Jagged Alliance 2 (PC) review
"The island nation of Arulco is, without a doubt, in the biggest mess it has ever been in. A mad and ruthless queen has seized control of the country and its mines, and money is her only concern. The population has been reduced to poverty, a well-funded, oversized army keeps them in check, and as the queen grows richer and richer, the once glorious country is in shambles. A rebel force exists, but lacks the weapons and the manpower to make a difference. But that's where you come in. Armed with a ..."
The island nation of Arulco is, without a doubt, in the biggest mess it has ever been in. A mad and ruthless queen has seized control of the country and its mines, and money is her only concern. The population has been reduced to poverty, a well-funded, oversized army keeps them in check, and as the queen grows richer and richer, the once glorious country is in shambles. A rebel force exists, but lacks the weapons and the manpower to make a difference. But that's where you come in. Armed with a good supply of money and ties to the famous mercenary organization AIM, it's up to you to hire mercenaries to liberate the towns of Arulco and bring its ruthless dictator to her knees.
Following in the footsteps of the original Jagged Alliance, JA2 is a turn based tactical action game with some strategic and RPG elements. The majority of the game is spent moving your mercenaries through sectors in a bird's eye view, seeking out enemies and clearing them out. At the same time, you have strategic concerns such as liberating towns and securing mines, generating income to pay for your mercenaries and other expenses, and making sure secured territory does not fall back into the hands of the enemy. And lastly, there is a good dose of RPG elements, because every mercenary in the game is an individual with his/her own face, voice, performance-defining statistics and last but not least, personality. Like its predecessor, Jagged Alliance 2 attempts and succeeds to fill three genres at once, combining them in a unique and very satisfying way.
The map of Arulco is divided into more than a hundred sectors, all of them in the hands of the Queen's army. Scattered across the map are various towns and cities, some of which have mines and other important facilities. You start the game with a small team of cheap, inexperienced mercenaries, simply because you can't afford the good ones so early. As you proceed through the game, your team fights its way through enemy patrols, liberates towns, captures mines and puts them in service to generate income for you. When your income improves, so do your abilities to hire better mercenaries and buy better equipment for them, allowing you to deal with the more numerous and skilled enemies in the larger cities. Your ultimate objective is to invade and capture the fortified capital city of Meduna, where you will storm the Queen's palace and, ultimately, kill her.
You have a long way to go until then, though, and your success depends on your ability to get every part of the game right. With your limited funds, you must assemble a team of mercenaries that complement each other well. Each mercenary is defined by a couple of physical attributes (strength, agility etc.) and skills (marksmanship, medical, explosives, mechanical). In addition, every mercenary has an experience level, and levelling works much the same way as in any RPG. Kill enemies, win battles, complete side quests, and your team members will level up. Throughout the game, they get to use the full extent of their skills as your marksmen snipe on enemies during combat, your mechanics keep your guns in good shape and pick locks, your explosives expert finds mines before stepping on them and blows up doors that just won't open, and your medic keeps everybody in one piece, hopefully.
The selection of mercenaries in the game is amazing. Between the ranks of AIM, a handful of mercenaries working for a competing company, and certain NPCs that can be recruited in Arulco, Jagged Alliance 2 has close to a hundred different characters. All of them have their own set of statistics, one or two secondary skills, their own portrait, and a very large selection of spoken dialogue. Most characters are intentionally stereotypical, and occasionally hilarious. Your starting team could easily consist of a young, overeager Russian soldier and mechanic, a grumbling, depressed Scottish explosives expert, and a Danish female sharpshooter who constantly pisses everybody else off with her haughty manner. Every character is memorable, and although some are better than others, very few are truly worthless. The selection is so big that you can easily pick a completely different team for every game you play, or just rely on whoever suits you the most. And it's not just about the statistics they have, either - while playing, you may discover that some mercenaries like each other more than others, and you will learn the hard way to only team people up with colleagues they can get along with! Veterans of Jagged Alliance will be pleased to note that a handful of the mercenaries from that game are once again available for duty now, including everybody's favorite Russian killing machine, Ivan Dolvich.
As stated before, the majority of the game takes place in the tactical bird's eye view. Here, you can move your mercenaries around in real time if there are no enemies around: simple point and click, with the additional option of dragging a selection box. Think RTS and you know the deal. When combat initiates and enemies are spotted, the game goes into turn based mode. Here, your team and the enemy taken turns moving around, shooting, tossing grenades, and being blown to kingdom come. How far your mercenaries can move and how often they can shoot is determined by their action points, and how many they get depends on their agility, any injuries, and how tired they are. Your mercs tend to do better if they've just had a good night's sleep than if they spent the last eight hours travelling through dense jungle. The combat system is similar to that of the original Jagged Alliance and the X-Com series, with a few extra options. There is a wide variety of pistols, shotguns, submachineguns and rifles available to use against your enemies. Obviously, at first you only have weak pistols available, and near the end of the game your entire team is outfitted with the best you have been able to find along the way - or bought through an online weapons store with international delivery, ''Bobby Ray's Guns & Things''. That's typical Jagged Alliance humour. In combat, your mercenaries can walk, run, crouch, go prone, shoot, throw grenades or tear gas, and interrupt enemy's turns when they walk into their line of fire. A player who just has his mercenaries run into battle and start shooting at the enemy will soon have a very dead team. The key to success is patient, careful maneuvering, using all the cover that's available, and trying to shoot the enemy before they spot you or shoot back. That's easier said than done, and finding the ''perfect'' way to take a certain sector is an ongoing quest for any Jagged Alliance 2 player, if the discussion forums are to be believed.
Between battles, your mercenaries will have many encounters with NPCs, particularly in the towns, and plenty of opportunities to do other things than shoot enemies and liberate sectors. Some side activities include finding a runaway kid, fighting in an ultimate combat tournament, guiding a pair of lost tourists out of a firing zone, and in one of the most hilarious scenes, cleaning out a farm of shotgun wielding, inbred countrymen with a bad temper. Everything you do for the people of Arulco increases the loyalty of the various towns you control, and their loyalty directly affects two things: the income from the mines you have captured, and your ability to train militia in the towns so they can defend themselves against enemy attempts to recapture the sectors. Just how aggressive the enemy is depends on the difficulty level you're playing. There are three levels which should definitely be played in order, as it's hard enough to win the first one. On the third level, the enemy constantly has you outnumbered and outgunned, and fiercely attempts to recapture any terrain you gain.
Jagged Alliance 2 is noteworthy for its black humour, which shines through in the intentional stereotypes that most of the characters in the game are, the occasional funny dialogue, or the many cutscenes in which the Queen's closest advisor reports your latest victory and she slaps him from end of her palace to another. In the meantime, it has a solid tactical game as well: you fight in a wide variety of areas, against enemies of various skill levels, and it gets tougher every time. If you intend to finish the game, you will have to learn a lot about proper use of cover, stealth and team tactics, or you'll be dead before you're halfway. And, of course, you have to keep a good team at all times. Decisions about when to replace a cheap mercenary with a more expensive one, or when to spend time training the statistics of a promising merc, are equally important to your victory as your skills in tactical mode are. And planning which town to take when, which enemy patrols to intercept and which to avoid, and where and when to train militia, are all vital elements as well. You'll have to master every aspect of the game if you hope to see it through, and when you finally do, you have two more levels to beat, and probably dozens of mercenaries to hire that you haven't even tried out yet.
In complexity and gameplay quality, JA2 definitely wins from the original (which was an awesome title in its own right). Graphically, Jagged Alliance 2 is also a step up from its predecessor. Towns look realistic, from the collection of miserable hovels in the poor towns in the north, to the rich sectors of Balime and Meduna where the Queen's friends live in extravagance. There is a variety of terrain in Arulco, from jungles and swamps to deserts, and all of them are very nicely drawn. People move through the game realistically, and there is a great attention to detail in such movements as firing a gun, throwing a grenade, or getting your head blown off with a shotgun (the latter can be turned off if you so prefer). In the sound department, the game does a wonderful job. Music is slightly better than in the original, though still not very varied. You're hearing the same battle and non-battle themes over and over again, regardless of which city you are in and whether it's day or night. It's not such a bother, though, because the music is mainly there to provide some background, and it does that nicely. Sound is more noteworthy, particularly the fact that every single mercenary has his own voice and his own lines, in which the character of every merc really shines. There's arrogant ones, practical military types, zealous psychos, timid medics, formal Brits and eccentric Americans. The wide variety of characters is perhaps Jagged Alliance 2's greatest feature, though it's hard to say with so many things to praise.
There are few problems that keep JA2 from earning a perfect score, though. The first and most important one is a lack of stability that even the latest patch does not properly fix. Particularly in switching between your turn and that of the enemy in battle, the game sometimes hangs - the enemy is done but your turn doesn't come up, and you have no choice but to taskswitch out and manually force an end to the game. Now the deadly nature of battle already forces you to save very often, so you probably won't lose much progress, but it's still annoying. Also, the game has an ironman difficulty setting which doesn't allow you to save in battles, but the fact that your battle could crash on every turn made me reluctant to even try it. Losing a merc through my own carelessness I can handle; but having to restart a 30 minute battle from the beginning because the game crashed isn't my idea of fun.
Another problem is that, even though there is such a wide variety of environments to fight in, it basically comes down to outsmarting the enemy AI in the same way every time. Through playing, you will eventually figure out the best way to fool enemies into running into your line of sight, and it gets 'em every time. More variety in enemy AI would have been welcome, with certain tricks working well against certain enemies but not working at all against others. But that's just asking for more in a game that's already awesome, and it's more of a ''hope JA3 will have this'' thing than a serious problem in this game's AI.
All in all, Jagged Alliance 2 stands proudly among its brothers in tactical warfare, with simple but effective strategic and roleplaying components. It also manages to fill the shoes of the original Jagged Alliance, not an easy task, and something sequels fail at more often than not. A pity about the frequent crashes, but still a game well worth playing. Strongly recommended to any fan of the original Jagged Alliance, the X-Com series, or tactical warfare in general. You're going to love the battle for Arulco from start to end.
Community review by sashanan (January 10, 2008)
Sashanan doesn't drink coffee; he takes tea, my dear. And sometimes writes reviews. His roots lie with the Commodore 64 he grew up with, and his gaming remains fragmented among the very old, the somewhat old, and rarely the new.
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