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Desperados 3 feels like a turn-based game built for speedrunners

Some of the best real-time tactics of this generation

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Key art for Desperados 3 shows the main character, Cooper, walking into the sunset. In the fore ground a dead man’s hand holds a pistol. Image: Mimimi Games/THQ Nordic
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Desperados 3 is the first game, in a year filled with attempts at shaking up the tactical formula, to truly find something new in a pile of old ideas.

It successfully blends stealth puzzle mechanics with methodical, XCOM-style action. But it goes even further, slathering on excellent motion-captured animations, top-notch voice acting, and a map that can be rotated 360 degrees. It even gives the AAA look of Gears Tactics a run for its money.

Best of all, its gameplay systems are incredibly elastic, accommodating a stately pace that caters to newcomers as well as a roguelike mode perfect for daring speedrunners. There are only 16 levels, but they hold the potential for hundreds of hours of gameplay.

A prequel to 2001’s Desperados and 2006’s Desperados 2, Desperados 3 explains the origins of the main characters of the series. The action follows John Cooper and his rugged band of outlaws, each with their own special abilities, as they go on a road trip across the 19th century American West. Cooper can perform silent takedowns and dual-wield pistols. Meanwhile, Doc McCoy is a healer who can also use chloroform, an explosive medical bag, or a scoped pistol that works well at longer ranges. The game offers five characters in all, including a mystic who can take control of enemies and even animals on her turn.

The game plays out a lot like a turn-based game on the “normal” difficulty setting. Enemies are grouped into clusters on the map, forming little scenes. Each scene operates on a loop, with enemies going about their business until player characters intervene.

Moving quickly will trigger an alarm, bringing in enemies from neighboring scenes, so the action centers around stealthy approaches. You carefully move your characters into position and then spin the camera around to observe the terrain, enemy patterns, and vision cones. Then it’s just a matter of exploiting every weakness you can find.

But the game isn’t turn-based. It plays out in real-time, even though you can pause the action, and the keyboard commands are arranged for speed and flexibility, more like a MOBA or an action game than a strategy title.

Individual characters are keyed up like weapons on the number line, with their abilities strung out along the ASDF row of keys. You can quickly switch between characters and assign them each waypoints on the map using the mouse and keyboard. The game is also fully compatible with controllers, but you lose out on a lot of flexibility if you go that route.

A waterfall with multiple bridges in the foreground. Image: Mimimi Games/THQ Nordic
A train moving at night past an adobe village. Image: Mimimi Games/THQ Nordic
A player takes aim with a Gatling gun on a group of enemies. At the top of the screen the sound alerts more who come streaming to the fight. Image: Mimimi Games/THQ Nordic
An urban scene, with terraced second-story overlooks. A market stall selling fresh fruit is below. Image: Mimimi Games/THQ Nordic

The trick is using multiple characters and multiple skills to set up Rube Goldberg-style chain reactions. McCoy can toss his medical bag to distract and stun one enemy while Cooper rounds the corner to clobber the other bad guy. Cooper can then hide the body of his victim while McCoy circles back to chloroform the original bandit who is still confused by the explosion. Things get even more complicated as additional characters and skills are added into the mix, but you get the idea.

The game is always played in real-time, but you can cue up actions while the game is paused as long as you’re playing on the default difficulty setting. Then all you have to do is unpause the game and hit the enter key to watch your plan unfold.

Things get interesting in the game’s highest difficulty setting. You can still program your actions, but you can’t pause the game. Enemies are always in motion, and setting up complicated actions under pressure is both challenging and thrilling, especially while trying to beat the clock.

I was able to take my time moving through the game’s first few levels over a couple of hours as I was learning the game. Now I know how they’re laid out, and what I need to do to get through them. That means I can go back and play them again in the highest difficulty setting, trying to make it all work in real-time. Characters are fragile, and the game turns the execution of even well-thought out plans into a high stakes game of life and death without the ability to pause the action.

An Xs and Os diagram of a level from Desperados 3. At the bottom is a slider for time, as well as a time multiplier for quick reviews. Image: Mimimi Games/THQ Nordic via Polygon

Now that I know the lay of the land, I’m looking forward to mastering my timing and the keyboard commands to see just how quickly I can move through each level. To unlock an achievement I’ll need to complete the first mission — basically an extended tutorial — in just five minutes, instead of the 50 that it first took me the first time. There are challenges like that for each of its 16 levels.

Luckily there’s a replay feature that players can use to record their exploits, a kind of shorthand graphical representation of a level’s solution that can be shared like an animated guide. It’s a fast-paced style of gameplay that is uncommon in the tactics genre, but is a welcome change of pace, if you’ll excuse a very obvious pun.

Desperados 3 will be released June 16 for PlayStation 4, Windows PC via Steam, and Xbox One. The game was reviewed using final “retail” Windows PC download codes provided by THQ Nordic. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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