Party Like It’s 1999 in Jagged Alliance 3

Jagged Alliance 3 Preview

I was watching the movie Bullet Train, and I thought to myself, “This would make for an awesome video game.” And then I remembered that there was a video game that captured all the things I liked about that movie. The problem was that the last real entry in the Jagged Alliance series came out in the previous millennium. The intervening years have given us spin-offs but a proper sequel is nearly here. Jagged Alliance 3 is desperate to party like it’s 1999.

Mission Control

To the gamers who were perhaps born after Jagged Alliance came out, the hook is simple. You command a small squadron of international mercenaries, navigating a coup is a small country. Though the game has a lot of hallmarks of a strategy game- you move your characters on a world map, you manage money, injuries, and morale- Jagged Alliance is actually more of an RPG. There’s dialogue, and a plot, and everything. This sequel also occupies that strange genre space.

The setting may have changed, but a lot’s stayed the same, right down to the cast of Mercs. Many of the characters are returning from earlier games. Mercs have a specialty, like marksmanship, medicine, or making stuff blow up. They also have a cute nickname, like Ice, and Steroid, and Fox, and Barry. (Barry’s cool, be nice to Barry). And they also have a unique ability, to serve the squad in turn-based tactical encounters.

The characters are the real draw here. Much like the original Jagged Alliance games (and the movie Bullet Train) the Mercs all have opinions on each other, but guns for hire don’t get to pick their comrades. A pair of best friends may talk about what they’ve been reading lately, or a pair of rivals may celebrate their foe’s demise. In dialogue scenes (which are more or less linear from playthrough to playthrough) the different Mercs offer different lines depending on who is around. Assembling the perfect squad is fun. Trying to make an imperfect squad functional is even better.

Old, But Not Forgotten

For better and for worse, a lot about Jagged Alliance 3 really feels like an old PC game. That’s a good thing when it comes to the overall design. This is a game from an alternate timeline where XCOM was never rebooted. That explains why so many features that have become standard in this genre are missing, or completely rethought. Most of the time, I found that very freeing. Despite having a linear story, you can approach battles in Jagged Alliance 3 in just about any order. Fights are not procedural demonstrated, but consistent on bespoke maps. And yet, they never play out the same way twice.

That’s because Jagged Alliance is full of hidden dice rolls. This is a game asking you to pray at the altar of RNG. Which makes sense. Fights are trying to simulate the chaos of bullets flying in a Stallone movie. Shots have got to miss; for the drama! But Jagged Alliance has strange habits to information sharing. You can see how many AP a move will take (and you can spend more to make the shot more accurate). You can pick a body part to shoot at. You even know the critical hit percentage. What you don’t know is how likely you are to make the shot: Jagged Alliance 3 glazes right over that one. But you get a meter indicating the gun’s range. How do you come up with that?

Decisions like the lack of aiming percentages sort of carry a fuck around and find out attitude, and as I said, that’s got benefits and drawbacks. I certainly played for aggressively in Jagged Alliance than I would have in an XCOM clone. And often it ended in disaster. But sometimes the experiment pays off, and I direct a thrilling action scene.

X-Treme Pixel Hunting

This jankiness also carries over into the presentation. The graphics ain’t straining my GPU. The sound design… is very 90s. The repetitive barks have a lot of personality, but you can only listen to them so many times before you reach for the mute button. And sometimes the jankiness is actually bad. Stealth is a mess, especially because Jagged Alliance is sensitive about where you click. Sneaking across the hall is a big problem when you miss the pixel and you Merc closes the door and stands in the corridor like a chump. That feels not great.

It may be a lot of things, but one thing this game definitely is is a Jagged Alliance. I was thrilled to get reacquainted with my favorite snarky murderers, and I delight in fine tuning my squad to get everything just right. Jagged Alliance is wicked hard, but it’s the kind of difficulty that makes me want to try again and again, until I achieve mastery. At the end of the day, isn’t that all we ask from our video games?

***PC code provided by the publisher***