This year marks twenty years since the release of Jagged Alliance 2 and twenty five since the original was first released for DOS personal computers in 1994. Although never a hugely successful series, Jagged Alliance developed a loyal and enthusiastic following that still persists today. This persistence in itself is amazing because the developer Sir-Tech went out of business a few years after the stand-alone expansion Unfinished Business released in 2000. Since then there have been sporadic releases using the name but nothing that had either the depth or addictive gameplay of the Sir-Tech developed games. This includes a promising but disappointing Kickstarter project and last year’s Jagged Alliance: Rage which is really part of the series in name only.
Realising it had been twenty years, I searched around to see if any gaming websites had marked the occasion and only found what I feel was a pretty poor article which (typically for our time), gets distracted by the political aspects the writer could siphon out of the game’s narrative and setting. I have written about the series before with a focus on the original so for this I will focus more on Jagged Alliance 2; a game which remains unique to this day.
Before their demise in 2003, Sir-Tech was much better known for the Wizardry series with the eighth installment being the last game released by the Canadian developer in 2001. Jagged Alliance — while quickly finding a loyal and consistent audience never saw the same success.
At a superficial glance, Jagged Alliance 2 is a turn-based tactical game using small squads of mercenaries to capture territory and ultimately overthrow a ruthless dictator. This alone would not be enough to explain the dedication of the games community nor the hope for a successor worthy of the franchises legacy even today. What makes the series stand out as a whole is really the a combination of addictive combat, a deep level of customisation and a whole lot of character.
As is well known to those even mildly interested in the history and reality of warfare, the fighting is a relatively small although the most intense and decisive. The rest of a soldier’s time is spent marching, preparing, training and sometimes just waiting for the next battle. Jagged Alliance 2 captures this about as well as a computer game could. When not in turn-based combat, your small group of mercenaries will be training militia in captured towns and settlements, healing from wounds in battle or moving to the next flash point. As the commander, you’ll be making sure they are being paid, maintaining supplies, dealing with local issues and planning the next move. Even a lengthy skirmish in the game might only amount to twenty minutes on the in-game clock but outside of battle, the ability to speed it right up is a necessity and days if not weeks, can go between major battles.
The player is able to micro-manage every item each mercenary holds and it is easy to spend a long time doing this. As resources are scarce; especially early on, it is necessary to pillage whatever you can from defeated enemies, factories, buildings and outposts. Items do deteriorate from use so it is also necessary to maintain them which means having a mercenary that can tinker as well as shoot. It is not unusual to have one that can only do one particularly well. This is true of other skills which include medicine as well as explosives. Having a team that can fight is the priority but getting through the game requires more than that.
Another important aspect of the combat is the ability to choose when, where and how you fight which can make a big difference. Making tactical retreats, travelling for longer by avoiding roads and choosing to attack at night can give your team major advantages when the enemy is finally engaged. As can simply entering a hostile sector from a point that offers more cover. Even on the easier difficulties, the player’s team will be outnumbered by the enemy in almost every encounter. In the capital city of Arulco, the enemy has tanks defending the city which significantly increases the challenge late in the game. In all of this, simply approaching the battle in a smart way can make all the difference.
Jagged Alliance is often compared to the XCOM series which is a reasonable comparison as much of what I have mentioned thus far is also true of this series. However, where Jagged Alliance differs and excels is with the personality. The CD-ROM version of the original game had extensive voice work for over sixty unique characters. At the time, this was still relatively new and in hindsight — often amateurish. The lack of professional voice actors didn’t hurt the series as simply having voiced characters made each character special.
This was not simply when addressing their commander but especially with their interactions with each other. There were some characters that worked well together and others that couldn’t stand each other. You could be sometimes confronted with having to choose between keeping one or the other. You could also lose or be unable to hire certain mercenaries because one they were fond of had been mistreated or killed under your command. There was also other hidden or context sensitive dialogue that was a lot of fun to discover.
Jagged Alliance 2 expanded on this as well as improving the overall quality of the voice work. The voice actors were still not the professionals the industry have today but the overall quality had improved. The silly humour from the original game was still very much present as well. Jagged Alliance 2 was for many their introduction to the series but long-time fans were treated to plenty of cameos and surprises along with many new characters that became just as endearing.
Characters became more than soldiers you pointed and clicked at players became attached to each one. It is true you could become attached to characters in XCOM but the genuine personality of the mercenaries in Jagged Alliance did a lot more to make this connection with players. I can even remember my notoriously unsentimental father being saddened when one of his favourite mercenaries was killed in action. This is something that is replicated in the more recent releases of Fire Emblem from Intelligent Systems; another turn-based tactical game. These games had unique characters that once lost — were lost, but the voice work in later releases added to the sense of loss.
Going back to Jagged Alliance 2 today would be difficult for new players and even those returning after a long time. The interface, visuals and overall presentation are dated but the gameplay — once understood, remains just as addictive. There is the 1.13 community mod which was put together when the source code was released. This doesn’t change the core of the game but it adds new features and is much more friendly to newer operating systems. This is the recommended way to play for both returning and new players.
While going back to this twenty year old game can be rewarding, what the series really needs is a new entry that brings the same depth along with the benefits of a more modern interface. By this I don’t mean dumbing the experience down and calling it “streamlined”, I just mean a genuine new entry made with respect and love with what came before and a budget to match. The two recent XCOM games are proof that this could be successful if a publisher were willing to go all out. It wouldn’t need to be a visual powerhouse but it would need the budget to create a game with extensive voice work, gameplay depth and a vision in the spirit of what Sir-Tech started.