Right before the Millennium, fans of Sir-Tech’s quirky tactical RPG Jagged Alliance were graced with a sequel. It was possibly one of the best sequels for a game ever made. For years afterward, despite some game-breaking bugs, Jagged Alliance 2 set a standard for taut tactical action, screwball (and occasionally grim) humor, and technical realism that numerous developers since Sir-Tech’s closure would never come close to duplicating. After so many failures, so many wannabe contenders for the crown, it’s hard to believe somebody could actually deliver a good Jagged Alliance game, let alone one that legitimately claims to be a genuine and proper sequel. But sometimes, people do have their faith rewarded. And Jagged Alliance 3 makes every bit of the last 24 years worth the wait.
Set in the fictional West African nation of Grand Chien, Jagged Alliance 3 once again pits the colorful mercenaries of AIM against a tinpot warlord who wants to be king (whatever the official title might be). The country’s President is being held hostage by a paramilitary leader known as “The Major,” and his “Legion” forces are instituting a reign of terror against the populace. Unfortunately for the Legion, the President’s daughter has teamed up with an international corporation known as Adonis (which oversaw the country’s diamond mines) to rescue her father and put down the coup. And that’s where you come in. You’ll recruit your shooters and deploy them into various environments from tropical coastal areas to beat-up small towns to military bases, all with the intention of terminating Legion forces with extreme prejudice and the occasional one-liner. Of course, being mercenaries, you need to make sure they’re paid regularly. And that means getting control of those diamond mines. If you can make your war pay for itself, you’ve got a good chance to bring down the Legion and send the Major to a shallow unmarked grave.
Given it’s been almost a quarter-century, one would absolutely expect at least decent visuals from Jagged Alliance 3, and Haemimont Games did not disappoint. Character models are well done both in the tactical area and in the conversation sequences, with returning characters looking like a reasonably realistic interpretation of the portraits from Jagged Alliance 2 and new characters looking realistic and personable. While the Legion goon squads suffer from a bit of sameness in character models, they’re at least recognizable by role type, an important distinction when you’re determining targeting priorities. It’s a bit of a bummer that your custom mercenary doesn’t get a load of portrait or customization options, but given the potential for mod support, that may be easily corrected in the future.
As for environments, they’re richly detailed and varied. Urban environments range from corrugated steel shantytowns to industrialized ports to small towns with well built structures. The wilderness areas are equally diverse, from parched looking savannas to tropical coastal regions and teeming jungles. Visual effects abound in Jagged Alliance 3. Some are purely aesthetic, such as the red mist and arterial blood spray from enemies who fall victim to a particularly effective critical hit. Others like rain and light sources will also have effects on your efforts as you earn your pay trying to accomplish your mission. As far as the user interface, it’s clean, easily readable, and eminently useful. There are a couple of stumbles, such as character energy levels, which hamper your efforts. But as with the character portraits for custom mercs, this is something that if the developers don’t fix, the mod community very likely would. Bottom line, Jagged Alliance 3 looks wonderful. It looks lived in, whether people are present or not, and it feels like the right mix of realism and cinematic artistry has been struck.
When it comes to audio, Jagged Alliance 3 gets the job done and done right. While music is a little sparse, and unlikely to be hitting up your playlist anytime soon, it does help set the mood and that’s really all it needs to do. The real heavy lifting is done by sound effects and voice acting, and these elements are where Jagged Alliance 3 shines. Pistols sound different from submachine guns, which in turn sound different from battle rifles and machine guns. The sound of bullets hitting sheet metal versus masonry or dirt is distinctive and engaging. Even the sound of melee weapons hitting flesh is meaty and appropriately disturbing. While none of the original voice cast from Jagged Alliance 2 appears to have returned, the actors involved in this production seem to have a good sense of the characters and how fans expect them to behave. This was probably the one great sin with Jagged Alliance: Back In Action and I’m extremely gratified that this cast isn’t duplicating it. Those playing returning characters seem to understand what those characters should be, so we’re not seeing a lot of jarring shifts in tone and personality. As for those who are playing new characters, they project the right amount of gravitas and cheese. They’re a wonderfully motley collection of folks, showing a range of emotions and emotional conditions from the giddy pyromania of local bomb maker Deedee Bombastic to the bitter rage of Legion flunky Pierre. Even “The Major” puts forth the right amount of cool and controlled menace as your operational antagonist, setting them apart from Jagged Alliance 2‘s constantly shrieking Deidrianna.
The gameplay aspect of Jagged Alliance 3 isn’t flawless, but you’ll have a hard damned time finding real issues. Everything feels like a refinement or functional improvement from Jagged Alliance 2. The developers realized what worked, what didn’t, and didn’t try to break what worked. That alone puts it above virtually every game in the series past the “Wildfire” DLC for Jagged Alliance 2. Since this is a tactical RPG, combat is going to be the bulk of your activity, and Haemimont has refined it to a completely painless process for the player. Pick a body part, spend action points to reduce your circle of error, click and boom. Rather than having to hoard your action points for potential overwatch ambushes, you simply click a button, define the arc for your weapon (as determined by the type of weapon the character is holding), and move along. Special attacks can keep enemies pinned down, or apply clever uses for grenades, or even help you shoot-and-scoot to a better position. You’re no longer having to deal with visible numeric probabilities when it comes to making a shot, and if you’ve got the action points (and the character skill), you can consistently put steel on target for all but the most fluke of circumstances. The morale system is simplified from Jagged Alliance 2 and is easily visible in the upper left corner of the screen. The tide of battle can be turned if you can stack the bodies up fast enough, or if you lose a lot of your troops because somebody put that grenade in just the right spot.
True to its predecessors, Jagged Alliance 3 has a good deal of “gun porn,” real world weapons which are modeled well from a visual and mechanical standpoint, and can be modified to further suit a variety of circumstances. Need to make that rifle better at long ranges? Throw a scope on. Trying to cut down on the noise from that SMG? A suppressor will help with that. Not every gun can be modified, but the ones that can, you want to keep around and keep in good shape. Yes, weapons (and armor) degrade with use, so having somebody who can fix them is a lot cheaper than having to go back to a repair depot every time. More importantly, at the tactical level, cover is not infinitely indestructible. Sheet metal is easily penetrated by bullets or shredded by explosives. Walls and doors can be blown apart, forcing you to have to relocate under enemy fire. The good news there is that the same conditions apply to the bad guys. It’s not just regular wear and tear you need to worry about, though. Environmental conditions like heavy rains can make weapons jam, while high temperatures can slowly grind down your troops’ energy, leading to lost time while they take some R&R to recharge themselves.
With every zone your teams enter, you’re going to uncover new complications and side quests which (while potentially lucrative) are going to burn the most precious resource you have available: time. Can you intercept that convoy of diamonds in time to help pad your cash reserves? Do you trust the militia to hold the enemy off long enough for you to reinforce, or do you sacrifice the sector to take it back later? You’re not fighting a bunch of unconnected skirmishes for points. You’re fighting a war, and that means hard choices tactically, strategically, and narratively. Haemimont Games made the right call by bringing Ian Currie (the director of Jagged Alliance 2)back as the lead writer, and it absolutely shows in every quip, every conversation between NPCs, and every player interaction you have with quest givers and named characters. The tone doesn’t simply ape Jagged Alliance 2, but feels like a proper continuation of that game’s setting. There’s a lot of humor, ranging from the sly to the crude, as well as a good amount of actual drama and even pathos without feeling cheap or exploitative. And while the laughs are necessary to help come down off the piano wire tightness of pitched battle, the dramatic moments are just as important and at times surprisingly sobering. Jagged Alliance 3 doesn’t glamorize or fetishize the human cost of “low intensity” conflicts. But you’re going to find yourself in situations where you need to make a judgment call, and the only hint you’re going to get is “this will have major story consequences!” And sometimes those situations don’t have a happy ending no matter what you choose.
Of course, it’s not all gloom and doom. Your forces can build up their skills through the crush of battle or you can set certain mercenaries into their own squad to serve as roving cadre, training incoming mercenaries and local militia forces to hold what your field teams bought with hot lead and cold blood. Just be prepared for lower tier mercs to negotiate higher rates once they get sufficiently experienced. Aside from the increased costs, mercs gain perks to help make them more effective, though these are based on certain skills, so if you’re not seeing much in the way of perks, you maybe need to improve other skills to expand your options. Your tactical supplies are also simplified, with mercenaries pulling fresh ammo from a common pool of different ammo types, as well as refilling med kits with their own pool and parts from a parts pile. You may find that some weapons require ammo which you don’t have on hand, and that will take up some backpack space. But on the upside, actions like using medkits no longer require you to have the bandages in your hands when plugging the holes in your buddies. And if you happen to scavenge guns from the battlefield, or your opposition’s cold dead hands, you can choose to spruce them up or scrap them for parts.
However, like I said, the gameplay’s not flawless. There are moments with the enemy AI where they seem to have “headless chicken” behavior where they run back and forth in certain areas when you’ve got shooters on overwatch and they can’t seem to make up their mind to charge ahead through the ambush zone or hit the deck. If you’ve got the AP, it will lead to a dead enemy pretty quickly. Or it’ll lead to a lot of bullets flying around with no appreciable effect. In other instances, you’ll have an enemy who’s been hiding in one tiny corner out of sight and you’re still stuck in turn-based movement because they’re hidden but you’re still notionally fighting them. This is probably the one stumble which deviates from Jagged Alliance 2, and it would be nice to switch back to real-time movement if a certain number of turns pass without active attempts by either side to shoot.
In a larger sense, I feel like I’ve only started to scratch the surface of Jagged Alliance 3, mainly because even the Easy difficulty level feels like a pretty burly challenge. If I’d had a month or so to work with it, I feel fairly certain I’d have gotten the killer instinct needed to overcome the early days of the campaign far more rapidly than I did. As it is, I spent an inordinate amount of time scum saving and trying new approaches into certain sectors to avoid ignominious defeat. It’s less a learning curve and more of a cliff. I genuinely shudder to think what a “Hardcore” run would look like. And this is after me coming off another stiff tactical RPG challenge recently. I should also point out that I didn’t get a chance to play around with the co-op multiplayer mode, which could very well have opened up new tactical and strategic possibilities.
Jagged Alliance 3 is the game that long-time (and long suffering) fans have been waiting for more than two decades: the proper and absolutely worthy successor to a genre-defining classic. Almost a quarter-century of dashed hopes and betrayed promises have been washed away by the folks at Haemimont Games and it feels wonderful. It’s not for the faint of heart, and it’s going to be one of those games where you’re going to fail a lot before you get a good handle on it. But if you’ve got the patience, the sense of gallows humor, and the ruthless mercenary instincts needed to survive, Jagged Alliance 3 will satisfy your tactical RPG desires in a way that hasn’t been seen in ages.