Jagged Alliance 2 is still one of the best turn-based squad tactics games around, its own sequels falling short of its consummate majesty. Part XCOM, part A-Team, players manage and command a ragtag band of vaguely cartoonish mercenaries on a mission to liberate an impoverished banana republic from its tyrannical queen. JA2 has also spawned an insular but extremely productive mod scene, mostly on The Bear's Pit forums. While their output has tapered off in the past year or two, and site reshuffles have made some older mods hard to access, it's hard to go wrong with Jagged Alliance 2 v1.13.
Military Contracting For Dummies
First, though, a quick guide to updating the game to modern, widescreen Windows 10 spec. Jagged Alliance 2 is from an awkward era of Windows games where backwards compatibility struggles. While many of the versions of the game available have hammered out the kinks for you, not all have. You should be fine if you own the GOG version of Jagged Alliance 2, or the Classic Complete bundle on Steam. Unfortunately if you own the older Jagged Alliance 2 Gold pack on Steam (or the original disc version), you may hit problems running it on Windows 10. Fortunately, there are workarounds, and it's worth playing without mods at least once to learn the ropes.
While a combination of Windows compatibility modes and deleting intro videos is the most direct way to get the Gold version behaving, the easiest is a fix-pack called Stracciatella. It fixes some old crashes, adds custom resolution support and even supports Linux and Mac. You can grab it here (I recommend the installer version), install it to anywhere but your Jagged Alliance 2 directory, and point its launcher to the game itself. Unless you've got a very large monitor I wouldn't recommend going above 1280 x 720. The game's interface doesn't scale up, making some fonts very hard to read.
While the original Jagged Alliance 2 is a must-play, the expansions are less so. Wildfire is the most interesting of them, originally a mod aimed at veteran Jagged Alliance 2 players. Consider it to JA2 as The Master Quest is to a Zelda game. It returns to familiar maps, but with a much meaner campaign supporting larger squad sizes.
Lucky Number Thirteen
Now for that good mod business I know you're here for. Jagged Alliance 2 v1.13, by "Flugente" and the Bear's Pit crew, should win an award for Most Unassuming Mod Title. Just one version number higher than the official v1.12 final patch, the name belies an astonishingly complex overhaul, almost a new game in its own right. v1.13 may share the same story beats, art and world map, but it's pretty much entirely new under the hood. Most systems have been overhauled, with more complex simulated ballistics, vast swathes of realistic weapons modelled, and more complex interactions between characters. Squads are larger, AI is smarter and there's a whole new espionage layer to the game.
Setting up v1.13 is thankfully easy. Grab the latest 'Single Click Installer' package from The Bear's Pit forum here. The most recent at time of writing was Revision 8673, released on March 15th. New versions launch every few weeks. Installing it is just a matter of unpacking the ZIP file to your Jagged Alliance 2 directory, overwriting files when prompted. As the forum page says, if it's not asking you to overwrite files, you're unpacking it in the wrong place. Once that's done, use 'INI Editor.exe' to set your video options, then run the game as normal. If all went to plan, you'll see an updated menu screen, a bit like this:
If something did go wrong (I had some trouble with the original Gold release, but other versions worked fine), check the Docs folder for some Windows 8+ compatibility fixes. You should probably check there anyway for some handy documentation. If nothing else, keep the Hotkeys list to hand, as there's a ton of new functionality there. So much so, that you'll probably need hours to figure out what all the fun new toys do. Here's just some of what you'll be juggling if you make the hop to v1.13.
Old War-Dogs, New Tricks
While the heart of JA2 v1.13 is familiar, you'll find there're many new mercs to hire, with multiple gear loadouts per character and a ton of new guns and tools. The custom character creator has a far wider range of options to create your protagonist, right down to choosing how racist or sexist they are. There's a lot more complex interpersonal stuff going on that, while mostly tangential to the gunfights, will sometimes create interesting wrinkles on the battlefield. Under stress, "Steroid" Gontarski likes to use combat stims unprompted, much to the disapproval of any witnesses.
The biggest trap for returning Jagged Alliance 2 players is the notorious Drassen Counterattack event. Early in the campaign, you'll be called on to liberate the poorly-guarded town of Drassen. Same as ever, you'll get a cutscene of a furious Queen Deidranna ordering a counter-attack. Unlike the original game, she actually does it. You'll probably be driven out, or cut down if you try to hold the line. Using the INI Editor tool outside of the game, you can disable this if you like - it's in 'Strategic Event Settings'. While you're at it, you can tweak and tune just about every aspect of the mod.
Even without that kick in the teeth, you've got a lot of new systems to juggle. The enemy army is larger and more reactive in this mod, but once you've raised a small militia of your own, you'll be able to hire PMC grunts online from Kerberus. Expensive, but a good option if you're high on money and low on manpower. On the tactical front, there's a whole new Covert Ops side to the game, detailed on this unofficial wiki page. Dress up as a civilian and you can avoid fights if you don't get close to enemy soldiers. Dedicated spies can steal enemy uniforms for infiltration missions, too.
Why spy when you could shoot? Because now sneaky play (or interrogating troops captured alive) gets you Intel, a new currency. This can be traded in for info on enemy positions, locations of enemy generals (oh yeah, there are generals now), or even rare gear on the black market. There are now a lot of new ways to play the game that don't involve just charging into enemy territory and shooting stuff. It's almost like you're fighting some kind of guerrilla war. However you slice it, it's harder and more involved than the original game, so I'd stick to Novice difficulty at first.
You can see a full list of new features on the Bear's Pit homepage here. Some of it is mundane but useful, like dragging bodies, or skinning animals for pelts to sell. Other features are less straight-laced, like creature invasions, depending on your particular realism settings. You can even find your militia under siege by zombies, if you've enabled undead spawns in the in-game options menu. Poke around the INI editor and options menu, as there's some wild and wacky stuff in there, mixed in with the gritty realism, perfectly in keeping with the spirit of Jagged Alliance.
Point Away From Face
At the very start of the game, check your in-game email for a 'personality test'. This is how you create your own custom character. The best thing about being your own boss? You don't need to pay yourself wages, which makes you one of the most important and reliable mercenaries in the game, long-term, along with any NPC you can recruit for free. If you're playing 1.13, then you have a lot more control over how you create your custom character, and can even create multiple of them, if you enable it via an INI tweak. That'd probably be considered cheating, though.
This handy unofficial wiki has a list of all the recruitable buddies you can find in 1.13. Eight free, eight paid, and if you have the Additional Mercs module listed below, a couple extra scattered around the world. Ira Smythe is the first free worker you'll meet, in the rebel compound in Omerta. Not much of a fighter, but as she'll probably be sticking around longer than your A.I.M-hired mercs, she has more time to learn the ropes or be trained by others. Her high wisdom and capacity as a teacher helps, too.
While the working-for-exposure crew are going to be the backbone of your unit, the mercs are the fists, feet and brains. The really good mercs demand a lot of money, but there're a few gems in the bargain bin. Robert "Steroid" Gontarski is meant to be Polish but sounds like a guy putting on a bad early 90s Schwarzenegger impression. He's also a big tough ox with middling accuracy and good mechanical skills. Rubbish dexterity, though, meaning he'll probably just be picking locks with a crowbar.
When it comes to mercs, you get what you pay for. Above is a screenshot of an experiment. On Novice difficulty, I'd hire every merc I could afford, on a one-day contract, with their default equipment. Three full helicopters full of troops, and it was halfway into my third turn of wild firing before anyone landed a hit. If you hire a clown-car full of clowns, all you'll get is honking, screaming and bleeding the moment a firefight breaks out. A good, scoped rifle in the hands of a skilled shooter makes all the difference. That, or lots of grenades. You've only got a small amount of money to start out with, and you're unlikely to get more than a one-week contract out of halfway decent mercs, until you secure a source of cash like a mine.
Tactical Upgrades For v1.13
If all of v1.13's new features aren't enough to make your head spin, then here's a couple extra goodies to flesh out your 1.13 campaign, if it's still a little too vanilla for your tastes:
Additional Mercs is an extra module for v1.13, available as an optional download. Mercy from Overwatch teaming up with Max Payne, the Ryder twins from Mass Effect: Andromeda and Lara Croft? Sure, why not. They've a surprising number of special interactions between the new mercs and even some of the old crew. Some of the new mercenaries in this pack can be hired via A.I.M., while others have to be recruited in the field. Max is, of course, drinking himself senseless. Installing this mod is simple. Just download here and extract to your JA2 v1.13 directory. It should add a bunch of new files to your Data 1.13 directory.
AIMNAS is for the people who think that 1.13 doesn't add nearly enough random tactical equipment to goof around with. Primarily an item expansion, it adds over a thousand new weapons, pieces of gear and random gubbins to the store stock lists and enemy loot tables. You'll probably have trouble matching ammo and magazines to guns with this installed, but if you like to collect obscure real-world guns in videogames, this is for you. It also increases the scale of many battle maps to allow for more manoeuvring. Installing the mod is just matter of unzipping over an existing 1.13 install. To download it, click Clone Or Download/Download ZIP on its GitHub page here.
Other Fun Mods To Try
While JA2 v1.13 is highly customisable and you could easily lose dozens (if not hundreds) of hours to it, it also became the foundation upon which tons of other mods were built. Here's a trio of notable ones:
Jagged Alliance: Metavira by Night Ops Team is a remake of the original Jagged Alliance in the sequel's engine. While a little clunky and never developed past beta, it's still entertaining stuff. It takes place on a smaller map than Jagged Alliance 2, and the battles are significantly smaller-scale, but there's a lot to like. The only issue is that setting it up can be a little fiddly. You'll need a clean install of Jagged Alliance 2, then unzip all five parts of the mod from The Bear's Pit (Main mod, Mercs Speech, Music, Jack & Brenda, Intro) and unpack them over the game.
JA2 Vengeance: Reloaded by the Vengeance: Reloaded Team is another pseudo-sequel mod in the vein of the old Wildfire expansion. Originally one of the first wave of mods for the game, the Reloaded version is rebuilt using v1.13 as a foundation. Set after the original game, Deidranna has somehow survived and returns to Arulco with a new army to reclaim the nation. The big problem is that her first goal is to kick over the A.I.M. headquarters (now based in Arulco), so much of the mod has you picking up the pieces and trying to find survivors of the initial attack.
JA2: Urban Chaos is another old-but-gold mod from the early 2000s, with an optional v1.13 version. As the title suggests, this one takes place on a much more built-up map, which alters tactics. Long sight-lines down streets and from windows, and tight, claustrophobic fighting indoors. Sniper rifles and shotguns are a good combo once you get to the towns. The original mod (JA2UC.zip, featuring a very flashy 90s installer) can be found on this FTP here. Unpack, then run the installer and point it at a fresh JA2 install. Sadly, upgrading to the 1.13 edition is a bit of a bear. The download and full instructions PDF are here, and requires an older build of v1.13 here.
And that's a wrap for now. Of course this is just a small selection of mods, but I'm still far from mastering the regular game with v1.13 installed. Some day I'll not have to save-scum, but today is not that day. Do share your favourites, your war stories, and your configuration recommendations in the comments below. Fun thing with mods is there's no one 'right' way to play. How do you take your murder-coffee?