Jagged Alliance 3 successfully builds on decades old innovation

A West-African nation, Grand Chien, has entered a new era of turmoil as an upstart, rebel faction has rapidly laid claim to the country and kidnapped the president. The President’s surviving family, his daughter has hired you to assemble a group of mercenaries, save the president and return Grand Chien to the people. That’s the plot of the long-awaited Jagged Alliance 3; squad-based tactics and a bus-load of 80s action-movie-style mercenaries.

Most fans of the series will have already made their decision to pick up Jagged Alliance 3 already; they’ll have been excitedly watching the trailers, carefully scanning articles and interviews to make sure that it matches their vision of the series. That’s incredibly understandable considering the history of the series: Back in 1999, Jagged Alliance 2, the long-awaited sequel to the series’ first entry released. I’m sure that, at the time, the four-year wait was torturous, but the fact that it’s taken 24 years for a full-fledged, feature-complete title that captures the spirit of the series to appear is perhaps unprecedented. In fact, it’s far beyond the often ridiculed 15-year limbo that the Duke Nukem series was stuck in, although, in Jagged Alliance‘s defence, there have been other titles released in the time since (including a spiritual sequel which lost the IP), it’s just they’ve never quite captured the scale or pace of the earliest two entries.

But, Jagged Alliance 3 does feel like a true sequel. It hits almost every single nail firmly on the head: The mercs are back, they chatter among themselves; The situation is dire, but you can carve a way through with guts, guns and gusto; You’re outnumbered, and often outgunned, but never outwitted. There is an incredible number of similarities between it and Jagged Alliance 2, but the previous attempts at modernising the series show that maybe it’s a good thing. In fact, it’s incredibly clear that balance and pacing were major design considerations here… and — Ironman, Permadeath modes aside — that’s what makes it feel like a true sequel, because it makes for a game where you’re being squeezed to press forward, but rarely forced.

For those who are reading, many of whom won’t have played a previous Jagged Alliance title, the gameplay is actually deceptively simple and might seem familiar. In fact, if you’ve played any of the relatively recent Real Time Tactics titles (Commandos 2 HD, Shadow Tactics, Desperados III) then those games share more than a few things in common with the series, also XCOM‘s tactical placement and even the cRPG revival (Wasteland, Shadowrun etc) with their party-based play and staggered turns feature similar mechanics. With most of those examples, there are at least a few things in common, although the Jagged Alliance series was very much the best at what it could be, and so there weren’t really many imitators.

Jagged Alliance 3

The gist, though, is simple. You are hired for a contract, you hire mercenaries — who each have their own personalities, likes and dislikes — and move them around a grid-based map of a country that needs saving. When you enter combat it’s turn-based, with cover and weapon range playing a major role. Stealth is optional, and weapons and equipment can be procured on sight and equipped by your mercenaries to better set them up for success.

It’s never quite as simple as that, enemies do hit hard when they hit; so avoidance of bullets is a must. That means that there is a lot of controlling firing lines, overwatch, or flanking required in order to outfox what is, almost always, more enemies than you have mercs. You’ll spend your time outside of combat scavenging, scrapping, training militia and repairing weapons.

You can, in Jagged Alliance 3, hire up to twenty mercs, which is over half of the total recruitable from A.I.M — the mercenary service — however there are also a few individuals who can be recruited around the map directly. This gives a massive variety of mercs, especially as most of them have likes or dislikes within the collective, but, I was a little underwhelmed by the number of recruits you could hire on site due to being a little spoiled by Jagged Alliance 2‘s 60+ mercenaries. Luckily there’s still a massive variety in potential hires, and they’re all pretty well signposted this time (with icons saying what their best skill is). You’re almost on autopilot to hire a mix of mechanics, marksmen, doctors and more thanks to the iconography and UI.

The first area, which also happens to be the island covered in the demo, gives you a quick tutorial on stealth and other gameplay mechanics, however, it’s quick to ‘populate’ its help section and so maybe could have done with a separate, more hands-on approach for players who are new to the genre. For my first playthrough, I got to the major plot twist without modifying my weapons, it was a total grind and more than once I thought to myself that it was just too hard. Then, I had a deeper look through the help sections again, laughed at myself and restarted the campaign. My second run made me realise that I should have been modifying my weapons from out of the gate and that I could comfortably play on a much harder difficulty. Having a mechanic along and bolting silencers, stocks and more onto weapons (and then keeping those weapons maintained) is a core part of the procure on-site mentality that you need to push forward through Jagged Alliance 3 at any speed.

The second area is up to you. You can follow in the steps of M.E.R.C. the sub-par, A.I.M. spin-off from JA2, you can follow your employer to the country’s capital or you can — in line with what most players are likely to do — dash to the mainland, directly to their first mine. Jagged Alliance 3′s Grand Chien is a country broken up by a massive river; four continental masses pull close around the river, while Ernie (Tutorial) Island, a military-controlled islet and archipelago chain make up the rest of the land. There’s little stopping you from blasting through the river or taking back routes beyond the need to depart from a dock, but even then you can make it to the “big bad’s base” with two boat hires and a lot of luck.

That’s the charm, of course There might be a desire to paint the map, but there’s nothing (besides, maybe, finances) stopping you from carving your way across the map at double speed. If you’re savvy then you can just ditch guns rather than repair them, you can pass through areas without stopping to patch yourself up, or to train militia in case the enemies attack. You can knock out enemy outposts and march straight at the enemies who are moving to reclaim the territory that you’ve taken. It’s ill-advised though, as you’re not even a guerilla force; you’re a massively outnumbered squad of action heroes who don’t quite have all the set-pieces lined up for them.

Jagged Alliance 3

And that’s perhaps the thing. My favourite way to play Jagged Alliance 3 is slowly. I want to hear Buns and Mouse bounce off Fox. It’s awkward but both understandable and entertaining when Livewire doesn’t want to work with cops and when basically nobody wants to work with Steroid. Jagged Alliance has always had the inter-party conversational and emotional play that, for many, made the Baldur’s Gate cRPG series memorable. But, as in previous titles, Jagged Alliance 3‘s mercenaries will make demands based on not only the individual merc, but also their competencies or geo-political concerns (certain Eastern-European mercs are not fans of the Russian ones, for instance).

These mercs have lines that are specific to certain NPCs or interaction points too, they’re very much the main selling point of the game, and each one is incredibly different from another due to not only those lines, but perks, talents and varied attributes. For instance, my third playthrough ‘core team’ features Fox, who when she triggers combat allows your team to get another attack in before enemies become alert; Barry, who builds two shaped explosive charges once a week; Mouse, who doesn’t trigger enemy overwatch while moving; Livewire, who is not only great at hacking, but if she has intel on an area can see every enemy; and Kalyna, who has a talent that lets her bullets ignore armour. These are all incredibly affordable mercenaries — the more premium ones have abilities that range from letting them stealth while walking, grant temp hitpoints to them and adjacent mercs, and gain 50% crit chance if attacking from above the enemy. There’s a tonne of variety there, and even just swapping out two or three mercs to build up a new team can completely change your playstyle.

That’s not to say that Jagged Alliance 3 is a perfect game. There are a few glaring problems, that stop it from being that. Firstly, as I mentioned earlier, the tutorial is too hands-off. I’ve been playing games for years and years, and there are loads of games that don’t need tutorials or onboarding — this isn’t one of those games, there are definitely techniques and game elements that should be shown to most players (maybe all bar the hardest difficulty by default) to ensure they don’t have an awful time out of the gates.

There are quality-of-life features which could have been shouted about more: The Alt-button toggles on outlines/indicators for interaction points, you can switch off completed tasks in the note menu, and the medical deposits for mercenaries aren’t explained. Other areas of improvement include sign-posting that you can talk to minor characters multiple times for clues, or to advance minor story points, the absolute value of modifying weapons, explaining how squad assets are split when squads split, and maybe even explaining that you shouldn’t leave mercenaries idle, and that you don’t need to mop up the map to advance.

Finally, there comes to my two main things as a fan of the series. Firstly, it would be great to have had more mercs in the game — although thankfully Steam Workshop seems to be quickly moving to cover that. Secondly, I wish there was more depth to the Computer/Browser section of the game. It’s mainly used for hiring from A.I.M. and designing your main character with I.M.P. In JA2 there was a merchant who you could buy from, although it makes sense that it might break the game economy, but there was also the competitor mercenary outlet and a florist who could send flowers to the game’s villain. It feels like the developers could have had a little fun with the browser links and alternative pages rather than having it as shallow as it is.

I’ve avoided spoilers throughout this review, but I do want to close out by saying that it’s fantastic that there are so many references to the previous two main games, be that through characters, bios, and plot twists. I also really enjoyed the depth of the world and the variety of lines and interjections the mercenaries could have with it. While some of the humour in it feels incredibly old-fashioned and, well, not really humourous, it hits the mark most of the time.

Fans of squad-based strategy who love tactical freedom will feel right at home with Jagged Alliance 3, a long-awaited sequel that succeeds in relighting and carrying the series’ torch.

Jagged Alliance 3 is available now for PC, you can grab it on Steam.

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