Like X-COM: UFO Defense before it, the original Jagged Alliance was a complex turn-based strategy game that gained a loyal following almost entirely through positive word of mouth. Yet while X-COM had you commanding squads of marines against alien invaders, Jagged Alliance, as its name suggests, put you in charge of a bunch of ragtag mercenaries, many of whom had their own agendas and wouldn't always follow orders. Sirtech followed up with Jagged Alliance: Deadly Games, a pseudo-sequel that included more single-player missions (though no real campaign) and multiplayer options, but it was disappointing when compared with the excellent original. Now, after months in publisher limbo, Jagged Alliance 2 is finally here. And, for the most part, it's excellent.
As in the first game, you have been hired to liberate a small country from the machinations of a tyrannical ruler. To do this, you must use your small initial funds to build a team of mercenaries whom you send to the country in question. You must recapture it zone by zone and in the process find a means of earning money to hire more mercs and buy better equipment. The hiring/buying process is all done through a well-implemented in-game version of e-mail and the World Wide Web, letting you hire trained killers and purchase heavy explosives much like you'd buy more common products at any online retailer.
Much like the original, the dozens of unique mercenaries of Jagged Alliance 2 are the highlight of the game. Each merc has significant strengths and weaknesses. The stronger and more numerous the strengths, the more money the merc costs (though you can get discounts for paying them for a week or two up front). The mercs each have distinct personalities, and much of the fun in the game comes from hearing what they have to say in certain situations. While the Schwarzenegger-esque Steroid may cry out "My skin is punctured and leaking!" after receiving a nasty wound, the tough-as-nails Shadow will only worry that his blood is leaving a trail. The mercs also respond to one another, and many will balk if you hire someone they particularly dislike, and some may be less inclined to work for you if members of your team get killed.
Fans of the original will be glad to know that most of the original mercs are back, and some of those that seem strangely absent from the roster make appearances in some form or another over the course of the game.
Thankfully, guiding your mercs in action is as much fun as listening to them. The turn-based combat system in Jagged Alliance 2 is excellent, including some welcome improvements over the first game. Each turn, your mercs are allocated a certain number of action points, which can be used to perform any action, such as moving, bandaging, using a weapon, or opening a door. When aiming at an enemy, not only can you target the head, torso, or legs, but you can also allocate more points to each shot, making your merc aim more precisely. When moving, mercs can crawl, crouch, or stand, and a new stealth mode lets them move almost silently, though more slowly. Mercs can also climb onto rooftops, making for some excellent sniping opportunities. Another significant improvement is that the game switches to real time when there are no enemies in sight, letting you reposition your team quickly for the next firefight.
Gunshots are simulated precisely, even to the extent that bullets will sometimes ricochet or penetrate obstacles and still cause damage to the intended target, albeit much less than usual. And while your mercs' ability to absorb damage may be a bit unrealistic (how many point-blank head shots can one person really stand?), it certainly makes the game more playable.
Jagged Alliance 2 deviates from the original in its campaign structure. While the map is still divided into zones, you no longer simply move and fight on a zone-by-zone basis. Towns are your primary targets, and you must take and hold these while training a militia to protect them while you are away. Zones between towns contain wandering troops of enemies, and you have the option of retreating, fighting, or having the computer resolve the combat situation for you when you encounter resistance (though the latter almost always leads to unnecessary loss of life). Your team can also find and employ vehicles, from hummers to helicopters, expediting travel between zones.
And no longer will you have to halt your attack simply because night has fallen - you can now engage in combat during day or night, though you must make sure your team gets plenty of rest. The map is full of strange and unexpected encounters and at times resembles Interplay's role-playing game Fallout more than X-COM. You'll even encounter nonplayer characters to converse with, and often they'll ask you to undertake missions from escorting them to safety, to rescuing their imprisoned comrades.
Visually, Jagged Alliance 2 resembles Fallout as well, with smoothly animated 2D sprites and similarly barren landscapes. Oftentimes the scenery becomes repetitive, although things liven up as you press into the wealthier regions of Arulco. There is a wide variety of character animations, and these are excellent, though the most common death animation (drop to knees, drop to ground) occurs too frequently. Sonically speaking, though, Jagged Alliance 2 is nearly perfect. The mercenaries' voices are excellent (and if you find any particular merc annoying, you can mute him individually), and the soundtrack is suitably dramatic.
Its many strengths make Jagged Alliance 2's occasional but noticeable weaknesses especially frustrating. The most notable problem is the manner in which line of sight is implemented in combat: The game uses a realistic line-of-sight system, with elevation and objects serving to affect your mercenaries and their targets. Unfortunately, there is no tangible way to determine the visible range for a mercenary. The isometric view tends to make some terrain objects almost invisible (it's difficult, for instance, to see each individual trunk in a cluster of trees), so you may think a merc is protected by cover when, in truth, he is in plain view. Predictably enough, your enemies do not suffer this human handicap and seem to know just where to stand for maximum protection. There are any number of ways the developers could have made this information apparent (through a fog of war or something akin to Commandos' sweeping sight indicator, for example), and its lack is a notable oversight.
The addition of more role-playing elements is welcome, but many of these features seem underdeveloped. When speaking with NPCs, for example, you simply choose your attitude toward them (friendly, direct, or threatening). Different people will respond to different attitudes, but it's difficult to really guess how to act with whom. Moreover, you only get one chance, so once they decide the conversation is over, the conversation is over. You never can be certain whether they held some valuable information you couldn't extract or whether they just had nothing important to say.
Jagged Alliance 2 also retains one of its predecessor's biggest faults: The endgame is ridiculously difficult. The original contained a final combat zone that was far more challenging than any that preceded it. The sequel is no different, save for the fact that instead of a single zone, its ending is made up of five such areas. Jagged Alliance 2 does include three difficulty settings, but you cannot change difficulty in mid-game, which means you may become hopelessly stuck toward the end.
Beyond just the difficulty level, Jagged Alliance 2 lets you set other key variables as well. You can toggle the science fiction elements off (a choice that only affects a small subplot of the game), and you can choose either "normal guns" or "tons of guns," the latter adding a selection of Warsaw Pact weapons and two additional ammo types.
Add to these options the wide variety of mercs, the numerous nonplayer character conversations, and the random nature of encounters, and it's quite likely that you'll eagerly play through Jagged Alliance 2 several times, provided you can get through the grueling endgame. Even with its problems, its excellent combat system and sense of style make Jagged Alliance 2 very easy to recommend.