Jagged Alliance 2: Unfinished Business Preview

Thought Arulco was safe? Think again. We tell you what to expect in this anticipated sequel.

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Sometimes you need a little extra time to take care of unfinished business. This was the case with the aptly titled follow-up to Jagged Alliance 2, which Canadian developer Sir-tech originally announced as an expansion to its squad-based tactical combat game. This was around one year ago. But only in the last couple of weeks, Interplay announced that it had acquired publishing rights to the latest Jagged Alliance game and would release it this November as a stand-alone product for a discounted price. It's been a long time in the making, but the imminent release of Unfinished Business is great news for fans of Jagged Alliance - and for anyone who enjoys a great tactical combat game.

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Jagged Alliance 2 shipped in the summer of 1999 - later than it should have, because Sir-tech weathered some tough times and subsequently stopped publishing games. Fortunately, TalonSoft later acquired the publishing rights to Jagged Alliance 2 and finally released the game. Though it wasn't a commercial success, critics and fans loved it - Jagged Alliance 2 featured deep, strategic turn-based combat, interesting role-playing elements, a good story, and even a healthy sense of humor. You played as a free agent who was charged with the responsibility of liberating Arulco, a small island nation off the coast of South America. To do this, you had to hire a crack team of mercenary gunmen to do your bidding - and for the right price. You had to manage these raw soldiers and train them into a powerful, competent military unit. You also had to contend with their individual personalities and make sure to put their strongest skills to good use. Jagged Alliance 2 was a long, involving game that combined several genres in an unusually conventional real-world setting.

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Unfinished Business picks up where Jagged Alliance 2 left off, and it is designed to be a smaller, more focused game that capitalizes on the strongest elements of its namesake. For instance, the original Jagged Alliance 2 featured a fairly complex strategic layer: As you fought your way through Arulco, you had to lay claim to resource mines and hire militia to defend them. Toward the end of the game, it became quite difficult to cover all your bases, and initially, it was very hard to keep the cash rolling in so that you could pay your mercenaries. By comparison, Unfinished Business offers a smaller, less open-ended campaign that has a stronger plot and not as much macromanagement. Unfinished Business therefore emphasizes what's certainly the best part of the Jagged Alliance series: tactical combat between mercenaries. To this end, Unfinished Business introduces several new personalities to the dozens of available mercs for hire, and it also offers a couple of significant new gameplay features that make the combat even more involving than before. Fans of Jagged Alliance will find that Unfinished Business is very similar to last year's game; and players who are inexperienced with the series might find that Unfinished Business looks somewhat dated. However, the game's highly refined combat model and its very distinctive cast of characters makes Unfinished Business transcend its aging graphics. Read on to find out why you've got to go back and mop up in Unfinished Business - and why you'll want to.

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Taking Out the Trash

Maybe you thought Arulco was saved when your elite team of mercenaries fought their way past deadly snipers and trained gunfighters (even tanks!) and finally took down its dictator. Then again, it doesn't matter what you thought - you got paid, and so did your men, and that's what counts. But shortly after completing your mission, you and your group of fighters receive another correspondence from Enrico Chivaldori, your contact in Arulco, who lets you know that another problem has come up. It seems that the Ricci Mining and Exploration Company, which operated the resource mines around the island prior to the war you have just fought, has returned in force. The company has established a base in Tracona, a colder country that neighbors Arulco, and has recently launched a preemptive missile attack against the bordering island. Ricci Mining and Exploration has issued demands and an ultimatum, threatening to destroy Arulco completely if these demands aren't met. Chivaldori hired you to fight one war, and he's prepared to pay you to fight another. As before, he knows that a covert operation is best - and so he wants you to send as many as a half dozen of your best men to Tracona so that they can find the missile base and destroy it.

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Though Unfinished Business will be a stand-alone game, it does let you import your mercenary squad from Jagged Alliance 2 if you wish. The game will adjust the difficulty of the encounters to compensate for the fact that your mercs would be a lot tougher if you imported them, rather than if you started from scratch. As in Jagged Alliance 2, if you don't import your mercs, you'll initially have to hire them. Unfinished Business features a distinctive interface that actually looks a lot like the operating system and the web browser you're using to read this. You even have e-mail, by means of which you'll correspond with Chivaldori and others. Meanwhile, the web browser offers links to A.I.M. and M.E.R.C., two competing services that sell mercenaries for hire.

Your first order of business will be to weigh the different strengths and weaknesses of the employees available and to use your available resources to come up with the best team you can afford. Your mercs come readily equipped with gear that fits their specialties - expert marksmen start with long-range rifles and such, while those mercs who are well trained in close combat might pack combat knives. As in Jagged Alliance 2, Unfinished Business includes an arsenal of real-world conventional weapons that your mercenaries can find and use. These are modeled to be as lifelike as possible, though the effective ranges of the firearms are reduced in order to encourage the sorts of close-range firefights that ensue throughout the game.

Once your mercs are ready, they'll hop aboard a chopper and head to Tracona. However, the flight won't go as smoothly as you'd wish.

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One Shot at a Time

The chopper pilot, Jerry, seems as if he isn't all there, and your flight to Tracona is treacherous. Your helicopter clips a mountainside during a heavy snowstorm, and you all come crashing down. Fortunately, your troops survive, as does Jerry - at least he doesn't get you killed. Nevertheless, you're still stuck in snowy Tracona. You'll need to get to town to find some allies and equipment and to reestablish contact with Enrico. But a crashed helicopter has a way of attracting attention - you'll be facing enemy gunfighters no sooner than you can stretch your legs.

As in Jagged Alliance 2, you play the tactical combat sequences in Unfinished Business from a strategic, isometric perspective. These sequences combine both real-time and turn-based action. Essentially, you can move your squad in real time until they spot enemies or until enemies spot them. The game then seamlessly switches to a turn-based mode in which your troops use up action points as they run, duck, aim, shoot, and reload, among other things. Once all enemy threats in the immediate vicinity are eliminated, real-time play ensues once again. This system still works well in Unfinished Business and remains basically unchanged, except for a few additions to the actual combat.

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Most notably, the game now lets you toggle color-coded overlays that show you both your individual troops' line of sight and the degree to which the surrounding environment offers cover from enemy gunfire. There's no fog of war in Jagged Alliance 2, so the addition of a line-of-sight overlay is very valuable. It gives you a visual representation of just how far your mercs can see and also helps point out which objects might be shrouding hidden assailants from view. Likewise, the best-cover overlay can help you find good hiding places in the heat of battle. Of course, these hiding spots are only good with respect to the enemies you actually see - there might be other foes skulking about, ones who might still be able to draw a bead on you even if you think you're safely hidden.

As in Jagged Alliance 2, combat in Unfinished Business is very detailed. You can take aim at your enemy's head, torso, or legs; and you can use up additional action points to steady your aim so that you can increase your chances of hitting an enemy. You can fire and move about the battlefield from any position, including standing, crouched, or prone position. You can also try to move stealthily and use field equipment like camouflage and night-vision goggles - even sunglasses and canteens. You'll need to consider your various mercs' marksmanship scores, weapons, agility, and stamina as you fight. And you'll need to be prepared to apply first aid, to conserve your ammunition, and to fight against superior odds using your stealth advantage. There's even more to it.

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Upping the Ante

Unfinished Business isn't a simple game to play. However, as in Jagged Alliance 2, it's also richly rewarding. Coordinating a successful diversion - deliberately exposing one of your troops to draw the enemy forward as one of your stealthier mercs sneaks up from the side and knifes him - can be very satisfying. Such tactics are also often necessary; you'll quickly lose all your mercs if you just stand out in the open and exchange bullets with your well-armed, well-trained assailants. Between battles, you'll even need to account for battlefield fatigue and attrition. Your mercs can be bandaged in combat, but they'll take a while to heal up. They can grow to dislike one another or become close compatriots, depending on how you manage them.

Other features in Unfinished Business further enhance the combat. You can choose exactly where to deploy your forces in each zone, and you can even send multiple squads in from multiple directions. The game is highly customizable, as it offers multiple difficulty settings, as well as an optional "iron man" mode that doesn't let you save the game during combat. You can opt to let the game enforce time limits on turns, which makes the turn-based action a lot more intense, and as in Jagged Alliance 2, there's even a "tons of guns" option that gives you an even wider array of weapons to find.

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While Unfinished Business offers enhancements to Jagged Alliance 2, ultimately the best part about it is that it packs a lot more of the same great features that made Jagged Alliance 2 so enjoyable in the first place. The game's smaller scale and more linear scenario progression let you really focus on managing your squads throughout the game's numerous deadly gunfights. And the additional combat overlays give you much more tactical precision than was previously available in the Jagged Alliance series.

It's true that Unfinished Business should've come out sooner. Nevertheless, every Jagged Alliance fan should be pleased to know that the game is finally nearing release. As for those who haven't experienced the series before, Unfinished Business is still a great way to get into it. Since the game won't require Jagged Alliance 2 to play, and since Interplay will be selling it at a reduced cost, it's an ideal way to try Jagged Alliance for the first time and to see what makes the series so interesting and so much fun. Interplay hasn't yet revealed any plans for additional Jagged Alliance games after Unfinished Business, so we hope that the subtitle of this stand-alone expansion is a portent: If you're into tactical combat games and if you give Unfinished Business a try, chances are you'll agree that the Jagged Alliance series isn't finished yet.

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