Jagged Alliance 3 is finally here and somehow, improbably, bloody good. After spending 15 hours with the game, there’s that same heady mix of tense shootouts, permadeath tragedy and slowly building out a mercenary company as you fight to retake an island from some bad dudes.
A few hours in, the ragtag group of mercenaries I’d assembled using a line of dodgy credit was pinned down in a church. Armed goons were charging at the church from every location, keen to kill everyone within. Fresh from a battle to liberate the town in the first place, ammo was low, armour was in disrepair and fresh wounds were still oozing through their bandages.
As hard as the mercs fought. As many times as I reloaded the save, victory was impossible. The loss felt brutal, harrowing, but it did feel fair. I’d overextended and the only thing to do was dust myself off and start the campaign fresh. Fans of X-Com and other forms of turn-based torture always crow about this, but Jagged Alliance 2’s strategy layer was so savage that you could screw yourself over 100 different ways without even noticing.
By sending me to the game over screen in this dilapidated church, Jagged Alliance 3 showed me that it might just be a worthy successor to the Jagged Alliance franchise.
It’s surprising, because there have been a lot of bad Jagged Alliance games along the way.
Loving a franchise that has lost its way is tricky. In my nerd brain there’s just one The Matrix movie, two games in the Arkham Asylum franchise and, sadly, I’ve spent the last decade arguing with friends about which Alien movies are good for the past decade. It’s Alien and Aliens.
No one argues about Jagged Alliance though. The first Jagged Alliance from 1995 was a phenomenal proof of concept and 1999’s Jagged Alliance 2 is, in my opinion, the best turn-based tactics game ever made. Since then? It’s been a mess, with a few wobbly entries and a few that, generously, were pants. There were three different Jagged Alliance games in 2012.
Now, legacy firmly besmirched, Jagged Alliance 3 has come back strong. It’s a little close to the structure set out by Jagged Alliance 2, but as that game is over 20 years old at this point, just the infusion of the latest and greatest in video game mechanics has made it feel fresh and new. The old school element remains in the punishing design and somewhat brutal combat, the way the mercs squawk and bicker as they blast their way through fight after fight. Pair this with the shiny new UI and a weapon customisation system that lets a squadmate with the Mechanics skill add new mods to weapons, and you’ve got a worthy update that still protects everything that was special about the original.
This means you’re not just winning firefights, but you’re building a resistance. Out of battle you’ll be managing your mercs contracts and capturing diamond mines to make sure they can get paid. You’ll be setting medical assignments to make sure your mercs are in the best shape they can be, and repairing armour and weapons to try and give them the gear to make them stay that way. Although I didn’t spend much time with it during my preview, later you’ll be training civilian militias to protect the areas that you’ve liberated, and tracking down sidequests to try and keep the local populace on your side as you loosen the enemies hold on the island you’re attacking.
Jagged Alliance 3’s biggest strength – much like its predecessor – is that it’s a game about a lot that doesn’t feel that complicated. There’s an astonishing level of depth here, but you only get it when you sink your teeth in and get past the early turn-based tactics layer. Of course, ultimately, this is the way you’ll spend most of the game, and so if that bit doesn’t work the whole game would fall flat. Based on the preview time with the game, it doesn’t just work so much as it sings.
Some bits are annoying: early on your mercs are armed only with handguns and most firefights are ridiculous Stormtrooper-esque shooutouts where you’ll miss shot after shot. This provides a cinematic experience, but a frustrating one, especially as ammo and the bandages to patch yourself up after you’ve been shot are thin on the ground. This frustration eases, and fighting through that phase actually makes it more enjoyable when you finally get tooled up and can start reliably taking down targets.
Some irritations aren’t as easy to soothe. After the fighting is done, you’ll have to traipse through the levels to loot everything, whether that’s picking random plants for medical supplies, digging grenades out of an old case or skirting around the entire map looking for hidden objects in the hope that a darkened corridor or previously unlooted locker might have a half-broken shotgun in it. I know that extraction shooters are in this year, and I’ve spent the last five years alternating between PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Escape From Tarkov like someone with no imagination and a love for obscure Russian firearms, but it feels like the Jagged Alliance 3 experience would be better if I could just loot everything from the overworld once I’m done.
Ultimately, Jagged Alliance 3 feels like a worthy reboot. It’s not the shiny genius-level reimagining that brought us XCOM, but it’s faithful and should feel welcoming to returning players. For people who aren’t fans of 22 year old turn-based strategy games, there’s plenty here to recommend, whether it’s the combat, the chatty and bizarre mercs or even just the deep replayability. There are a few kinks, but it feels like the franchise is in good hands for a change.
Jagged Alliance 3 is set to launch on PC but no release date has been announced yet.