It has been a weird and quiet year for video games this year, both because we’re in a pre-next-gen lull and, you know, everything else. Out of this downtime though has come a pleasant surprise: a genuine game of the year contender emerging out of the long-dormant Desperados franchise.
Despite this being the third game in a series that began in 2001, Desperados 3 is actually a prequel, so you won’t be missing out on a single thing if this is your first rodeo. Indeed the game’s story and characters are so cliched and one-dimensional that it doesn’t matter what is being set up here.
Which is fine, because you won’t be playing this for the story. You’ll be playing this for some damn fine stealth video gaming.
Desperados 3 is like a greatest hits compilation, combining all of my favourite elements from my other favourite stealth games. It’s got the isometric thrill of Commandos. The supernatural experimentation of Dishonored. The disguise-wearing hijinx and zany setpiece deaths from Hitman. And, most importantly, the Shadow Mode (now called Showdown Mode) from Shadow Tactics.
If that feature sounds familiar that’s because Desperados 3 was made by Mimimi Games, the same team behind Shadow Tactics, and Desperados 3 proves these guys definitely aren’t one-hit wonders. This is somehow even better than Shadow Tactics, a more refined and challenging experience than a game I described at the time as a “stealth renaissance”.
Like Shadow Tactics, Desperados 3 is a real-time isometric stealth game where you’re given control over a small squad of guys and girls who have to sneak their way through missions, breaking into things and murdering almost everyone that stands in their way.
It takes place on gorgeous, colourful maps, most of them being sprawling sandboxes with multiple targets and the freedom to approach them in any order you like. At it’s heart, and despite the stealth overtures, Desperados 3 is in many ways actually an elaborate puzzle game, the big maps breaking down into dozens of problems and solutions created by patrol routines and overlapping fields of vision, where to kill one man you need to kill the man watching him and the man watching him.
This can initially feel like a one-dimensional chore, but that’s because you start the game with only the most vanilla characters and tools. The more you play the more things open up, and before too long you’ve got some wild powers at your fingertips, from man-sized beartraps to mind-controlling poison darts to a cute lil’ cat that bad guys just can’t resist bending over and saying hi to.
The main gameplay beat of Desperados 3, then, is mostly the same thing, a near-endless procession of precision-timed killing, punctuated by constant quicksaves and quickloads as you experiment (the game actively encourages this, and both are almost instantaneous so as not to interrupt your planning), and so it’s the variety of abilities and the flexibility with which you can use them that keeps everything fresh. You may just be killing bad guys over and over, but every encounter can be solved a dozen different ways, from the straightforward (sneaking up and knifing them) to the comically elaborate (luring guards underneath a precariously-hanging piano then cutting the rope).
Desperados 3 technically has the option to play it as either a stealth game or shooter, eschewing all the sneaking around for fast reflexes, but a combat-heavy approach becomes a little too frantic and difficult at times as levels get more densely-packed. It’s still nice to have the option to “go loud”, though, especially at times when every other idea you’ve had has gone to shit and you need to blast your way out of a pickle.
Like all my favourite stealth games, Desperados 3 rarely made me feel threatened. Instead it’s an empowering experience as you’re the hunter, not the hunted, every night sky and city block a playground for experimentation.
Helping the playful, toybox feel along — and yes, I know that’s a bizarre contradiction given this is a game about committing thousands of murders — is a visual style that’s more action figure than action movie, the top-down perspective evoking the same kind of appreciation for fine dioramas that other fine isometric games manage.
I can’t speak highly enough of Desperados 3. It’s almost the perfect stealth experience, tense but not terrifying, empowering but not easy (it actually gets really tough in parts), and if this is the pedigree that Mimimi are building for themselves in this space, I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Desperados 3 is out now on PC, PS4 and Xbox One.