Desperados only requires a single CD. So somebody at Spellbound must be pretty good at compressing data. The only real technical downside to the game is that it just doesn’t perform well if you have programs running in the background, even if those programs have low system requirements. I tried running Desperados with my Internet connection up, plus a word processor and a screen capture utility going, and the gameplay frequently became so choppy that the missions were almost impossible to play. But when I ran Desperados alone, everything worked fine.
Overall, Desperados has excellent gameplay, varied locations and playing conditions, and top-notch production values. If it has a weakness at all, it’s that it doesn’t have any multiplayer support, and, since there aren’t any difficulty settings or character options, there is almost no replay value at all. So once you’ve spent the 30 or so hours required to play through the game’s campaign, that’s basically it. But while 30 hours isn’t very much in comparison with other games on the market, Desperados is a good ride while it lasts.