I don’t want to turn this review into a history lesson on the Jagged Alliance series, but some context is probably needed in order for anyone who has never played this series to appreciate what Jagged Alliance 3 actually is, and what it is not.
The original Jagged Alliance was one of the first turn-based strategy games released that took advantage of all the graphics, sound effects and storage capacity that computers in the 386/486 era could muster. And it was really fun to play. But then there was no follow-up to that title until a couple years later in 1995 with the release of Jagged Alliance: Deadly Games. However, Deadly Games was not really a sequel and more of an add-on type of game that added multiplayer and short missions on a timer. We did not get a true sequel until 1999 when Jagged Alliance 2 was released with updated graphics, more mercenaries, better tactical control, and a new country called Arulco to liberate. Oddly enough, the same thing happened after JA2 came out, in that there was a very long period where no follow-up was even talked about, much less released to gamers, although we did get Wildfire in 2004, which was pretty good, even if it was looking dated by the time it released.
Over the years, a bunch of titles came out trying to either revive Jagged Alliance or simply cash in on the name. In 2012 we got Back in Action, which was supposed to be a direct remake of Jagged Alliance 2, but one that tried to turn the game into a real-time strategy title. It was really bad. More recently, in 2019, Jagged Alliance Rage seemed promising – right up until people actually got to play it. Terrible level design, unfair difficulty and a bad user interface made playing it a subpar experience for most players. So, when Jagged Alliance 3 recently released, which like Rage was also published by THQ Nordic, most gamers were pretty skeptical. However, JA3 was finally able to rise above the curse of this franchise and deliver a solid experience for both new players and grizzled veterans to enjoy. It’s not perfect, but plays well enough that most people can probably overlook its flaws.
For one, Jagged Alliance 3 features most of the original mercenaries that we all loved from the original title. Some have gotten older or learned new skills, and their voices do not sound the same in all cases, but it’s the same group with their unique and quirky personality traits. Some mercs are no longer with us. For example, Mary Beth Wilkens, the housewife turned mercenary who was a standout star of the first game apparently (in a really bizarre and stupid move that happened in-between games) was killed by a crazed stalker before JA2, so she’s no longer with us. But most of the rest of the quirky gang of lovable psychopathic killers are revived and ready, if a few pounds heavier than before (I’m looking at you, Hitman). Like in JA2, you can also create a single merc to represent yourself in the game. Besides having the core skills you like best, you also never have to pay your own personal icon either.
JA3 starts off pretty much like its predecessor Jagged Alliance 2 did. Players apparently run a shadowy mercenary company and are contacted by the daughter of the president of an impoverished country called Grand Chien. Her nation has recently experienced a military coup by a mysterious group called “The Legion” which is led by someone called The Major. The president is missing and the Legion thugs rule the streets, terrorizing the country and looting its considerable natural resources. Your job is to rescue the president, free the country and ultimately wipe out The Legion and its leadership.
As before, you will accomplish this goal by hiring the various mercenaries through the online A.I.M. service, each of which will serve for a certain period of time ranging from a day to two weeks, whereupon you will need to renew their contract and repay them. As such, there is a little bit of a soft time limit placed on you, or at least some business type management so you don’t run out of money. Thankfully, you can capture diamond mines held by The Legion in various sectors, and the company that owns the mines will give you a cut of the profits from that point on, giving you solid income as long as you remain in control of the sectors with mines. There is also quite a bit to loot around the country of Grand Chien, which can be found in hidden stashes or hacked out of electronic devices like radios and computers that you find. In general, balancing the monetary needs of your company of mercenaries is not too difficult, and as you earn more income you can afford to hire more skilled mercs. Like with JA2, the new JA3 strikes a good balance with this.
Jagged Alliance 3 is played in three different modes. The first is the overall satellite view, which lets you see everything going on in Grand Chien (in sectors that you control and the areas surrounding them) so that you can plan the movement of your squads or counter what the enemies are doing. Then when you arrive at a new sector, you are able to walk around it in real-time to explore, and to uncover enemy positions. And if you have found intel on the sector, you might be able to know ahead of time where enemies are located, which is a big advantage. An early game merc named Livewire whose services are easily affordable is really good at hacking devices and gathering intel, so she makes for a good choice for the team when you are just starting out. Once you are either spotted by an enemy or fire a shot, the game moves to a turn-based interface where you spend action points to perform actions, very much like the classic series.
The combat in JA3 is brutally hard, especially when you are just starting out and have sub-par equipment, so be warned. Also, there are some arguable shortcomings with the vanilla interface like the bizarrely absent ability to pause the real-time interface to set up careful opening shots and group ambushes. Also, unlike other really well-done turn-based titles like XCOM, you are not told the percentage chance to hit targets. Your mercs will say something like “I got this!” or “That would be a difficult shot,” but you don’t see any numbers. Thankfully, in the Steam workshop there are mods to add both of those elements into the game, the tactical pause and the to-hit numbers, one of which was made by the developers themselves. I would highly recommend both of them as core requirements for an enjoyable playthrough of Jagged Alliance 3. This is especially true because now that I have the hit percentages displayed, I can see just how wrong the merc’s verbal estimates were. Many times I heard them say that a shot was a sure thing when they really had less than a 35 percent chance to hit. Overconfident mercs aside, it’s better to play JA3 with the numbers displayed, especially considering how challenging some of the levels are, especially in the beginning.
Customization, which was big in JA2, returns with a vengeance in Jagged Alliance 3. You are able to customize weapons in a lot of different ways if you’ve recruited a skilled mechanic on the team and have collected enough weapon parts along the way. You can extend rifle barrels for more accuracy, add silencers to almost any weapon, increase clip sizes, add flashlights or red dot sights, improve the grips, change out the stocks and plenty of other options. It’s a lot of fun modifying and customizing the weapons, especially since you can match their capabilities to each merc’s specialty such as crafting stealthy sniper rifles or buzzsaw-like heavy machine guns.
In addition to the main part of the game where you will be taking over sectors, there is also a sort of secondary responsibility too, especially as you continue your quest to liberate more and more of Gran Chien. Eventually, you will probably need to hire secondary squads of mercs to do things like hang out in the backfield and train local militia how to defend their towns and critical areas so you don’t have to be everywhere at once.
The ability to put up a strong defense will allow your alpha squad to keep pushing forward, and that will likely require some support troops who mostly train the locals, but which can also be called into battle if enemy squads start attacking behind your front lines. All of that makes Jagged Alliance 3 very deep in terms of strategic gameplay, and very much on par with Jagged Alliance 2 in that regard.
The one potential sticking point that could bother some people is the overall tone of the game. JA2 was created in a different time when people were less sensitive to things like racial stereotypes and off-color jokes. That same kind of tone exists in JA3, but seems pretty stale in 2023. Also in Jagged Alliance 3, your squad of mostly white mercs are basically fighting and killing black or African people, some of whom dress in face paint and other tribal garb, and it kind of borders on being a bit cringy at times. That might not bother everyone, but it deserves mentioning.
Jagged Alliance 3 is the first title that can realistically claim to be a worthy successor to Jagged Alliance 2 and the original game. The world is enjoyable to explore, the combat is challenging but fair, and the mercenaries’ quips and comments about everything and each other make them feel like real people who you might even care for as you play. And now, we finally have a game that deserves the Jagged Alliance name, letting us run and gun and liberate a new and violent land in the name of, well, cold hard cash, as it should be in this storied franchise.