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For those old enough to remember the prequel, Jagged Alliance 3 does an excellent job of feeling fresh, while still managing to build upon more than 20 years of anticipation. This turn-based strategy game sees you take the reigns of various recruitable mercenaries as you guide them over a strategic overworld to various turn-based engagements. Think XCOM 2 or Wasteland 3 if everyone was 10% less muddy but 30% stupider. JA3 seeks to revitalise the franchise after over 20 years, building upon the strategy, characters, story, and world design in some meaningful ways. While it doesn’t succeed perfectly in all of these, it pulls it off where it counts.
JA3 understands that it doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel here, simply stamp on its own identity, and the way it approaches strategy is key to this.You’ll interact through the world in two ways. First is the strategic map, which is your large-scale overview. From here you can overview enemy movement, order mercs to complete operations, hire new mercenaries, and move your teams from square to square in the battle to take down The Legion. Don’t expect a deeply complex system at this level – that’s not what it’s designed for. The main focus of the strategic map and the larger scale strategy elements are to support the tactical gameplay on the ground.
Your operations are geared around making your mercenaries’ lives easier. You can heal them, train militia to hold key regions when they’re not around, repair items, and more. With much of what you can do from here costing time, money, or both, it still requires thought and care. It’s a purposeful system, and while a deeper complexity would have added a little more substance, what is there works excellently in fulfilling its function.
The meat of the game is found in the turn-based tactical battles. Once you move to a square, you can switch to a tactical view and if there are enemy combatants there, you’ll have to fight your way through to take the area. There is some room for improvement, but the majority of this combat feels engaging, fun, and fair; you’ll have a vast arsenal of different weapons to try out, each type distinct enough to feel specialised for certain approaches. Pre-combat movement is made far easier with a stealth system, and map locations are designed with enough care to create a wide range of different engagement scenarios, even at the same location depending on your approach. If you want to smash in with a frontal assault using shotguns, you can. If you’d rather surround the enemy position with snipers, that’s an option too. Both have risks, but with patience you can find a way to fight that works for you.
My favourite example of this was the final showdown on the small starting island. Here, a powerful opponent flanked by heavily armed guards sat at the front entrance, while enemies swarmed the fort behind him. I led my group down a narrow side path, using a mercenary with expertise in explosives to navigate a minefield. We crawled up the side of the building, eventually placing a sniper up in a tower, with the aforementioned explosives expert manning a now-repaired machine gun nest overlooking the central courtyard. Meanwhile, I sent my medic and a shotgun-wielding American with a bad attitude off to the far building for a stealthy takedown on the RPG gunner and sniper holding positions over there. This fight was still tough, resulting in the death of one mercenary, but it was also fantastically fun.
The only vulnerability to this core gameplay is repetitiveness. While the range of weapons, mercenaries, and terrain are great, I often found myself switching off after a few hours of play, for fear that I’d be engaging in the same cycle over and over. However, this seems to be a concern the developers at Haemimont Games are aware of, as there are plenty of extra elements that help keep the game fresh. The weather system means that combat can go drastically differently depending on the visibility, rain, and time of day. There are myriad enemy types too. Some will rely on close range knife-combat, others will snipe, and some aren’t even human. Another notable moment in my playthrough when I intercepted a diamond shipment, only to finish off the last courrier and come under attack by massive alligators. While it isn’t the type of game everyone will be able to dive into for days at a time, it does enough to distinguish a unique flow to its gameplay that keeps things interesting enough to engage you for the length of its campaign.
That all speaks to a sense of identity of course, but not as much as the characters the game populates itself with. With high-quality voice acting and strong writing, most NPCs feel at least interesting to talk to, or highly entertaining at best. Of course, the main stage isn’t taken by NPCs, but by the mercenaries in your employ.
You can hire a range of mercenaries, across various skill and experience levels. They aren’t hugely deep characters, nor are they meant to be, but they do all manage to entertain. Each merc feels original in their personality, with a decent number of voice lines during interaction and combat. One particularly immersive feature comes from their interpersonal dynamics, as some mercs know each other, passing off banter, butting heads, and even mourning each other’s deaths. You may even find cases where certain mercs will ask for higher pay because they don’t get on with someone else in your employ.
Characters are the highlight of this game’s writing, as unfortunately, the story is nothing to write home about. The narrative sees you work to free the kidnapped president of Gran Chein, a fictional North African nation under siege by an internal paramilitary group known as the Legion. Under the employ of the president’s daughter, and a diamond mining corporation Adonis who’s mines have been overrun, you’ll aim to rescue the president and bring down the Legion’s mysterious leader, The Major.
It isn’t the most impressive, introspective, or inspired story out there, and is often quite predictable. Again, it doesn’t need to be anything special because the gameplay is the focus here, and the narrative is more for the sake of setting – but it could certainly elevate Jagged Alliance 3 to the next level. Even all that said, the number of side quests and smaller self-contained stories you’ll discover throughout do a lot to uplift the dent left by the central narrative. You may not find the main campaign too interesting, but there’s a good chance you’ll come across smaller moments that resonate with you.
Jagged Alliance 3 isn’t perfect, and fans rooted in nostalgia of the previous games might come away with some complaints as it has been modernised a little. But at its core, the game is a project of careful thought and strong passion. Its combat is engaging and its strategy is challenging. Its world is interesting and its characters entertaining. Jagged Alliance 3 is a long awaited revival of an old classic. In step with many of the progeny of last generation’s games this year, it is excellent, in spite of its imperfections.