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Jagged Alliance 3 desperately wants it to be 1999 again, and not in a good way

Not a good first impression

Mercenaries gather around an ornate mansion in the jungle in Jagged Alliance 3
Image credit: THQ Nordic

In the world of turn-based strategy games, it's probably fair to say that we've been waiting a heck of a long time for Jagged Alliance to make its next move. Almost a quarter of a century has passed since the last numbered entry in the series, and the many attempts that have been made to recapture its tactical, mercenary magic since then have been mixed at best, and reviled at worst. Haemimont Games, the devs behind Tropico and current custodians of the upcoming Jagged Alliance 3, know this, and their publisher THQ Nordic said as much back in September 2021 when it was first revealed, assuring players they were going to create a game that "really does justice to the Jagged Alliance legacy".

But in an era where turn-based tactics games are now increasingly defined by genre titans such as XCOM and Into The Breach, I'm not sure that legacy means all that much anymore. I've been playing a substantial early chunk of Jagged Alliance 3 over the last week or so, and its decision to pare back crucial information such as chance-to-hit and other modern conveniences has mostly left me feeling frustrated and annoyed rather than daring and excited. The writing also made me cringe so hard at times I think even the neighbours heard my groans of despair. It certainly looks the part of a modern strategy game, its detailed African landscape, top down perspective and interactive objects calling to mind Mimimi's excellent Desperados 3 and Shadow Tactics games, but the rest feels like it's been lifted straight out of the late 90s where we last left Jagged Alliance 2 - and not necessarily to its benefit.

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Of course, if Jagged Alliance 2 is what you've been craving to revisit for the last 24-odd years, then I'm sure Jagged Alliance 3 will tick a lot of boxes for you. Alas, I'm now too engrained in the XCOM school of turn-based strategy games to feel much affection for that era anymore, and returning to that hazy, nebulous notion of not knowing if any of my shots are going to land in Jagged Alliance 3 feels like I've deliberately broken both of my arms and tied them behind my back somewhat.

The maddening thing is, Jagged Alliance 3 is more than happy to tell you everything else you might want to know about landing a shot. It will tell you how much damage you'll deal, its crit percentage, and with the ability to target individual body parts (split into the head, arm, torso, groin and foot), it will also tell you the exact damage modifiers you'll receive if you successfully hit them - including whether specific body parts are protected with armour or hidden behind cover. It will happily offer up every little detail affecting a shot's accuracy, such as whether your merc has a marksmanship bonus or you've spent extra action points to improve your aim, or if the enemy has a terrain advantage or is crouching or lying prone. These are represented as plus and minus marks, which is sort of useful, in that more pluses and minuses is probably a good thing, but there's stil no real clarity on what any of them actually mean, or how each point is weighted against the other. Things that, you know, would all be quite handily summarised with a single, cold, hard chance-to-hit percentage.

A gang of mercenaries prepare to take a shot in a jungle setting in Jagged Alliance 3
Jagged Alliance 3 throws a lot of information at you, but I rarely felt like I was making properly informed decisions about my next move in battle.

THQ Nordic have, admittedly, spoken about this before, telling cheery RPS fanzine PC Gamer that "everything shifted" in the game's development when they decided to remove that chance-to-hit number. Keeping it in made it feel too much like just another XCOM clone, they said, which is a fair cop, if I'm being honest. As much as I like the style and distinct flavours of other, more recent tactics games such as Hard West 2, Warhammer 40K: Chaos Gate - Daemonhunters and Marvel's Midnight Suns, that XCOM muscle memory does come back in full force every time I come to play them.

But when Jagged Alliance 3 practically bombards you with so much extraneous bumph, knowing how to parse the information it does choose to give you can be difficult. A headshot has a damage modifier of +80%, for example, but is that on top of the stated damage number up the top, or some other number such as hitting a guy's torso? I couldn't tell you. Similarly, spending action points to improve your aim is bafflingly presented as well. A circle around your target will narrow with each point spent, but short of an extra plus in your accuracy column, there's no other indication whether spending one point is any better than two, three, or four.

A merc prepares to fire on an enemy soldier on a jungle bridge in Jagged Alliance 3
Answers on a postcard for what the 20 means in the Range crosshair bar...

The same goes for the tiny range bar located between your remaining aim AP pool and the mouse prompt icon to tot them up. You'll notice it has an upper extremity that's simply marked '20' for some reason, but its accompanying crosshair doesn't move at all when you spend points to increase your aim. Could I also tell you why the crosshair would be inside or outside the little flashing portion of the bar that sometimes appears either side of it? Not on your life, mate, because not once does it take the time to explain what any of these things mean.

The defensive side of combat is thankfully easier to get to grips with. Half and full height cover are clearly marked on its grid-based map, and some low cover will only give you any benefit if you crouch or lie prone (and changing position will cost you one action point each time). Starting from crouched or prone will then cost you more action points to move from that position, but overwatch cones still tell you how much terrain is actually visible from your current position. If you're lying flat on the floor, for example, you're not going to be much use compared to your mate right next to you who's simply crouched.

A mercenary prepares an overwatch cone in Jagged Alliance 3
Hello overwatch, my old friend...

Still, when it came to planning my attacks, the lack of anything vaguely useful to inform any of my decisions meant that all I could really rely on in the end was that old XCOM muscle memory, and I'm not gonna lie, it was like being wrenched over a cheese grater before being strung up on a rusty old rack and pulled in all directions. The thing is, unless its tutorial and general UI gets some hefty improvements before launch, I suspect most people coming to Jagged Alliance 3 will end up feeling exactly the same way - after all, XCOM-likes are pretty much all we've been playing in the turn-based tactics space since Enemy Unknown first came out in 2012.

Outside of battle, the frustrations continued. When you're not in combat, you move around its map squares in real-time, with enemies appearing gradually as they come into view. Again, maybe this is the muscle memory talking, but I wanted to approach these early, pre-battle moments like Desperados 3, getting my mercs into place without being seen, maybe taking one or two out stealthily before really getting into the meat of it. These light stealth elements are exactly what make Harebrained Scheme's upcoming Lamplighters League so exciting to me, for example, but Jagged Alliance 3 would almost always raise the alarm before I even knew I who or how I was spotted. Plus, regardless which merc actually triggered the eventual alarm, each group of enemies would always immediately know where everyone was hiding, rendering any kind of sneak attack or tactical pincer moves pretty much pointless.

A woman named Fox talks about diamond mines in Jagged Alliance 3
A muscle man named Steroid talks about his biceps in Jagged Alliance 3
A muscle man named Steroid jokes about breaking stuff in Jagged Alliance 3
A woman named Fox talks about battle protection in Jagged Alliance 3
Fox and Steroid probably had the worst zingers in my preview build, but gun fanatic Grizzly and marksman Ice were equal parts bad meathead / hoodlum parodies in their own right.

And oh god, the terrible merc barks. Such terrible, terrible merc barks. Not all characters were voiced in my preview build, but regardless of whether I was reading their dialogue on screen or having it slammed into my ear drums via its overly-ripe voice acting, they're just embarrassingly juvenile at times and have no bearing on anything anyone says. And the NPCs just carry on talking at you like these walking talking stereotypes have said nothing at all, and the whole thing just makes you want to double over with a +80% cringe damage modifier.

It's a shame, because other ideas Haemimont have brought forward from Jagged Alliance 2, such as certain mercs hating other mercs on your team and wanting more money to compensate for the psychic damage they'll receive, or being overly enthusiastic and getting morale boosts when they find out their best mate's going to be fighting with them, is actually pretty sound and something I'd like to see more of in strategy games. But when you get the sense that nearly three quarters of them have probably been cancelled in a previous life and have opted for mercenary work because it's the only thing they've got going for them, none of them are terribly enjoyable hangs.

The dynamic campaign map is, at least, a rare highlight in this otherwise worrying sea of early disappointment. Battle arenas each correspond to a grid reference on the top-down overworld map, and you'll need to navigate and exit them at the correct compass points to get to your next destination. You can also call in more mercs provided you've got enough funds to keep them employed for the length of their contract, but those additional squads will take time to arrive and catch up to other teams in the field if you need reinforcements.

An overhead view of Jagged Alliance 3's dynamic campaign map
Time is money in Jagged Alliance 3, so you'll need to weigh up the cost of bringing more mercs in and taking the time to heal and repair equipment with each merc's expiring contract deadlines.

As before, the aim here is to turn the map from red to blue, but Jagged Alliance 3 makes no bones about how difficult it's going to be to achieve this. When you begin a new game, it states up front that it's meant to be a challenge and that running out of money is "a very real risk" on Normal difficulty. Wounds also heal slowly, and equipment takes a long time to repair on Normal, and you can also make it even harder for yourself by turning off auto-saving (making each death and choice well and truly final), turning off saving during combat altogether, and removing the downed state mercs enter when their HP hits zero, meaning they'll die straight away rather than give you time to patch them up. There is a 'Forgiving Mode' for a more relaxed experience where it's easier to recover from your mistakes, but it is "not recommended" by the developers.

Really, though, all I want from Jagged Alliance 3 is a goddamn hit percentage, or at least a battle menu that makes it easier to understand all the other numbers it's throwing at me in its place. In its current state, I have a terrible feeling that this desire to cling onto the series' now worn and aged legacy will ultimately be the undoing of Jagged Alliance 3, and that it will arrive later this year as nothing more than a relic from a bygone era. From what I've seen so far, it runs the risk of becoming a series that's not only failed to adapt to the times it now finds itself in, but one that actively has no place in it either, thanks to its cast of almost offensively bad stereotypes. I hope Haemimont are able to turn things around before Jagged Alliance 3 comes out later this year, but all evidence so far points to a very low chance to hit.

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