Videogame westerns... hey, look at that tumbleweed. The few that do come trotting out of the creative desert really don't do much to break the drought. Recently we suffered Gun, which was a peculiar misfire of ideas that failed to inspire and ended up being slung out of the saloon doors by a disgruntled Eurogamer posse. It's easy to see why that particular mixture of ambitions was frustrated, but Desperados 2 could have been, should have been, more straightforward.
The sequel to 2001's Commandos-alike, set in the dust-caked, sun-cracked West of the late 1800s. We know these games, and we know how they work. Sneak about in various isometric environments and take down hawk-eyed hostiles using the mixture of talents provided by your team. It's real-time strategy as puzzle solving, with memorable characters and none of that silly resource-management. Desperados itself worked this out and delivered a game that wasn't quite as muscular or satisfying as Commandos, but was nevertheless a well-placed blow to the back of the imagination.
As before, Desperados 2 sees you able to command a half-dozen heroes, including the grizzled doc, the square-jawed gunfighter, the beefy Mexican, the wily Apache and the delectable young lady. As in Desperados each of these well-meaning miscreants can be applied in their own way, but they can all shoot, brawl and generally sneak about in the shadows. It's a comfortable formula.
Excitingly, there's more to this sequel than a simple rehash, since it arrives with all the goodness of Vitamin 3D, and an engine that takes you into the action like a person with (disembodied) eyes. That's right, perspective fans, there's more than the eye-in-the-sky here - we're down in the streets of Puzzleville, and in direct third-person control as a result. It's not the transition to FPS that Commandos: Strike Force opted for, this is plain old 3D with the possibility of a close-up inspection of the action, along with the ability to whirl your angles of view at will and to shoot and move on the ground.
This new over-the-shoulder perspective also reveals some lamentable problems with Desperados 2, such as the fact that it prompts but does not teach. Who knew you could move and shoot in over the shoulder view? You have to figure that one out for yourself. In fact there's a whole load of guesswork involved in getting your characters to do what the must - mostly because you only have a limited idea of what it is they can do in the first place. Each time you use a new skill you're reloading half a dozen times to get the hang of it. Exploratory attrition; thanks to no tutorial and a lack of intuition. How does Kate's seduction work? And sneaking? And shooting? It's all down to you to figure it out without help, and the resultant process is temper-stokingly fiddly. Why are games still fiddly in 2006? Why?
In terms of problems-per-minute Cooper's Revenge isn't quite as skilfully conceived as the original. There's absolutely no reason why the opening hours of any game should be laborious or littered with shelf-level events. I was busy sneaking, gassing and seducing my way through one of the early levels when I realised that I might as well just kill everyone with my gun and get it over with. That's not how these games should play out. Desperados 2 displays such flaws from the outset and that, I'm sad to say, is enough to mean that we can't recommend it outright.
But there is a potent quantity of game in here. If you can get into your stride then there's satisfaction to be extracted from the large, lavishly detailed levels. From the railroad town to the bandit stronghold, these environments are routinely stunning. The 3D towns have, remarkably, managed to hang on to the ‘hand-drawn' look of the original game. They occasionally deliver 3D versions of great moments from the original game too, such as the Mexican stucco fort. The sense of place and the level of detail is excellent throughout. Few RTS games manage to deliver such consistent art direction or detailed environments, and the developers have every reason to be proud of their presentation.
Once the visuals fade into familiarity you'll realise that the NPCs aren't particularly inquisitive. It's a failure of otherwise decent AI that they don't go far and seldom deviate from a carefully plotted area. It reduces the challenge, but it does make your job easier in the levels you just want to skip. The processes of taking down gringos and tackling large groups of wandering men are initially tough to get a handle on, but with careful probing the levels do eventually begin to topple in a satisfying manner. Large tracts of the game depend on a quick six-shooter (or even the big Mexican's Gatling gun), but there are also moments when alternative tactics of sneaking, stealth and general incapacitation of enemies function as they were meant to. Tension and atmosphere shroud some of these later levels in a way that few games manage - this is the very reason why the Commandos games ever became popular in the first place. They're a knife edge, and when you maintain the balance they require throughout then you can't help but feel gratified.
So drink some Tequila at the bar and have a think about whether a slow-paced tactical squad RTS set in the Wild West is really for you. That lady with the off-the-shoulder dress may look alluring, but really she just wants your money.
Personally I'm still holding out for something of a modern action Western... Max Payne in Mexico, or something. It's normally a nippy day in Beelzebub's back yard when I cry out for movie licences, but when will someone make a game of Desperado, the Robert Rodriguez film? Eh? Tsk.