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 clichéd 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.
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.
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.
Even though this is the Wild West, gun battles usually aren't the best option for solving problems. The game encourages you to try other schemes and stratagems, though gameplay too often seems very scripted. Many times, you won't really feel in control of your adventures, but rather as if you're trying to jump through the game designers' hoops, puzzling out the one supposedly proper solution. Finding the right hoop to jump through is as much about repetitive and tedious trial and error as it is about your ability to concoct clever tactics. The game frequently crosses the fine line between enjoyably challenging and frustrating, and there's no difficulty selection to rectify that. Ideally, if you make a poor choice, it should result in a temporary and challenging setback, not instant death and a restart. Get ready for countless saves and restores.
A context-sensitive cursor at least helps you interact with and navigate the environments fairly easily. The interface is attractive and generally functions well, letting you either click onscreen icons or use hotkeys to initiate particular actions, the latter being far more practical when the map is swarming with enemies. Some functions, like the telescope icon that displays enemies' view cones, require either too many or counter-intuitive mouse clicks. It's also unnecessarily hard to click on a moving character, which can be a huge problem when you need to kick someone in a hurry as he charges around the corner. Fortunately, the interface features a quick action function that lets you store preselected actions as macros. So, to make things easier, you can set Kate to kick a particular opponent once in range with the click of a button. But ideally, you shouldn't need to go through these extra steps in the first place.
If nothing else, Desperados features a gorgeous visual style. Akin to the Commandos or the Baldur's Gate series, the action takes place in 2D against beautifully painted semi-interactive backgrounds. Countless little details will catch your eye, like the sagging roof on an old shanty, the flower-covered trellis against the wall of a stately plantation house, or stucco peeling off an old Spanish-style mission church. The scenes are alive with passing townsfolk, and horses and livestock remind you that you're on the frontier. Smooth character animations provide added entertainment, thanks to clever touches like Cooper tipping his hat when he meets a stranger. The full-motion video cutscenes feature the same attention to detail and some stylish direction. Just the opening scene of horse-mounted bandits robbing a moving train does a wonderful job of drawing you into the gameworld. If the graphics have a flaw, it's that zooming in on a scene produces ugly pixelation; it looks like you're viewing the image with a paint program's magnifying glass tool.
Unlike the visuals, the sound effects don't offer anything special, and the voice-overs (the Achilles' heel of so many games) could have been much better. The actors fall prey to stereotypical accents and Western genre clichés, and some of the Mexican characters sound more like Italians. The actor playing Cooper tries way too hard to sound like Clint Eastwood--better to leave that famous delivery to the master himself. Frequently childish dialogue doesn't help the actors' efforts, either. At least the well-crafted music is entertaining.
It's a shame that the enjoyable setting of Desperados isn't used to its full potential. It just can't make up for the difficulties in coordinating your characters or struggling with excessively hard missions. As an action-oriented puzzle game, Desperados has a fair amount to offer, but as a true strategy game where you really feel in command of events, it usually misses the target.