Review: War has changed, a bit, in challenging Jagged Alliance 3

Jagged Alliance 3

It’s 2001 and in the small West African state of Grand Chien (or “Big Dog”), the President has been kidnapped. A fighting force known as the Legion now controls much of the country, led by the mysterious “Major”. The President’s daughter wants him rescued, and order restored to her nation – unfortunately, she has only $40,000 to spend. She can only afford the most dubious mercenaries, and this can only be a Jagged Alliance game.

The original Jagged Alliance helped to spearhead the first golden era of tactical games; it was released in April 1995, just over a year after UFO: Enemy Unknown. In 1999, Jagged Alliance 2 solidified the formula. It combined tough, realistic turn-based combat and mercenary management with brash humour indebted to the action movies of the 1980s. It became a cult favourite, but legal and financial issues prevented a true sequel.

Bulgarian studio Haemimont Games built their reputation on developing three entries in the Tropico series. They have stated that the chance to finally make Jagged Alliance 3 was a “dream come true” for them, and it shows. This new entry ignores the various failed revivals, and adheres quite closely to the formula of Jagged Alliance 2. Their affection for that game is evident everywhere, and will please fans of the series – it is newcomers that will have a tougher time.

Once the player has hired a handful of pre-built rookie mercs, they will deploy to a small island off the coast to meet Emma LaFontaine, the President’s daughter. Once the island is under control, the player is free to explore Grand Chien in search of the target. The country comprises over 200 distinct accessible sectors, which range from nearly empty savannah to densely packed commercial, industrial, or residential zones. Make no mistake – Jagged Alliance 3 is a highly open-ended, deep, and unforgiving experience.

A camp in Jagged Alliance 3
Careful scouting is usually essential to survive tougher encounters with the Legion.

Would-be liberators of Grand Chien will spend much of their time in the tactical view, exploring sectors close-up and engaging the Legion. Exploration is real-time, until the squad is detected and turn-based battle begins. Combat uses an action point system, with tiredness and morale modifiers. Each merc has an AP reserve based on their agility stat, which can be cut if they entered the sector in a tired state or if they see a comrade gunned down.

Mistakes or bad luck can spiral into disaster very quickly. Mercs with low basic AP, like the nervy returning medic character MD, become almost useless if the tide turns against the team. This is one reason why Jagged Alliance 3 feels so unforgiving. While there is an ironman mode, only the most extremely confident or reckless commanders should attempt it. Realistically, most players are going to be reaching for the load button from time to time, or even restarting their campaigns. It doesn’t help that certain systems are poorly tutorialised, like the useful but fairly crude stealth mechanic.

When its basics are mastered, however, the combat is often exhilarating. The key battlefields in Jagged Alliance 3 are often quite small, but they are dense with tactical possibilities. A stealthy merc like Blood can slip past outer defences to identify enemy locations or points of weakness. Next, an explosives expert like Barry can sow key chokepoints with remote-detonated explosives. Then, marksmen can take up high-ground positions to maximise their chance to hit. Be warned: Haemimont Games provide a wealth of details in battle, but chance to hit is not one of them.

Winning battles as efficiently as possible is strongly encouraged because of how challenging the strategic layer is. Unlike the pro bono gunslingers in other tactical games, the soldiers in Jagged Alliance 3 must be paid. Staying afloat financially is a constant, thorny struggle. As the saying goes, you have to spend money to make money. Skimping on merc numbers will doom the whole operation if an engagement goes wrong. Well-resourced teams are better able to secure diamond mines and make bank.

A mansion in Jagged Alliance 3
Some locations are under neutral control, like a gangster’s isolated mansion.

Time, too, must also be managed carefully. Any actions taken in the strategic view take time, and time is money. The selectable “operations” include training militias to hold precious gains on the map, healing wounds, repairing equipment, giving soldiers R&R, and scouting. The strategic layer is almost as engaging a set of tough problems as the tactical battles and while it is simpler than Jagged Alliance 2, it requires serious thought.

There are a number of notable shortcomings that must be taken into account, and which reflect the modest resources Haemimont Games have worked with. While the environments are pleasant to look at, Jagged Alliance 3 is weak in some other areas of its presentation. Combat animations are often stiff, and visual effects for gunfire and explosions could do with being much clearer and more spectacular. The camera can be a real frustration when mercs explore the occasional multi-story building – which to be fair, is a perennial problem in games like this and not one that is easy to solve.

The biggest possible issue is how unwelcoming the game can initially feel. This is a complex, deep game and the minimal tutorials are arguably insufficient. Jagged Alliance 3 throws players into the deep end very early on, even on its easiest setting, and at times it can feel overly cruel or opaque. This is not a game suited to newcomers to the tactical genre, but perhaps Haemimont Games should still do more to soften the ride a little.

Humour was always a fixture of the classic games and this sequel retains that tone. As ever, it is an acquired taste. There are dozens of distinct merc characters, many of them returning from Jagged Alliance 2. Old hands will relish the chance to go into the breach with them again, but newcomers may find their corny and repetitive jokes difficult to put up with. Some of the writing and side-mission design is surprisingly good, however. 

The Jagged Alliance series has a crucial place in the history of tactical games, but for years had been poorly served by flawed attempts to revive it. While it is rough around the edges and can be difficult to get into, Jagged Alliance 3 is a surprisingly solid return for the series. With patches and mods, it could yet become an essential feature of the tactical landscape – and for Haemimont Games, that is mission accomplished.

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