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Jagged Alliance is a long-running series of turn-based tactical games that had a couple of outstanding entries back in the 1990s. In my opinion, Jagged Alliance 2's combination of guerrilla strategy, income management, complex tactical battles, charismatic mercenaries, and continued fan support makes it one of the best games in the genre. Sadly, none of the later entries in the series have been able to surpass or even match their venerable predecessor.
Developed by Cliffhanger Productions and published by Handy Games, a division of THQ Nordic, Jagged Alliance: Rage! (JAR) is the latest attempt to revitalize the series. The game is set twenty years after the original Jagged Alliance and features a total of seven familiar, if slightly worse for wear, mercs.
If you know your Jagged Alliance, that number alone should be enough to make you temper your expectations, so with that in mind, let's see what JAR has to offer.
B-Movie in Video Game Form
Before you start the game, you're asked to pick two mercenaries out of six. This will be your party for the early stages of the game. Later on, you'll be able to recruit a couple of additional mercs and get that number up to four, and on some missions you'll get a chance to command a couple of local rebels as well. The Team Player achievement makes it sound like you can recruit more mercs in a single playthrough, but I wasn't able to do so and couldn't find anything online to confirm or deny this fact. So, when it comes to squad size, things aren't as grim as they initially appear, but they aren't exactly great either.
On the plus side, each merc is unique and comes with multiple positive and negative traits, along with decades' worth of baggage and grievances. For example, one of them has a compromised immune system, which forces him to constantly pop antibiotics or risk catching all sorts of infections. And while running a fever is not exactly pleasant, it also provides a boost of adrenaline that translates into additional action points and damage resistance, and grants access to the so-called Rage Skills.
These special active skills that range from a precise armor-piercing shot to a short-range teleport help set the game's mercs apart even further and influence how you use them in the field. With how unique each merc feels, it's a real shame that there are so few of them.
When the game actually starts, you're greeted with a fairly stiff-looking opening scene where your two grizzled veterans get captured in the most amateurish way possible by queen Deidranna's whipping boy Elliot who you may remember from Jagged Alliance 2. Without wasting too much time, Elliot lets you know that he's now in the mind control drug business and your mercs are to become his latest test subjects. This needlessly long opening scene wouldn't be out of place in any cheap TV movie from the 80s where most of the already limited budget was spent on hard drugs, but because of how utterly ridiculous it is, it can actually get a chuckle or two out of you.
The not so great voice acting doesn't help though. While Jagged Alliance 2 had more than its fair share of cheese, its voice acting was an absolute joy to listen to. From the looks of it, JAR was going for something similar but missed the mark completely, and as a result its flat deadpan delivery can easily rival the infamous “A bomb!” line from the original Deus Ex. The same can be said about JAR's merc interactions, where it simply feels like the characters are talking past one another, instead of catching up and sharing old war stories.
After your team narrowly escapes being turned into drug-fueled zombies, they first try to leave Elliot's island, and when that fails, join the local rebels and help them overthrow the unstable dictator. The story is simple, but I have to admit that it does have some neat hooks. You have a crazed scientist turning old mercs into mindless super soldiers. There's a rivalry between your aging squad of has beens and the next generation of mercs, and even your allied rebels don't seem all that trustworthy. Unfortunately, none of these story elements really go anywhere or have a satisfying arc to them, which only furthers my “so bad, it's good” movie comparison.
On the visual side of things, JAR goes for a stylized comic book look, but ultimately fails to conceal its blocky design and antiquated character models. The soundtrack, on the other hand, I thought was pretty decent. The music fits the setting, sets the right tone, and has a nice bite to it.
The game's campaign that will probably take you somewhere between 15 and 20 hours to complete is separated into three acts, during which you will be exploring a hostile tropical island, scrounging for supplies, maintaining your equipment, and generally trying to stay alive.
The survival elements are actually quite neat and can be considered one of the game's strong suits. Your mercs don't automatically heal between missions, and leaving them with untreated injuries can lead to various complications. In order to actually heal your mercs, you will need to camp and focus on healing instead of fixing or improving your equipment. Healing also uses up valuable resources like water and medical kits, and those aren't exactly easy to come by.
On the other hand, the strategy elements are so basic that the whole strategic layer could have easily been replaced with a level select screen. There's no economy, you don't train any militia, there are no strategic points to capture and hold, no territory back and forth. You just move from one mission to the next while occasionally giving some basic orders to your rebel allies, and that's that.
Overall, the game's campaign is a very mixed bag with some neat ideas marred by poor execution. It's like some strange wonky roller coaster of ups and downs - you get a cast of unique mercs, but only a few of them; the game sets up neat narrative hooks, but then doesn't do anything with them; the strategic layer is extremely basic, but the survival elements are quite alright.
And with that out of the way, let's move on to the actual meat of the game - its tactical turn-based battles.
Sneaking, Shooting and Looting
Despite its limited squad size, the tactical options you get in JAR are actually pretty impressive when compared to other contemporary games in the genre. Sure, the ubiquitous these days abstract cover shields are still present, but at the very least, instead of the stifling two action system, you get proper variable action points modified by a plethora of factors, such as your mercs' adrenaline or hydration stats.
The game's weapon variety is also quite decent, further improved by the fact that each gun has its own AP costs, attack modes, and a set of stats that include durability, stability, effective range, and armor penetration. Weapons can also be modified through a series of attachments that you can either find in the field or craft yourself. However, it's important to note that the game's crafting system is not exactly deep and boils down to exchanging weapon parts for random attachments while camping.
On top of that, while setting up a shot, you can target different body parts and even spend additional AP to boost your accuracy, number of shots fired, or the effective cone of your overwatch maneuver, which is honestly quite refreshing to see. And aside from weapons, your mercs can also equip body armor, headgear, leg armor, and inventory-expanding bags.
Stealth also plays a fairly prominent part in JAR. With enough patience and the right set of tools, you can finish most of the game's missions without engaging your enemies directly. Or you can go in guns blazing and just shoot anything that moves. JAR supports both these playstyles, and in my experience the optimal way to approach things is somewhere in-between. You go in, get in position, quietly pick off enemy commanders, and then deal with the remaining rabble.
Speaking of commanders, they don't just get fancy hats and better equipment, they also coordinate their troops by giving them additional combat actions and letting them know where your mercs are hiding.
The game's enemy variety, while not too impressive, isn't bad either. You have your basic grunts, your snipers, and your officers, but also the tough elite mercs, doped out of their minds zombies, and even mutated super soldiers.
And on the animation side of things, even though there is no option to speed up or skip enemy animations, the default ones are fairly brisk already.
With all that in mind, some of the later stages, where you have a semblance of a proper squad under your command, can be pretty fun. The game's systems interact with one another and can lead to some neat situations. For example, you can shoot a silenced rifle at an enemy soldier, and miss. But the sound of the bullet wheezing past his head forces that particular soldier to turn around and allows your other mercs to sneak up behind him and take him out. Or, you may want to intentionally show yourself to the enemy commander, who then raises the alarm and orders his soldiers to leave their posts and rush your positions. This in turn allows your other mercs to walk through the previously guarded gates and pincer the enemy.
Unfortunately, even the bigger maps in JAR can feel claustrophobic at times and don't really encourage prolonged battles. You will maybe have to face 20-30 enemies on a single map during the later stages, and even that makes things feel a bit cramped.
When it comes to difficulty, JAR is not afraid to punish your mistakes, and a single dumb move can at times cost you a loading screen. However, even though the game offers three difficulty settings, the limited map and squad sizes mean that you don't get that many opportunities to mess up, so once you figure out how things work, the game becomes quite easy.
And even though some of the game's missions can be pretty fun, certain design decisions bring that fun factor way down. For example, the game stays turn based even when you're not in combat, which makes exploration quite frustrating. And its controls, while decent on both keyboard and mouse and a controller, don't feel great on either. This is especially noticeable when you're trying to loot after a battle. When the shooting is over, the game lets you loot things remotely, but going through each and every corpse while searching for rare and precious resources like water, repair parts and ammo becomes real annoying real fast. And this is coming from someone who generally enjoys inventory management in games.
And now, I have to mention what is perhaps the game's biggest flaw - it doesn't feature character development or progression of any sort. Sure the mercs are all unique, and yes they are already veterans of countless battles, but without a chance to increase their skills or new levels to look forward to, the game starts to feel a bit hollow, like there's no point to anything you do. Now, seeing how this is a roughly 15 hour game, the lack of progression doesn't sting too too bad, but it still sours things a bit.
JAR is made with the Unity Engine, and this is where I usually would complain about unnecessarily long loading times. However, thanks to its small maps, the game saves and loads almost instantly. And when it comes to saving, you can save at will and have a couple of autosave slots to fall back on in case something goes wrong. Unfortunately, something goes wrong fairly often. During my playthrough, the game got stuck on various animations a bunch of times, which forced me to reload.
And while in general, the game's AI was fairly competent, occasionally it went haywire, forcing units to just run back and forth for no good reason. Another annoying bug I noticed was that at times the game's noise indicator didn't work, which led to a merc breaking stealth even though the game was claiming otherwise. There were some other minor issues here and there, but nothing game-breaking.
On the plus side, the game ran pretty well for the most part, except for some dropped frames when I was moving the camera over elevated terrain.
I should also mention that you can play through the game together with a friend, so that's also something to keep in mind when considering JAR.
Overall, Jagged Alliance: Rage! is not even in the same ballpark as the early entries in the series. But while it's not the glorious return to form we've all been waiting for, it's not completely devoid of merits either.
It's not pretty, it sorely lacks polish, its story is on the “so bad, it's good” level, and its mechanics are slightly above average, but even so, the game has its moments and can be quite fun despite its numerous glaring issues and lacking features.
Those of you looking for a worthy Jagged Alliance successor should stay as far away from this game as possible. But if you're good at tempering expectations and have $20 and 15 hours to spare, you may want to give Jagged Alliance: Rage! a shot. It's really not as bad as it initially appears, and that's the highest level of praise I'm willing to give it.