Game name: Jagged Alliance 3
Release date: July 14, 2023
Available on: Steam
Genre: Turn-based tactics
Developer: Haemimont Games
Publisher: THQ Nordic
Oh, Jagged Alliance. A series that has either been dormant for years or poorly rebooted by studios that didn’t have a clue about what made the originals great. It’s under these circumstances that the IP came to find itself in the hands of THQ Nordic, one of the many arms of the all-absorbing Embracer Group. Their first attempt at making a new one wasn’t exactly great either, making fans feel like the cycle would continue, up until Jagged Alliance 3 (yes, a numbered sequel!) was revealed to be in development at Haemimont Games, known for having created most of the well received Tropico titles, as well as others, mostly in the tactics/strategy genre, such as the not so well received Omerta: City of Gangsters (which I have to admit to have enjoyed greatly). Would this be a return to form for the aging franchise, or would it be the final nail in the coffin? You know what to do dear reader, join me in this expedition, as my mercenary mind probes the newest (and greatest, perhaps?) title in this long-running series.
I’ll get this out of the way first, to rip that band-aid before it’s too late. This new entry in the Jagged Alliance universe has all the trappings of those who came before, but its combat is a lot closer than the one featured in Firaxis’ excellent XCOM games than it is to Jagged Alliance 2, for example. If that’s a dealbreaker to you, then I regret to report that nothing I can write will dissuade you from that idea. Myself? I am quite a bit more open to change if said change brings something good to the table, and I feel that in Jagged Alliance 3’s case, it very much does. It’s a rather streamlined take on the franchise’s often grueling turn-based tactical combat, but it ends up working out a lot better than anyone would have expected, considering previous attempts to bring back the series with elements from other, more modern videogames. There’s also the option to engage in stealthy maneuvers before starting battles outright, and in some scenarios that’ll be the difference between living to tell the tale and going back home in a body bag.
With that said, everything else is mostly unchanged, with slight alterations that somewhat dumb down the overworld mechanics, but nothing that screams heresy to me. The start of the game is exactly what you’d expect, we are presented with a nicely rendered menu screen offering the services of different mercenaries to choose from, and we’ll have to pick some of them for a rescue mission in the embattled nation of Grand Chien. There’s a rather comprehensive roster of potential recruits, and as we go up the pecking order, so do their salary requirements. As expected, the grizzled veterans won’t even talk to us until we’ve got some experience under our belt, so we’ll have to balance everything in order to build the most balanced starter squad possible (and save some cash, because if one of our mercs bites the bullet, we’ll have to hire a new one, which means entirely new contract, etc.)
Every mercenary at our disposal has their own well defined personality, with most of them being lifted directly from action movie stereotypes from the late 80s/mid 90s. While that might surprise XCOM fans used to blank slate soldiers molded by the player, it won’t be anything out of the ordinary for those of us who played previous games in the series. After all, while Jagged Alliance is very much a tactics game at heart, it possesses a very meaty RPG side that comes to light quite brightly in our interactions with the cast of guns-for-hire that are waiting to meet us. I didn’t really have any issues with the game’s humor, but I have to admit that as someone who grew up feasting on Schwarzenegger masterpieces such as the always perfect Commando, I am probably a bit more than slightly biased in this regard, so you may want to seek a second opinion there. I recommend checking out different squad compositions, since there’s a fair chance of getting mercs who actually knew one another before joining our operation (and in some cases, either hate each other’s guts or have developed a great rapport with them). Of course, even the lowliest recruit will eventually become a gritty veteran at some point, provided we take them on enough sorties without them perishing, as the game has an experience system and our characters gain new levels, which come with their accompanying agonizing choices over which traits to take and which to leave on the table.
Gameplay-wise, it’s also a great idea to diversify one’s squad, since our potential recruits all come with different specialties, aside from their level of experience in whatever it is we are recruiting them for. This means that while it might be fun to run around the place with a full team of badass sharpshooters, it might not make much tactical sense the second we require someone skilled in medicine, or an engineer. And if that doesn’t happen (which is something I highly doubt, but everyone thinks they are the Napoleon of turn-based tactics at some point) then an explosives expert is always welcome in any team, especially considering how broken explosives currently are, when it comes to balance.
We still interact with the game world from within two main views, one, the overworld or satellite view, from where we’ll direct the larger operations, and the other, more intimate tactical view, where the action shifts to an isometric perspective and we can see our mercenaries scurrying about the place. I’d say in any regular playthrough you’d probably spend a good 60% in tactical view with remaining 40% being overworld management duties (which aren’t a chore, by the way!).
The tactical combat aspect of the game smartly mixes ideas from the modern XCOM games (cover plays an extremely important part in any engagement, and visually, the battlefields of Grand Chien wouldn’t be too out of place in XCOM 2 for instance) with other notions that give it a very unique spin on the genre. Instead of having annoying hit chances where we can miss a 99% shot to the face, Jagged Alliance 3 pays a lot more attention to real-world physics (or an approximation of them, to be precise). So, for instance, if a merc wielding a shotgun who is well trained in using said weapon faces off against an enemy taking cover behind a tree and doesn’t aim for unobstructed body parts, the pellets will end up clashing against wood instead of hitting their intended target. But that’s not the result of cold, unfeeling hit chances but rather our own mistake for not aiming at the juicy, exposed bits of our enemy. Should we readjust and for instance, target an arm, that will not only damage our foe, but also lower their accuracy once their turn comes up. Shoot someone in the head and they’ll die. Plink a leg? You can bet they’ll have a harder time moving around the battlefield. That can also come back to bite us in the rear at any minute, considering that mercs will eventually get wounded and require medical treatment in order to recover their health. Everything we (and our enemies) do costs Action Points, and that means we can choose to spend them in aiming better if that’s needed, for instance (and the game will reward us with far better hit chances, although character stats and proficiency with the gear being used matters quite a bit). The overall feeling I got from JA3’s combat after spending a fair amount of time with the game is that it’s a lot slower than something like XCOM, but it’s also quite a bit more rewarding, leading to firefights that feel like they have far more important consequences to the player, even if the larger picture would be a lot less grandiose (saving the world from an insidious alien invasion vs. a mercenary intervention in an embattled country).
Ammunition can’t be spent willy-nilly shooting at anything that moves, since it’s a resource that needs to be replenished, and if we choose to equip our mercenaries with body armor, then we’ll have to spend time repairing said equipment once the battle is over, since wear and tear pays a rather important part here (remember when I talked about the necessity of having a diverse roster?). Guns can also be customized, repaired and maintained. Here is also where the overworld portion of the game comes into play, as we’ll spend a meaty amount of time traversing areas without getting into fights so we can control diamond mines to fund our growing army of mercs and set up different operations to support the combat encounters. So, for instance, once we’ve recruited enough gun hands for the cause, we might want to set some up on training missions for local militia, or send tired teams to some well earned R&R, etc. There’s always multiple objectives to chase and we can never really just engage in a single action without dipping our toes in other stuff. After all, our mercs require payment and without cold, hard earned cash, they’ll say thanks but this is not my fight and return home, no matter the amount of battles fought under your command.
So far so good, right? There’s one area where I was somewhat underwhelmed, which is when it comes to performance. Now don’t get me wrong, this is a rather good looking title, and it’s got all the bells and whistles you’d expect from a modern strategy game. Explosions, great looking textures, distinct (and detailed) character models, gorgeous locales, anything you name, it’s there (just don’t ask for perfect animations because that area is somewhat lacking). Sadly, it all comes at a slight cost in performance. My machine isn’t top of the line by any means (I played the game on a Ryzen 5 5600x, 32gb, RTX 3070 rig) but I feel that at 1440p this sort of title shouldn’t be dipping below 60fps in the regular, and sadly it did as much during bigger engagements. Thankfully, as a turn-based game, that doesn’t really ruin gameplay much, but it’s still sad to see. Hopefully some patches will straighten things up, as everything else in the audiovisual front is top notch (I have to make a special mention to the sound and music department, which includes the voice actors for all the mercs, everyone did a tremendous job there!).
What’s the final tally then? As strange as it may sound, I believe we are looking at a genuinely excellent successor to Jagged Alliance 2. Haemimont Games managed to take this hot potato of a series and create a title that can proudly stand alongside the previous two mainline entries in the franchise. In a way, they’ve done what Firaxis did for X-Com (and I hope it’ll end up getting an equally strong audience reception, because they deserve it).
9/10 – Great.
PS: The game features a 2 player co-op mode that can be played online, and from what I hear it’s pretty good (though somewhat limited), but I wasn’t really able to test it on my own, so I didn’t feel like I could talk about it in my review.