The people of Arulco have suffered for years under the tyrannical reign of Queen Deidranna, until finally, the deposed former king, Enrico Chivaldori, has scraped together enough cash to enlist some outside help, in the form of a colorful cast of elite mercenaries, who, together with the fledgling rebel movement, may be capable of liberating their downtrodden citizens. Such is the tale of today’s game, 1999’s Jagged Alliance 2, from TalonSoft and Sirtech Canada.
Indeed, you will be cutting a swath of hot metal freedom across Arulco, alongside one the most motley of crews ever assembled in a video game. You begin by creating your own character, assigning skill points to various attributes like marksmanship or medical skill, as well as filling out a questionnaire about your personality that also plays a role in your abilities. After that, you’ll take the rest of your startup money and head over to the Association of International Mercenaries to select some teammates and offer them contracts ranging between a single day and two weeks. You won’t be able to hire the best troopers right away, at least not for any extended length of time, and it pays to put together a team with complementary skills, instead of the best pure shooters. Some mercs will also be unavailable at times, on assignment elsewhere for indeterminate lengths of time, and occasionally, some will die in action before you get the chance to hire them.
These aren’t just nameless, faceless guns for hire, either. Each one has their own backstory and personality traits, as well as relationships with certain other characters that could be positive or negative. For example, former LAPD cops Charlene “Raven” Higgens and Ron “Raider” Higgens are married, and therefore a logical choice to put together. On the other hand, Polish firefighter Bobby “Steroid” Gontarski wants no part of Russian army major Ivan Dolvich, and isn’t shy about letting you know it. Teammates that get along well get higher morale boosts, which effects accuracy and other factors, while infighting leads to reduced effectiveness, to the point where one of the two will up and bail entirely.
As for the combat itself, it runs fairly similarly to Fallout‘s system; you have a limited pool of points for actions such as attacking, maneuvering, reloading, and such. Different weapons require different amounts of action points to use, so a sniper rifle takes up more of a turn than a handgun, and more careful aiming requires greater point usage. There’s a surprising amount of tactical flexibility to be had here, as well. You can split teams up and outflank the enemy, lure unsuspecting targets into interlocking field of fire, and even blow holes in walls with TNT to get the jump on enemies waiting for you to enter a door. Characters with enough action points after the end of their turn have the chance to interrupt opponents in the middle of their turn, allowing patient players the opportunity to set up gnarly ambushes and turn the tables. You can also activate stealth mode, which slows players down, but can help spot enemies before they’re aware of your presence. Night operations are definitely a viable option, especially if you find night goggles, but enemies can also deploy glowsticks to counter that advantage.
Your mercs also don’t entirely stay stagnant in their abilities, either. As you progress, they can increase their skills through various tasks you’ll encounter through the game, so getting in firefights will increase marksmanship, and disarming booby traps will add to one’s skills with explosives. You can also allow for a skilled merc to take the time to teach another in a certain skill, which can be rather helpful. Your mercs also gain experience over time, which gives them advantages in combat, but also motivates them to ask for more money the next time their contract comes up for renewal.
Another key component is the inventory system, as you’ll be digging through it quite a bit. Your troops have eight slots for small items like ammo and wire cutters, four slots for large items like guns and medical kits, as well as slots for armor and night goggles. On top of that, a lot of items are modular, so you can add sniper scopes and silencers to guns, or add a jar of RDX crystals to a bundle of TNT to make a more potent explosive. You’ll also find various junk items over the course of the game that a merc skilled in mechanics can use to jury-rig pretty useful items, like a primitive x-ray that can spot enemies through walls. Very nice. You’ll have to be careful, though, because allowing a layman to fashion two items together can ruin both of them. Weapons also degrade in quality as they’re being used, and can jam or break entirely, which is a nice bit of realism, but unfortunately, you don’t generally get a heads-up that your gun is falling apart until it happens. Your mercs also have a weight limit of sorts, and while you can carry over that limit, it will tire them out and force them to stop and rest more often.
Though your only defined goal is to kill Deidranna, you most likely will have to liberate the various villages of Arulco along the way. As you clear out each sector of a town, a loyalty meter will increase, allowing you to train militia to protect the town from Deidranna’s counterattacks, as well as increase profits from the town’s mine once you clear it of enemies. Aside from that, there are also a lot of side quests to be found along the way. Some NPC’s will ask to be escorted, some will send you on a mission to retrieve an item, so they’re not the most engaging of quests, but the benefits, whether they be a bump in a town’s loyalty or a special item, are usually worth the effort.
As I said, the game is heavy on personality, which definitely helps it stand out from a lot of games. As you progress, you’ll encounter several cutscenes where Deidranna’s assistant/whipping boy Elliot brings her bad news, causing her to wig out and beat the crap out of him. Even more hilariously, the poor bastard’s face actualy shows more and more damage over time. All the mercs and major NPC’s have their own voices, and in some cases, their own languages; Ivan Dolvich peppers his speech with Russian phrases subtitled in Cyrillic, and J.P. “La Malice” Viau tosses in Vietnamese French. While some characters are very noticeable in their inspiration (the aforementioned Steroid Gontarski is clearly the Governator), it’s all done with a sort of tongue-in-cheek feel to where it feels like you’re playing The Expendables: The Video Game, which isn’t such a bad thing, although, it is strange that almost none of the natives have the same accent.
There are some issues that disallow me from giving JA2 the full five snowflakes. Chief amongst which being that, while every merc has a distinct voice and gimmick, there’s not a lot of voice clips for each one, so you’ll be getting a lot of repetition, and with certain characters (cough, Ira, cough), it gets annoying very quickly. The inventory system can also be very unintuitive at times, mostly when you’re getting a supply shipment at the airport and have to sort through half a dozen people’s gear to make sure everybody has enough ammo and the best equipment. Certain NPC’s serve as the only point to do things like buy explosive equipment or deliver the heads of targets from the bounty hunter side missions, but they move around without much of a clue where they’re at at any moment, so you can be stuck toting around some dead weight for longer than you should. Particularly annoying are the occasional ambush by bloodcats while you’re trying to get from one place to another, which I get as a sort of random encounter deal, but in practice, it’s basically little more than an inescapable waste of time, health, and ammo. Being at least something of an RPG, there’s also some grinding to do, in the form of smashing Deidranna’s patrols, before you’re ready for the endgame.
Visually, JA2 is nothing to write home about. Most everyone has the same character model, with slight differences in colors being the only distinguishing feature, although character portraits are quite good. The villages look appropriately ramshackle, and the countryside looks like what it’s trying to portray. There are a few FMV videos at the beginning and end of the game that are…not good…but they’re only relegated to those points. Explosions from grenades and bombs actually look rather good, but juxtaposed with the other graphics, kinda makes it look like somebody Photoshopped in an actual explosion into a cartoon. It all works fairly well, though, and the sound effects are quite good, so it balances out somewhat.
Jagged Alliance 2 is surprisingly well thought of in the retro gaming world, and it’s easy to see why, the gameplay is solid, it’s deep enough to have a good bit of replayability, and the characters are memorable and enjoyable, mostly. I’d highly recommend it if you’re a fan of Fallout or you’re interested in a quality strategy-RPG hybrid, or even just a fan of cheesy ’80s action movies in general.
Fun hybrid strategy/RPG bursting with personality, with a solid combat engine and plenty of replayability underneath it.
Voice clips get recycled frequently, graphics are weak, even for the time, and the inventory system can be clunky.