Jagged Alliance 3 Review - Modern Strategy, 80s Cheese
Jagged Alliance is a franchise that has been around for quite a while now. That being said, it has been a long time between drinks for numbered entries in the series. In fact, Jagged Alliance 2 was released way back in 1999. Since then there have been a number of, shall we say, disappointing releases that failed to capture what made the two numbered titles so loved by strategy fans. But that looks to have changed with the return of a number and the developer of Tropico 4 & 5 (probably the best ones) at the helm. Jagged Alliance 3 is here and it brings with it a game that will keep fans happy and bring plenty of new players along for the ride.
For those that are new to the franchise, Jagged Alliance sees you take charge of a group of mercenaries and use them to infiltrate and attack a hostile location, in this case, a fictional African nation currently being run by a ruthless warlord for his own benefit. These mercenaries can be selected from a wide range of specialists and ability levels and combining the group together to suit the way you play is essential to success. Want to go at things gun-ho? You will need some assault and explosive experts. Like things quiet? Snipers and stealth are key. Want to be able to react to any situation, a wide range of abilities is a must. It is a great way to tailor the experience to both your preferred playstyle and what the game presents at any stage. Managing these mercenaries involves not only guiding them in combat, but organising their contracts, looking after their health, maintaining their gear and giving them the appropriate amount of “r&r”. Each of these activities takes time, so juggling what is a priority becomes key to getting the most out of your squad. Finally, you can have two squads of six mercs on the go at any one time (as long as your funds permit), allowing for one squad to be out on a mission, while the other recoups or assists a local village.
Combat is handled in a classic turn-based fashion. Anyone who has played a turn-based tactics game in recent years should feel right at home here. All the abilities you expect are present. Overwatch, grenades, full and half cover, you know the drill. There are two new mechanics that do add quite a bit to strategic decisions, stances and aim. There are three different stances, standing, crouched and prone and each offers a different ratio of movement and protection. Standing you can move more, but you are easier to hit, while in prone you can barely move at all but you are hard to hit and you get an aim bonus. As for aiming, there is the ability to spend additional action points (and reduce your movement options in the process) to improve your aim and focus on specific body parts on the enemy. This is great if you are behind some nice cover and want to end things quickly with a precise headshot but be warned. This can leave you vulnerable if you fail to take down the enemy, so the risk-reward element needs to be considered carefully.
Outside of combat players can control their entire squad or individual members in real time. This allows for some sneaky positioning to set up kill zones, some strategic resource gathering and getting intel on enemy locations, all of which are a must to make life as easy as possible. That is because JA3 is a tough game, as many of the games in this genre are. In fact, I would say that JA3’s biggest issue is just how badly it leads new players into the experience. The tutorials are excessively verbose and fail to guide players effectively which means it feels like people are chucked right in the deep end. There is an initial island that serves as a sort of learning area to get a grip on the game’s mechanics and I found the best way to tackle things was to complete this island (which takes 2-3 hours) and then start a new game. It set me up for the main game in a much better position doing it this way, having learned from my previous mistakes in a way the tutorial failed to teach me. There is a lot to take in here and players, especially those with little experience in the genre, may find the learning curve just too much for them.
The second issue I have is with the humour. It isn’t offensive or anything, just antiquated and grating. When Arnie says a cheesy one-liner in an 80s action movie it is a blast, but when my mercenary says the same cheesy one-liner for the 14th time in a 60-minute period, well it gets more than a little old. Also, each of the mercenaries leans so heavily into a racial stereotype that it is almost impossible to not just roll your eyes at the whole affair. From the vodka-drinking Russian to the loud-mouth Texan to the snobbish French sniper, it is tired cliche after tired cliche. There is a way to make this sort of satire on 80s action flicks work, but sadly the devs have missed the mark in a big way here.
Finally, we need to talk about the camera. Both with the mouse and with a controller, I spent way too much time wrestling it into submission. It was just way too hard to get it at an appropriate angle consistently and often gunshot-blocking scenery was hard to identify because of it. I found myself doing a full 360-degree rotation almost every turn, just to make sure nothing was in my line of fire. It was simply too easy to miss a small rock, desk or bush depending on just where the camera was positioned. This is something that other games in the genre have seemed to have solved, so it is a bit of an annoying miss by the devs here.
That said, the game runs well and looks solid. The graphics, while not world-beating, are perfectly acceptable for this sort of game and the scenery, maps and background characters all look great. Performance is great too, with barely a glitch or tech hiccup in sight. It even runs perfectly on both the ROG Ally and the Steamdeck and thanks to its solid controller implementation, it is a great game to take on the road with you for quick 30-minute bursts of play. It really is a game that is playable on a huge range of systems and with the controller implementation, I expect it to hit consoles sooner rather than later.
Jagged Alliance 3 is very much a return to form for the franchise. It is held back by some ordinary attempts at humour, an annoying camera and a steep learning curve, but it more than makes up for this with the fantastic strategic gameplay. The moment-to-moment combat is satisfying, the meta of mercenary management engaging and the structure of the world a pleasure to take part in. Haemimont Games has taken their years of experience in strategy gaming and moulded a fantastic experience that is very nearly a must buy and while it falls short in a few areas, I am positive that past JA players as well as strategy gamers in general, will find a lot to like here. In an increasingly crowded genre, Jagged Alliance 3 does quite a bit to stand out from the crowd, an increasingly difficult thing to do, and that in itself, is something worth celebrating.
Jagged Alliance 3 was reviewed on PC with code kindly supplied by the publisher.