This classic turn-based strategy game feels old and slow on the Nintendo DS.
- Faithful, complete port of the original Jagged Alliance.
- Interface is clumsy and annoying
- Map size makes the game a poor fit for the DS
- Ugly, dated graphics.
If you want to take a trip back in time to 1994, there are plenty of better options than playing Jagged Alliance for the Nintendo DS. Developer Cypron Studios has ported the PC original to the Nintendo handheld in its entirety with few--if any--changes, and sadly the game has not aged well. A few design tweaks and a revamped control system would have made this blast from the past a lot more enjoyable.
What made the original Jagged Alliance so compelling back in the day is still present, however. You take on the role of an unseen military advisor to scientist Jack Richards and his daughter, Brenda, on the tropical island of Metavira. Nuclear tests conducted on the island in the 1950s have resulted in a mutant generation of Fallow trees producing sap that can cure all manner of diseases. Yet kindly old Jack (who looks like the "Most Interesting Man in the World" from the Dos Equis commercials) and his leggy Latina daughter are robbed of their chance to save the planet. They're bamboozled by a former research assistant named Lucas Santino, who takes the island over for his own nefarious profit-making purposes and stocks it with soldiers.
In the real world, this is where the story would end. But in video game land, the Richards refuse to take this lying down and call you in to fight back. You do so by hiring mercs from the Association of International Mercenaries (A.I.M.) who battle it out over the 60 sectors on Metavira. All combat is handled in traditional turn-based fashion, with you leading teams of mercs into enemy-occupied sectors and fighting set-piece tactical battles using action points on all activities. This gives every movement a strategic dimension because you can't approach an enemy without planning out how many action points you are going to burn when you walk over to him, crouch down behind cover, and squeeze off a couple of shots. Individual fights are just part of the strategic challenge here, though. Each sector comes with a crop of trees that can be tapped to make money, which is necessary to keep your mercenaries happy and to hire new, more expensive goons with superior skills and equipment. At the same time, you have to expand in a careful fashion because expensive guards must be hired to protect conquered sectors, along with workers to harvest the sap.
Fifteen years ago, this all added up to a brilliant experience on the PC. Battles were tough and compelling. Even at the very beginning, you had to carefully manage your action points and approach firefights very carefully to keep all of your mercs in one piece. Metavira was massive. Each sector was a grueling slog through gangs of enemy soldiers. Detailed biographies, skill sets, and equipment for each A.I.M. mercenary gave the game a strong role-playing vibe. So much detail was crammed into each character that it felt like you were hiring real people. After three or four sectors, your gangs of cruel thugs turned into your buddies, making it easy to empathize with such murderous goons as Ivan, Tex, and Larry. You might have even shed a tear (or at least reloaded a save) whenever one of them was gunned down.
These positive characteristics are still present in the DS version of Jagged Alliance, although they are hard to appreciate nowadays. For starters, you cannot ignore the passage of time. Only the well-acted and numerous voice samples have weathered the years well. Visuals are ugly and dull. Every sector looks the same, and your mercs are multicolored blobs. More importantly, though, turn-based strategy gaming has undergone a lot of changes during the past decade and a half. This evolution is not reflected here, which leaves the mechanics clumsy and boring.
Controls are the biggest issue, particularly when it comes to managing the camera. Instead of allowing you to pan around by dragging the screen with the stylus as in many other DS games, you need to use the D pad. This is amazingly awkward because you can do everything else with the stylus. Sector maps are huge and enemies can be found patrolling all over the place, so you need to constantly move the camera manually to avoid being ambushed. Scaling down the size of the maps might have made fans of the original game howl, but it would also have minimized the need to fiddle with the camera and given the game a punchier pace. A frequently unresponsive touch screen makes matters even worse. The game frequently refuses to register that you've taken control of a mercenary by tapping directly on him, which then forces you to touch the menu bar and select team members by name. The end result of these control deficiencies is some serious juggling, especially if you're trying to play the game with a handheld system that you actually hold in your hands.
This Jagged Alliance revamp for the DS is for purists only. Even then, it's hard to imagine diehard loyalists having much patience with the clumsy controls and awkward camera system. A few minutes with this "new" Jagged Alliance is all you need to realize that while you may well be able to go home again, you shouldn't assume that you can do so on a completely different platform.