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Jagged Alliance 3 review: a strong sequel that aims to refresh, not merely repeat

A.I.M. is in the reach zone

Character portraits of a group of mercenaries from Jagged Alliance have been collaged together
Image credit: THQ Nordic

I'm definitely going to keep playing Jagged Alliance 3. However much I waver back and forth on my exact feelings about it, this is crucial. As with its ancestors, you're invading a fictional country with a team of dysfunctional freelance mercenaries, managing their equipment and clashing personalities through a guerrilla war on an open world map whose every sector can host turn-based battles.

It challenges the all-smothering XCOM standard of "two actions per turn" by restoring the ancient way of the Action Point. Everyone has a dozen or so action points per turn to split between movement, shooting, or miscellaneous contextual actions. Chance to hit is never listed, but accuracy can be bumped by spending extra action points. It innovates too by giving everyone a small pool of free movement, keeping battles moving, and broadening the tactical possibilities. It borrows as much from modern designs and is mostly better for it.

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Characters automatically reload between fights and top up personal inventories from squad ones if possible. Targeting specific body parts now inflicts status effects like suppression or reduced accuracy, and each weapon class adds a special attack, like machine guns holding a lane, or dashing while spraying multiple potshots with an SMG. Gun mods are made from spare parts rather than bought or found. Characters now gain perks when levelling, but these are restricted by their stats to ward off minmaxing and lean into the other defining element of the series: unique characters.

The characters are... well. Mechanically, they're great. There are no classes, and everyone's skills vary wildly, but since they improve through use you can shape people as you see fit. They each get a unique ability, adding a little character without pigeonholing them. They have personality too, or rather, they get one thing, which they'll tell you about constantly. Buns is efficient. Meltdown is now an insufferable tryhard. Ice is a Black American Guy, like on TV.

They're constantly interjecting in conversations with obnoxious comments too, until I started picking the most boring, professional characters because they were less likely to show up in my replies embarrassing me. I became fond of some (like newcomer Livewire, a cutesy Pakistani hacker whose hacking bonus pays her salary even before you give her a decent rifle), but most were insufferable enough to ditch permanently just to shut them up. It isn't as sharp tonally as the originals (though it's less mean-spirited) and isn't confident enough to stop saying how confident it is. It's not well written or funny enough to elevate them from plain backwards to a successful parody.

An open sandy area acts as a battleground for fighting soldiers in Jagged Alliance 3
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun / THQ Nordic

I don't care about the plot and can recall the name of exactly one NPC. Its setting doesn't sit entirely comfortably, not least as your employer is a diamond mining corporation. It's pretty clear they're not the goodies and something will probably come of that, but so far, I'm really only in a fictional African country to shoot dudes for money, which is ground that Far Cry 2 covered less uncomfortably in 2008. I didn't detect any malicious or edgelord vibes, and a game about mercenary guerrillas will naturally visit luckless, war-torn countries. But it's at best quite boring to see Africa again reduced to shanty towns, warlords, and shamans, and the writing just doesn't carry off the tongue-in-cheek personality that could lift it out of that mire.

There are, to its credit, loads of side jobs and hidden things, and its map is impressively open. Sectors are smaller but more interesting than before, with fewer empty jungles to trudge through, and many maps taking full advantage of the 3D engine with multiple elevations. There are couriers to ambush now, but these suffer from that perennial turn-based shooter problem: stealth.

All travel happens in real time until someone kicks off, and we switch to turns. Before that, you can sneak around and stealth kill sentries. Enemies who spot you do the utterly bullshit "free turn to run to cover thing" like in XCOM, so you'll want to set up ambushes. But you have to do that in real time, slowly controlling everyone in turn even as the enemy walk out of the killzone. The "prepare takedown" option helps, but not much.

JA3 has ditched interrupts in favour of an overwatch system, thankfully via the Phoenix Point/Stirring Abyss model of setting a specific field of fire. But mercs immediately shoot at centre mass rather than let you decide what to do. This bothers me more than it will most players though. Inverting that is the chance to hit system, which I love but will alienate people after a decade of tactical games that coddle you with precise odds. Katharine was right that it's odd to give so much information except your exact chance to hit, but I was blind to it immediately, including the damage numbers, instead favouring my intuition. Jagged Alliance 3 is a simulationist game about eyeballing it, not cold boring board game calculations. A table isn't "-5% enemy accuracy"; it's "better than nothing and maybe worth it to draw fire from my sniper or pressure the guys flanking and from there full auto might hit them both". You go for a shot because it looks like it might be worth punting a few bullets that way on the off chance, especially since repeat shots increase accuracy.

A squad member sneaks up on an enemy soldier in Jagged Alliance 3
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun / THQ Nordic
A fighter aims two pistols at a man with red face paint in Jagged Alliance 3
Text boxes show the stats of a successful headshot fired by a player character in Jagged Alliance 3
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun / THQ Nordic

And this is why I'll be playing it more: the combat, the heart of it, is really damn good. Shootouts are varied and chaotic, the tactical challenge real enough that I've never felt like I lost by chance, but because I didn't bring enough dudes, or put too much pressure on one key merc, or didn't cover someone's position properly. I replayed a couple of shootouts just for the fun of it and to experiment. I'm enjoying it! Where XCOM bored me senseless, and succeeding in Phoenix Point made me feel more spiteful than triumphant, I love every win, and a hell of a lot of the individual moments where Ivan zaps two dudes in a turn, Vicky flanks a sucker, or Ice utterly baguettes a dude with his machete.

I think it's a success. It's a strong push to move the genre beyond the model we've been stagnating in for years that still acknowledges the strengths of that design (so far that it copies some things I wish it wouldn't, like the godawful panic system). It will be divisive for that, and may alienate the most obdurate of the purists too, neither of which it really deserves. Tonally, it's mostly a miss, and aspects of its UI like travel, merc selection, transferring, and splitting inventory need another quality-of-life pass. But the combat / strategy / management elements are enough to carry it through those disappointments, and I suspect to keep me coming back for quite some time.

This review is based on a review build of the game provided by the publisher THQ Nordic

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