Jagged Alliance 3 both fails to meaningfully modernize into a post-new-XCOM world, but it also fails to capture what made Jagged Alliance 2 special. It would be by the numbers and inoffensive, though, if not for a handful of very frustrating design decisions. While there are strengths, the flaws outweigh them.
Jagged Alliance 3 is… fine. If that’s all you need to know to make a decision either way, there you go. Jagged Alliance 3 is a lot like Jagged Alliance 2 (and a bit like classic XCOM, even if the developers would hate to hear that), and it is only a bit like modern turn-based strategy games. And, because Jagged Alliance 2 is pretty good nowadays, Jagged Alliance 3 is the same. Only Jagged Alliance 2 came out in 1999, during a different time, with different sensibilities, and Jagged Alliance 3 is coming out in 2023. But it wishes it wasn’t. In fact, it seems almost allergic to the current year, while also being forced to conform to it.
The result is a middle-ground compromise between 90s-era sensibilities and modern-day innovation in the genre and technology. This is not necessarily bad — see my Double Dragon preview, published at the same time as this, to see how — but in this case? Jagged Alliance took many of the worst elements from both eras, and added in a few hitches all on its own. The result is a disappointing outing for the long-awaited sequel. It will please die-hard fans of the franchise, and it can satisfactorily occupy the time of genre fans. Beyond that, I cannot say that this outing for the venerable franchise is worth the wait. Let’s explore why.
One of the first things you see when you start the game is symbolic: in the top-right corner of the screen, there reads a date. Jagged Alliance 3 takes place in 2001. This is not unusual for the franchise: 1999’s Jagged Alliance 2 took place in the late 80s. But it read to me as symbolic. Here’s a modern game, with a slick interface, set in the year that a more reasonable sequel would’ve been set. In this, 2001 is not just the setting’s current year — it is a mission statement: “This game was made with early-2000s fans in mind.”
Immediately, you see where that implication leads. You begin by selecting which mercenaries you want to hire for your first mission. A roster of faces appears, a veritable smorgasbord of diverse and zany characters present themselves. Each has a not-insubstantial stat list, equipment, and some perks. It is obvious from the start that the stats here will all be incredibly useful — absent a class system, this is what differentiates characters mechanically. Each mercenary also has a bio, and will have preferences for who they work with and how. Immediately, the game sets high expectations. A large roster of complex mercenaries with varying personalities, abilities, and designs.
Those hopes are quickly dashed as soon as you press “Contact” to reach out to them.
If there is one thing that is likely to turn off most players, it will show itself before you even start the first mission. The writing and voice acting for these characters is really bad. The actors are tying to work their best with the writing given to them, and the writers did their best to aim for that classic 80s cheese that the franchise is known for. But both fail their marks.
If you read any reviews, you’ll see a discussion of Steroid, since he is the first merc recommended to you, and is cheap with good stats. But that won’t be what’s mentioned about him. What will be is his wannabe-Schwartzenegger voice lines and the writing which sees him as a tremendous, airheaded meatbag. There is nothing really “retro” about why it sucks. It isn’t “too hammy”, or done to be “so bad it’s good”. It’s just bad. Unclever. Juvenile.
Rest assured that this is a problem which consists for almost every single character. They were all written to be over-the-top action movie archetypes, and the voice actors were all made to give their most accented, most exaggerated performances, and it is all just so grating, so quickly. I won’t even talk about the weird national stereotypes and borderline offensiveness of some of the accents here, but that’s a problem as well.
This wouldn’t be a problem, however, if the voice acting barely came up. Unfortunately, your mercenary team will be talking constantly. And all the conversation will be meaningless. There are many dialog scenes throughout the game, and during them your mercenaries will just… chime in. Randomly. Not in response to what was said, not really. And they won’t be responded to. While you are selecting from actually-meaningful non-voice-acted dialog options, your mercs are apparently just itching to comment about the livers they stole from the enemy or just how big and muscular they are.
And if you think that’s a lot, just wait for combat, where characters will bark one-liner whenever they are shot, shoot an enemy, miss, do anything, or just cause they feel like it. With good writing and acting, this would eventually get old. With this writing and acting? It’s hard to overstate how much I encourage players to play this game with dialogue muted.
All this before we’ve gotten into how the game plays. So let’s discuss that:
Jagged Alliance 3 is one of the turn-based strategy games of all time. That is to say, it is fine. You are given a wealth of options — more than many modern players in the genre will be used to — and lots to do with those options. The game warns you immediately that it will be challenging, and the developers aren’t lying. It requires tactical thought to succeed; careful consideration of abilities and positioning. For that alone, the core gameplay on the Tactical Map is, at least, solid. On the surface.
Deeper down, though, issues arise. None more so than what might be the worst design decision I’ve ever seen a dev brag about: to remove the percentage chance to hit from the game. It was there at one point but, to differentiate it from XCOM and force you to — I don’t know — consider the “real” tactics of the scenario, you just aren’t told what your odds are to hit an enemy.
Is that because Jagged Alliance 3 wants you to go into the unknown? To make tactically sound decisions based on more than a single summarized number? To act intelligently with a lack of information? No! Of course not! Because the game is more than willing to tell you everything you could possible want to know about everything that surrounds an attack. You’ll know the armor and rough health of the enemy, the precise range they are at (if you can decipher the nonsensical rangefinder below your target), and even all the various factors that go in to calculating the odds to hit an enemy. The only thing lacking is a percentage. One step further and Jagged Alliance 3 would let me know what the enemy had for breakfast that morning and what the name of the person who manufactured the bullet I’ll be firing is, but it stops at the single most important number in this kind of game?
Suffice to say: it makes combat difficult to parse. Because I don’t know what does what, to what extent. An “Aim” action spends an extra Action Point to get a better shot on an enemy. When I activate it, an extra + appears on the screen. When I stack it to Aim x3, there is still just one +. At night, firing is a -. But so is fog. And so is long range. These aren’t equal factors — I can guarantee that; some of these do impact chance to hit more than others — but it is all but impossible to tell how much anything is impacting my shot. Even if you sacrifice the bottom-line percentage, players at least need to know how much influence their actions have on the most important action in the game. Having insufficient information has never made a game like this better. This is no exception.
Apart from that glaring omission, combat is serviceable. Everything is intuitive, and those who’ve played a few strategy games, new or old, will ease in nicely. Map exploration could use some work (with locating some loot objects being tedious), but otherwise the core of the game is solid. Similar to how the terrible writing and acting ruins the otherwise good mercenary system, though, the lack of information ruins otherwise good combat. Neither the combat nor the mercs would be anything to write home about before, but with those issues, they are now worth writing to complain about.
Let’s not fixate, though. There are at least a few things that Jagged Alliance 3 does do right. The art style is genuinely fantastic, capturing the diverse and vibrant landscape of central Africa (and the people within it) beautifully, all under the lens of a 2000s-era monitor which adds a lot to the aesthetic. The writing for the actual main plot of the game is fun and much smarter than the voice-line dialogue, really embracing the moral ambiguity of being a PMC squad sent in to resolve a Civil War in the favor of the kidnapped ruler (without taking that too seriously). The SAT Map and Operations menus are simple, but fun — it is always enjoyable to turn a map from red to blue.
But those are small things. In fact, Jagged Alliance 3 is a game of small things. Everything is a detail. There are bunches of loot and guns and actions and mercenaries and more, but it lacks overall vision. “Jagged Alliance 2, but again!” is not a good pitch when the genre has done so much to move on and innovate since that game.
The truth is that, even if the voice lines were miles better, and the game displayed hit-chance, and all the slowdowns were sped up, you’d just be left with a fairly rote turn-based strategy game. Jagged Alliance 3 plays it safe, when playing it less safe would’ve allowed it to get away with a lot more. It is afraid to experiment, afraid to do anything that didn’t work before. It left me wondering, through my entire playtime, “What’s the hook? Why would I play this instead of any of the more interesting turn-based strategy games out right now?” Alien: Dark Descent is a buggy mess, but it has mounds more reasons to play it. The unpolished powers in Marvel’s Midnight Suns draw me in. And don’t even get me started on XCOM and Into the Breach.
The only reason I’m left with to play Jagged Alliance 3 is because I’ve run out of other games to play, or because I just really like the 80s action-movie tone. Because nothing else it does is exceptional. Hell, even if I want those things, I can boot up Jagged Alliance 2 again and get a better version of the experience (if I can get it running on modern hardware, at least).
The developers of Jagged Alliance 3 made it no secret that they were intentionally avoiding comparisons to XCOM (comparisons I will make anyway, because they are similar in many ways). It especially wants to tread around the footsteps of the newer XCOM: Enemy Unknown and XCOM 2 titles. The issue, however, is that those footsteps are massive, and genre-encompassing. For modern turn-based strategy, for better or worse, the new XCOM games are the giants whose shoulders the current iteration of the genre stand upon.
And so, Jagged Alliance 3, by trying to modernize only in all the ways that aren’t recognizably XCOM, ends up in a position where it feels neither modern nor classic. If it wasn’t to avoid XCOM‘s shadow, it should’ve committed more to emulating a time before XCOM reinvented the genre. If it wanted a modern take on Jagged Alliance 2, then it should’ve let itself completely modernize, not being so shy about taking what works from other games. Instead, it tried for both and got neither.
That’s, perhaps, unduly harsh. Jagged Alliance 2 is not a bad game. It’s functional, polished enough, and can even broach into enjoyable for fans of the genre who want to exercise that familiar muscle memory. It’s not that the game is bad, then… just that it is unnoteworthy. And that might be worse. It’s lost all the spark of the old days, without letting itself be reinvigorated substantially by the new ways. Die hard fans of Jagged Alliance will be appeased, but newcomers and old casual players will struggle to justify playing Jagged Alliance 3 over the tide of turn-based strategy games out now and on the horizon.
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Graves is an avid writer, web designer, and gamer, with more ideas than he could hope to achieve in a lifetime. But, armed with a mug of coffee and an overactive imagination, he’ll try. When he isn’t working on a creative project, he is painting miniatures, reading cheesy sci-fi novels, or making music.