RPGreats now has a Discord! Come on in to talk about game music, games in general, submit reviews or just hang out!

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Jagged Alliance 2

A low-key cult classic from one of the companies that kickstarted the world of commercial digital RPGs, Sir-Tech's Jagged Alliance 2 is a relatively grounded and realistic take on tactical combat.  But is there fun to be found in a realistic take, or does it just get too absorbed in the details?

Sir-Tech of course is best known for creating the legendary Wizardry franchise, which is a hugely influential one in the world of gaming, being a direct ancestor to just about every digital RPG to some degree or another.  But of course, that wasn't their only franchise; they branched out puzzle games and published a handful of other RPGs and adventure titles during their existence, but one IP of theirs that gets largely overlooked (especially in North America) is Jagged Alliance.  A very granular turn-based tactical RPG with a realistic bent - there's no magic, only a bare minimum of science fiction elements (with 2 having more available via a toggle) and using actual squad tactics and cover, as well as in-the-field training for your troops to hone their skills, is necessary if you want to last long.

Jagged Alliance 2 carries on in this vein, having you select a squad from a list of pre-fab characters, outfit them with equipment, and pay them a limited-term contract (with a deposit for any medical treatment they may require) to fight for you in the war-torn country of Alruco.  Unlike the first game, you're not restricted by rank in choosing whom you can hire, though as you start on a very limited budget you can only afford one or two higher-tier mercs for a day or so; although this does provide an opportunity to get ahold of some rather overpowered equipment early on if you're so inclined.  Also unlike the first game, you can create your own custom-made character who only requires a $3000 fee and no subsequent contract renewals; this is done by inputting a passcode, taking a 16-question personality quiz and tweaking their starting attributes however you choose to.

From there, the game is largely nonlinear, having you take your squad around the country, liberating territory from enemy control through turn-based tactical battles.  Superficially the combat screens bear a resemblance to Fallout with their isometic viewpoint and sprite-based characters, as well as actions being governed by a pool of "Action Points"; however, Jagged Alliance 2's control for your squad is much more granular.  You can crouch, go prone, climb atop objects, and hone your aim by right-clicking, spending more AP for more accurate shots.  Cover is a big factor too, with trees, rocks and buildings substantially reducing the chance you'll be hit by enemy fire if you position yourself between them and your enemy.  One can also throw virtually any object, whether to pass it to an opponent or make a desperate attack on an opponent with a thrown rock or knife, and nearly everything in the game is destructible, which lends itself to some tactical advantages - rather than being caught in an open courtyard, one can blast down a wall with dynamite and take cover inside a building, and of course there's the old video game standby of exploding barrels that can take out (or heavily damage) any enemies standing nearby them.  This can be particularly effective thanks to the Interrupt mechanic; basically, during your enemy's turn, making a successful Dexterity roll can cause your teammates to Interrupt, allowing them to use any unspent AP from the prior turn to attack opponents while they scramble between cover or just enter a room.  Stealth also provides an important tactical advantage in some battles, particularly for heavily fortified positions like SAM sites.

Captured territory comes with its own benefits too; capturing locations with mines will provide you with a daily revenue stream, though mines do eventually run out of salable materials, which effectively puts a time limit on the game.  Vehicles can also be captured, including a helicopter early on, though you must also take out SAM sites positioned around the island or it won't be much use to you at all.  Your enemy will of course constantly be on the move too, often aiming to take territory you've claimed right back.  The solution to this is to have your mercs train up a local militia; effectively, you have them take a few days to train soldiers, who in turn will defend that territory if it comes under attack.  Downtime between missions can also be spent training your soldiers' skills, assigning them as Doctors or Patients to give and receive healing, and place orders for new equipment using your laptop, which can be picked up at the local airfield.  Some materials can also be used to craft useful weapon addons like laser sights, scopes and silencers to gain an advantage for later battles.

That stuff's all good, but it suffers the same issue as a lot of these super in-depth sim games do; namely that there is a large emphasis on micro-management and stat crunching.  Stats and skills are handled in a fashion not unlike the Elder Scrolls games, ie you actually have to use skills (or actively train them) in order to power them up, and once you get above 90 or so making any more progress  in them becomes actively arduous.  Injuries will greatly hamper your troops, causing them to get less AP and their stats to suffer until they're healed, and the only way to have them recover is to either spend several hours (or days) patching them up or use rare and expensive fast-healing drugs.  You also have to carefully micromanage your equipment, including the number of bullets in every magazine you carry, and combat just plain comes down to luck of the dice more than anything; you can be doing well, see an enemy land a lucky crit and put one of your favorite soldiers down for several days (or even permanently), so either expect to do a lot of savescumming or just get used to working with a less-than-ideal team for long periods.  Constantly having to juggle territory, resources and capturing cities at a quick enough pace to keep your employer satisfied all factor in too, and it can get pretty overwhelming if you're not scrupulously planning out your actions in advance and well-prepared to deal with unforeseen events.

What it comes down to is that Jagged Alliance 2 has a lot to like with some surprisingly novel elements and staggering depth, but it's also got a lot of nitty-gritty micromanagement and slow-paced, monotonous combat.  It has a devoted fanbase who swear by its stronger elements, but as someone who is more into RPGs for the world building, interesting characters, storytelling and exploration and much less interested in endless foe-vanquishing and stat crunching, it feels a little flat; especially because the sense of humor on display throughout is more than a bit juvenile and doesn't really reflect the gravity of what's going on in Alruco.  Still, I can commend it for its emergent design and having quite a few elements that still aren't commonly seen in modern tactical combat games, and since it's readily available on numerous digital platforms for a pittance, I can say that it's worth picking up if anything I've described here sounds interesting to you.

Developer: Sir-Tech Canada
Publisher: TalonSoft, Titan Computer
Released: 1999, 2000, 2013
Platforms: PC, Mac OS X, Linux
Recommended Version: All versions seem to be identical as far as I can tell, though I have only played the Windows version personally.