It's been a long wait, many lesser men or women have given up on this sequel ever being made. But here we are and it's all been worth it. I don't know what else can I say up front about this game, apart from that it exceeds all expectation in more than one way, and it is a must have for anyone who likes tactical turn based games.
Yes, indeed we are back to being turn based after the spinoff to quasi real time combat with Back In Action. I was one of the few, who actually liked that real time with pause style, but it can't hold a candle to the real deal.
The game was developed by a lesser known, or to me completely unknown studio Haemimont Games from Eastern Europe, Bulgaria to be precise, so I was uncertain about the game's quality apriori to purchase. I had 50% faith that it won't completely suck balls. But they did a good, even great job. Jagged Alliance 3 is a true spiritual successor to the classics. And to the answer the fifty million dollar question: Did it get woke? No, it did not.
The game does not hold back on stereotypes and "isms" it even takes jabs at political correctness. The biggest sin of the game that they added a trigger warning for the intellectually challenged, that the game contains stereotypes and it is not to be taken dead seriously. Of course no normal, sane person needs to be told this, but we all know how unhinged some game journalists have become. So I really can't fault them for adding this disclaimer.
Jagged Alliance Crash Course
The game has the classic characters from the old games, and they are still as crazy as ever: Steroid, Fox, MD, Grunty, Fidel and so on. If these names mean nothing to you, then I'm afraid we need to begin with a crash course for you noob.
In Jagged Alliance you act as a manager of mercenaries, and you are given the task of liberating a third world country from some evil militia. This time around we are in Africa, in the imaginary country of Gran Chien. Previous games were set in Arulco an imaginary South American country, and there are some references to that in game.
As a commander of a mercenary group, you have complete autonomy to hire mercs with the funds available to you through a very 90s looking website. Choosing your initial team is not to be taken lightly, because having the wrong team can seriously hinder you. I'll give some pointers on this later. After you selected your initial team, you arrive in a small island to meet the client and then the liberation of Gran Chien commences.
The start of the game being on a small island is no accident, this serves as a quasi tutorial area for the game, but don't expect any hand holding. The most you get are tool-tips about basic functions, which you should be familiar with if you ever played a turn based tactical game before.
The game has a massive learning curve, before you figure out what to do and what not to do, this makes your first time feel that much harder. So the best thing to do is to think of your first campaign as a trial run, and when, after about 15-20 hours you are confident enough that you have a grasp on the game, then you can just start over and do things right this time.
The map of the game is divided into sectors, and you must fight over the control of each one. But don't for a moment think that capturing an area means it is permanently yours. Enemies regularly send out patrols and attack squads and will try to retake key locations. Loosing control over barren land is no bother, but loosing ports hinders travel, and loosing cities means loosing benefits provided by that city, like access to workshops or hospitals, or workers. So in lieu of permanently stationing mercs in key locations which would be a waste of resources, you can use your time, or rather some merc's time to train local militias. But since time is literally money in the game you must choose wisely where you raise militias and where is it a waste of time.
Time is money
Time is money, because your mercs don't have just one hiring fee, they cost money every day. Some only a few hundred, but many of the elites and veterans can cost thousands / day. So this makes hiring the right team even harder.
It's one thing to pay the first week of salary, but will you be able to retain them at the end of the week? You need income, and outside of the initial funds you get there are four ways to get more.
The most obvious is capturing and holding diamond mines, but don't think having achieved that you can lean back, as mines can and will run dry and decrease output over time, plus the loyalty of the nearest settlement also affects how much funds you gain from them.
The second method of gaining money is ambushing enemy diamond shipments, whose paths are conveniently shown on the map. This is probably the easiest way to get an infusion of cash quickly, you just put your mercs in the path of the shipment and wait until they meet. Most shipments have relatively weak escorts.
The third method is loot, sometimes you can find hidden stashes of valuables, or even random soldiers can have valuables on them occasionally. As long as the valuables are regular diamonds or gems, this is no problem. But sometimes you come across artifacts and items of national heritage, which presents a moral dilemma: Do you hand them over to the legit government, or do you cash them in like some tomb raider. This can affect the outcome of the game.
And finally the fourth and least reliable way of getting funds is doing side missions given by NPCs. This is unreliable because not many missions give high cash rewards and you can never know what to expect. Plus side missions usually involve a lot of investigation and wild goose chases, so you don't really do them for the money, but for fun and out of curiosity.
The composition of your team is vital, but there are some things that are wildly different from previous JA games. Having a medic used to be essential. That is no longer the case here, you can get away with not having a dedicated medic just one merc with 50 MED skill possibly even less, because that is enough to bandage fallen mercs and prevent them from dying. And healing injuries are not that important as they do not affect any stat outside of HP. And they will self heal slowly when resting.
I'd say the single most important thing to have in your squad is at least one merc with high mechanical MEC skill. As this determines your ability to maintain equipment, to hack computers, enables lockpicking, and allows you to install mods on weapons. Without the ability to repair equipment your squad will be all but useless.
The second best thing to have is an explosives expert, as they can disarm traps and detect landmines without actually stepping on them. Plus lobbing a grenade into a group of enemies can often turn the tide when you are badly outnumbered.
The rest is personal preference, I'd add a merc with high leadership as this speeds up the training of militias, but this is not that essential.
Besides the classic characters there are a few new ones as well to choose from. Apart from stats another important factor is personality, all mercs have unique lines in conversations with NPCs. The game would be replayable for this reason alone, if there weren't a ton of other reasons already. Conversations are not animated, but fully voiced, and the voice acting is really great, even down to the war cries of random combatants.
Personality can also affect how some mercs work together, for example some constantly nag each other, which is fun, but others might ask for more money if you hired someone they dislike. Or straight up refuse to work for you while you have someone on the payroll.
The neat thing about the game is that mercs can train each other as well. Of course this takes time, but you are often faced with downtime while your mechanic is repairing your equipment, or someone is resting because they are too tired to go on, or during training of militias. This is prime opportunity to put your idle mercs on training tasks. One with a higher skill level can train others who have less of that skill. The speed of training is determined by the teacher's leadership skill and the skill difference. Sometimes you can gain 3-4 points in just one session. Mercs also gain skill by experience, but that is at a snail's pace compared to training.
They also level up from time to time, this is when you can assign perks, but higher level perks are skill locked. For example unlocking a perk might require them to have 90 Strength. So if you want a merc to have a specific specialization you can train them upfront to have the necessary skill level by the time they level up next.
All in all there are so many variables that it can seem overwhelming at first, but this is what gives their management depth.
One new feature of the game is the ability to make one custom merc, for a one time fee. The good thing is that this merc will be free of additional costs, and that you can freely choose their starting skills. The con is that they have absolutely no personality.
As a bonus you can also find NPCs who can be convinced to work for you for free, but I won't spoil who these are and where to find them.
In the beginning it is best to stick to one squad with 4 or 5 soldiers, but later in the game you will be able to afford 3-4 squads.
The encounters in tactical view start by deploying your squad in the entry area of the section, which is determined by available intel (intel can reveal alternative deployment areas or the location of enemies and vantage points) and the direction of your approach. Sometimes it is best to retreat and try attacking from another side if the scenery is not ideal from one direction.
Until the enemy detects you you can freely move around in real time, turn based combat only engages once the enemy is alerted to your presence. You can do stealth kills without engaging combat if you are careful and have high enough sneak skill, and also strong enough to one hit enemies. You can even achieve double stealth kills by timing a melee attack perfectly in sync with a silenced ranged attack. The possibilities of this game are almost limitless.
Once turn based combat engages it becomes basically XCOM, but with one key difference. You don't have a set amount of moves, you can move 10 times with one soldier as long as they don't run out of AP. Plus some buffs and perks allow a certain free move range, which allows you to reposition without using AP. The range of free move can vary wildly depending on skill and other factors, for example equipping some weapons completely remove the free move ability of mercs.
Your attacks can vary depending on weapon type, but the common factor is that you can choose how much time you take aiming including for melee weapons. A more aimed attack has a higher chance of hit, a less aimed one has lower chance. For example you have 8 AP left, do you make two poorly aimed attacks for 4 AP each, or do you take a chance on one fully aimed one for 7AP? Choose wisely.
Thankfully there is no chance for the dreaded 99% miss here, for the simple reason that the game does not tell you your hit chances. You have to make a judgement call each time, and this way it rarely feels like you are being cheated. Note, that I said rarely, because occasionally you still get something like a merc shooting off into the void when an enemy is 3 steps in front of them, but still nowhere near as annoying as XCOM can be at times.
The range of weapons especially the starting weapons is very limited, so you have to get used to marching right up in the face of enemies before you can effectively engage them in combat. Later when you get weapons with more range it becomes somewhat easier, but you still feel like waging medieval warfare rather than modern combat with how close you have to be to enemies. It takes some getting used to.
Graphics and quality
The game is not riddled with bugs, but not completely free of them either. I did encounter a few CTDs in what is now close to 100 hours of playing it. And saving / loading sometimes moved an enemy or my soldier by one square, which was enough to block their ability to attack, quite annoying while save scumming. I also consider it a bug that sometimes the game wouldn't revert to real time movement when I finished off a group of enemies, so I annoyingly had to search for one last hiding enemy one turn at a time. But at least I did not encounter any frequent or game breaking issues.
The graphics is great, it almost looks good enough for street level, despite being a tactical game. The environment is fully destructible, including cover and buildings, so soldiers can fall to their death if the floor collapses under them, and loot can be destroyed too. Apart from flora there is some fauna too, albeit I only saw hyenas and alligators. The former are weak, but can be dangerous if a bunch of them swarm you, but alligators are boss level enemies, they are almost indestructible and if they get close they don't just one hit almost any merc, they have a reaction attack to any action you take. It's really not worth fighting them.
But by far the best part of the graphics is the environmental effects, fog really feels cold and mysterious, and when it is sizzling hot it looks like it. I have not seen any other game convey humidity and scorching heat so well with atmospheric effects alone.
Performance is good most of the time, but occasionally the game will produce extreme lag on the satellite view, when in effect the whole screen freezes for seconds until it finds itself again. In tactical view you can also get FPS drops when there are very many active enemies.
Since no game is without its faults. No matter how much I praised the game so far I have to mention the negative parts too. And the single biggest failing of the game is that it has no in-game shop. No, I have not gone crazy, unfortunately nowadays when you mention shop people immediately associate to a cash shop where you can buy inventory slots or "time savers" for real money. No, I mean an actual in-game shop where you can buy in-game items, for in game cash.
Because as it stands the only way you can get new or any equipment in the game is by looting, which is fine for your first squad, as you get better equipment consistently as stronger enemies appear. But when you want to hire a second squad mid game, they come with the same starter kit: pea shooter and underwear armor basically. And loot drops are RNG based, which means not all enemies drop all their equipment, or anything at all. You can go for multiple encounters without a single ammo or weapon drop, so your subsequent squads will always struggle with weapons not worth anything against enemies that the game is throwing at you at that stage. Even if you have the foresight to leave breadcrumbs scattered around the map with your first squad which you have no way of anticipating on your first campaign, ammo will still be a struggle. You always end up having the wrong weapons that you have no ammo for. While hoarding hundreds of the ammo types that you have no weapon for.
The game also has some unavoidable trigger points that are designed to make you fail, which would be fine, if they weren't so set in stone. Make it hard, but let me win still if I can. There is nothing worse than a forced failure. If I can anticipate trouble let me get ahead of it. Unfortunately you can't here, you have to go along with the pre-planned events. Because some NPCs are made invulnerable they even refuse to aggro before their time to turn on you.
The story goes out of it way to telegraph the story twist as early as humanly possible, I don't know if it can even be called a twist. If it was a red herring instead then it would've made sense to make it so obvious.
- characters, voiceovers, banter
- Really nice graphics with excellent atmospheric effects
- Varied map and terrain
- Destructible environment
- Gripping and exciting tactical engagements
- A non completionist playthrough takes 60 hours to complete
- Massive replayabilty
- Untouched by political correctness
- No in game shop combined with RNG based loot drops
- Steep learning curve during which all you can rely on is trial and error
- Predetermined turning points in the campaign
- Telegraphed story twist
This is easily GOTY for me so far. And Starfield has to exceed all expectations too to even have a chance of dethroning JA3. BG3? There is no way it is better than this I'm confident in that even without playing it.