Jagged Alliance 2: Wildfire is the direct result of efforts made by many highly devoted fans to add a number of enhancements to the gameplay of their favorite title. I-Deal Games has revisited the 1999 strategy game from Sir-Tech and has added exceptionally thick foliage, many realistically modeled new weapons, and improved enemy intelligence. The new game also offers a much, much tougher challenge than that of the original Jagged Alliance 2--perhaps too much for most players. Fortunately, Wildfire also includes the full version of Jagged Alliance 2, so those who missed out on the less-punishing original game can pick it up cheaply, while hardcore fans can play through the new Wildfire campaign or use the included source code to create their own modifications.
The Jagged Alliance games were created by Canadian developer Sir-Tech, and the series garnered a loyal fan following with its combination of personality, humor, and exciting tactical strategy. In the original Jagged Alliance 2, you played as a mercenary who hired a team of other mercenaries from a diverse pool of highly skilled (and some not-so-skilled) soldiers of fortune. Then you took on a despot who had seized control of a third-world country. Jagged Alliance 2 was primarily a turn-based game in which your mercenaries used "action points" to move, sneak around, plant bombs, pick locks, scale buildings, throw grenades, attack at close range, and fire on enemies while slowly inching toward the nation's capital. You later obtained more money to hire and recruit a larger army with better weapons. The original game's turn-based battles were challenging and surprisingly tense, since they did an excellent job of modeling what it would be like to command a small infantry squad in jungle and urban battles, as well as in stealth and night-ops missions.
Wildfire's primary campaign reprises that of the original Jagged Alliance 2, but it adds more weapons, more and tougher enemies, and higher cover. Jagged Alliance veterans may be shocked the first time they fight against even the earliest enemies, who originally carried light pistols and went down with a few hits but now wear body armor and carry shotguns. Wildfire's maps also have much denser cover in the form of high grass, more bushes, and more trees. While the added cover can definitely be useful when inching up toward an enemy position, it seems to have an overall effect of putting you at a disadvantage. This is because the game's isometric 2D graphics don't do a good job of layering scenery, so if your view is obscured by a tall tree or building with bushes surrounding it, it's difficult to tell whether you're actually under cover nearby. Similarly, the higher cover provides many more places for your enemies to hide, and to "interrupt" your turn as your own team of mercenaries carefully advances. Whereas in the original Jagged Alliance 2 it was possible--with a great deal of care and more than a little cowardice--to get your mercenaries through some missions unscathed, in Wildfire it's basically guaranteed that your mercenaries will take hits.
Hardcore fans will also appreciate the added realism, in the form of more-realistic enemy intelligence and more-realistic weapon and armor modeling. Not only are there more enemies to fight, but they're much more cautious and will retreat back into cover if wounded. Moreover, if they outnumber you, they'll aggressively seek to flank you. In both the original game and in Wildfire, you control your team in real time--until a battle starts, at which point the game becomes turn-based. In Wildfire, wandering enemies are actually free to move during your real-time phase, so you can and will be attacked while on the move. At best, this added challenge often makes Wildfire's battles even more tense and thrilling than the already exciting skirmishes of Jagged Alliance 2. At worst, this challenge can be extremely frustrating, especially if a group of hidden enemies attacks you from out of nowhere and puts one or more of your team members out of commission.
The expansion also includes a great many real-world weapons that both your team and your enemies will use, in addition to more-realistic armor modeling. For instance, poking away at an armored enemy using single-shot fire from a medium submachine gun will injure him, but it won't kill him outright. Ultimately, the new weapon and armor modeling do make the game's battles seem more realistic, but unless you're a military hardware buff, it's doubtful that you'll be able to notice great differences between the firing patterns of a Ruger Mini-14 rifle and a Ruger Mini-30 rifle, for example.
Wildfire's additional realism and difficulty are probably its greatest strengths, but they may be the game's greatest weaknesses too. The new, more-realistic weapons, armor, and enemy intelligence and the increased difficulty will likely appeal only to hardcore fans and may prove simply too tough for other players. Then again, the new additions will certainly be enjoyed by hardcore fans of the series that are looking for a new challenge.
If you're not already a fan of the Jagged Alliance series, you may also have trouble with the game's presentation. Wildfire's only new visual additions are its new weapons (which appear as small icons in your mercenaries' inventories) and higher cover (which comes in the form of high grass, trees, bushes, and buildings), and much of this looks bland and unremarkable. This is because nothing else has changed about Wildfire's graphics or sound since Jagged Alliance 2. Everything else, from the low-resolution 2D graphics to all the interface menus, has remained exactly the same as it was in a game that already looked dated back in 1999. Furthermore, Wildfire recycles all of the sound and voice samples from the original game. There are no new mercenaries or characters in Wildfire, so if you've played the original game and are familiar with its subdued musical score and mouthy mercenaries, then you can expect to see and hear nothing new. However, the game's mercenary characters remain as interesting and as funny as ever, and different mercenaries still have particular histories with others that may cause them to get along with--or feud with--their fellows.
Wildfire's campaign is based on that of the original Jagged Alliance 2, and both campaigns offer a considerable amount of playtime. However, Wildfire's tougher campaign will definitely require even more time and effort. Despite the lack of any kind of multiplayer options, the game comes bundled with the original Jagged Alliance 2 at a modest price point of $20. It also comes with the original game's source code for those hardcore hobbyists who enjoy creating modifications, though the code is provided as actual raw code and not as an easy-to-use editor. This basically means that you'll need programming expertise and more than a little spare time to be able to use it. It seems odd that publisher Strategy First didn't also bundle in the Unfinished Business expansion pack from 2000 (which appears in the publisher's previous Jagged Alliance 2 Gold bundle), but Wildfire still has a lot to offer. More-casual players may have trouble getting past the game's dated presentation and punishing difficulty. However, fans of squad-level tactical strategy and small-arms battles who are looking for a serious challenge--and can forgive the game's appearance--will find that Wildfire offers as much depth and excitement as Jagged Alliance 2.