When you’ve been playing games as long as I have, your age-old favorites are bound to bounce back in a form or another, like turn-based tactical game Jagged Alliance. I remember like it was yesterday when I picked it up for review in the summer 1995 from the magazine office I worked for. At the bus stop on the way home, I took a better look at the cover art and was amused by a rather awkward drawing of the game’s settings. Never judge the book by its cover! Not only Jagged Alliance was my favorite game of the said year, it’s one of my all-time favorites from the 90’s. I remember it fondly and you can still catch me regularly rephrasing the game’s mercenaries’ one-liners.
Jagged Alliance was – and still is – a pinnacle of the turn-based tactical combat genre. Everything after it, including the game’s own sequels, have been degrades. Over the past few years, we have also seen numerous sad rehashes trying to cash in on the once illustrious IP. No one seemed to have a clue what made Jagged Alliance the best at what it does, though. So, you could say my expectations weren’t exactly high when the latest game riding on the franchise name emerged from the bushes.
First things first: Jagged Alliance: Rage! is a budget title through and through. The first game’s gallery of whopping 70 mercenaries, all with their fully-voiced unique personalities, has been reduced to measly six has-beens of the trade. Originally, you could have up to eight mercs in the field but now it’s only two for majority of the game. Graphics just fulfill their purpose, nothing more, nothing less, and the missions are all pretty samey, each played on dinky maps.
But the attitude, though, is spot-on. In today’s politically correct climate, it’s hard to come up with enemies that wouldn’t hurt anyone’s feelings. So, usually we see zombies, because no one has demanded civil rights for them yet. Here, the opposing force is unashamedly a banana republic, complete with a mad dictator, a bats science officer, and lots of government troops for fodder. Cartoonish aesthetic and intentionally ham voice acting with stereotypical dialects complement the 80’s straight-to-video vibes. At this point, I was kind of hooked and hoped that the gameplay would stand its course.
Two mercenaries of your choice wake up in a torture chamber, escape, pick up some equipment along the way, and start a war against their captors, all the while trying to find a way back home. The plan gets complicated when local rebels plea for their help. Everyone’s favorite mercenary of the franchise, Ivan Dolvich, who stubbornly spoke only Russian in the first game, makes a return. Twenty years after freeing Metavira island haven’t been kind to him, though. He’s overweight and barely functioning alcoholic. That goes on to show that each available mercenary has remarkable weaknesses to balance their perks. Ivan is a hulk of a man who can take lots of punishment – as long as he gets his drinks. So, of course I picked up Ivan, who wouldn’t, and paired him with Vicki, the youngest of the mercenaries, a dexterous and mechanically-inclined minx who suffers from claustrophobia in closed spaces. She seemed like the most capable out of other wrecks of mercs, and I wasn’t wrong.
Missions around the island map take mercenaries to liberate prison camps, conquer guard outposts, repel enemy attacks and such, each on the same principle of entering the premises, killing all enemies and making it to the exit. There are no level ups or skill trees, what you see is what you get. Each character has an individual amount of health and action points based on how fit he or she is. Action points are spent on moving (either by running, treading carefully or crawling), shooting (you can switch between different weapons in the inventory for no cost), doing melee attacks, setting an overwatch to catch advancing enemies unaware, and whistling to taunt them (Ivan makes a great tank). Titular rage comes into play when things heat up with too much action around the characters, gaining them additional action points and abilities. For example, Vicki can shoot multiple targets with certain weapons in a full three-point rage. You can do anything the game allows within the action point pool, enabling some creative and easily adaptable gameplay.
Usually, when I started on a mission map, the first thing I uttered after a couple of turns was “*beep*, this is going *beep* *beep*. Well, instead of reloading a saved game, I kept going as the game mechanics allow remarkable looseness to catch up on all kinds of situations, no matter how shitty they are. When plan A fails, go to plan B – or straight to Plan C. A great feature all the way from the first Jagged Alliance still remains; you can pump up action points to your shooting to increase chances of hitting enemies’ legs, bodies, or heads. That gives at least an illusion that you alone are responsible for successful attacks, and not at the mercy of a random hit generator.
The missions went pretty much like this; after stealth approach eventually failed, Ivan soaked up hits (he’s so big he can’t hide behind covers like others) until he collapsed unconscious, leaving crackshot Vicki to save the day - even if that meant she had to deal with 20 enemies, plus reinforcements, too. The beauty of the game is that you can turn a desperate situation upside down. One escapade in particular was memorable. Ivan, as always, had collapsed (he was suffering from a thirst and a desperate craving for alcohol, so he had less action points and health to begin with) just as Vicki had the base commander, the mission target, in her sights. One magical, three-burst shot later the enemy was downed, which opened the exit area. Only, at that exact moment reinforcements marched in. You can leave no man behind! Vicki run to Ivan’s body, picked him up (he must weight two times more than she!) and started running towards the exit. Soldiers hurried behind her and her heavy package, taking positions to shoot her down. But bullets riddled Ivan’s hulking body instead as it was exposed against the pursuers, with his armor and bodily mass soaking up lead, leaving Vicki unscratched who, by the last possible moment, managed to rush to the safety before pursuers could catch up with her.
Despite clearing the objective in the said mission, the enemy presence meant I couldn’t hang out and remote loot corpses like normally (a very welcome feature, no need to run to the bodies!), so I couldn’t pick up any resources, like water, medical kits, bullets, armors, and weapons. I was left with nothing gained on the island phase where mercenaries move between mission and resting spots, like on a game board. To cut the story short, even though I entered the next mission with off form mercenaries, it ended up in a shower of looted resources.
The whole Island phase is bit of a hassle, though. At rest stops, you can patch up characters by sleeping, removing shrapnel to stop bleeding, and using surgical kits to heal infected wounds. Untreated injuries mean less health and action points in the field. The cause and effect of healing items doesn’t always seem to add up. Often, even though I thought I had dealt with injuries, they were still active. Maybe they stack up, with character having for example multiple shrapnel but the game won’t exactly tell that. Some mercenaries, like Vicki, are capable of repairing and upgrading equipment, such as different body armors and multitude of weapons from sidearms to sniper rifles. Tinkering with items is clumsy and not something you’re explained about in any length.
Micromanagement aside, the turn-based core gameplay makes amazing escapades, cleverly executed tactics or even embarrassed flops alike possible. Two-thirds into the game you get to the radio tower and can contact AIM headquarters to have a third mercenary join the team, equipped quite handsomely from the get-go. It’s too bad that judging by the trophy percentages, not too many players have bothered to progress that far in the game just as it’s getting to show its better side, with unexpected turnarounds and exciting happenings. The more mercenaries, the merrier the action is – even though one of them still might regularly bite the dust. Players today are just too pampered. Everything needs to be shiny and ready. If things go even slightly sour, they move on to the next title. But that’s really not the game’s fault anymore.
Addicted gamer as I am, I had another turn-based tactical combat game to play and review at the same time, namely Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden. Oh boy, if its audiovisual excellence could be merged with loose and imaginative gameplay of Jagged Alliance: Rage!, we would have a real killer in the genre! Then again, it wouldn’t be the same game anymore. Like its mercenary cast whose prime time is behind them, Rage! really needs its rugged charisma to live another day.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.