It’s self-indulgence time in Modland this week as I use my hastily rigged together platform, which runs on the Soapbox Derby engine, to direct you all to spend your weekends playing one of the greatest games ever made. Jagged Alliance 2 should need no introduction, nor should its most infamous and essential mod, known simply as 1.13, being in the form of a super patch of sorts. But does such a bountiful game require any additions? Can it be made even greater?
Imagine I just said ‘no’, dropped in a purchase link and buggered off for the weekend. No fear though - even if I had tickets to go and see A Very Enjoyable Thing, I wouldn’t pass up the chance to talk Jagged Alliance instead. What's more, once I’ve spent some time writing about it, it’s inevitable that I’ll spend at least seventeen hours playing it and I still won’t have seen every gun in the game, or beaten it on ‘insane’ difficulty.
Among the many brilliant things that 1.13 adds to the game, there are hundreds of new weapons. Literally hundreds. They are often variants and different models of very similar kill-sticks, yes, but the massive variety adds a great deal to the game in terms of detail and it’s those details that I’ve come to adore. But before we get to all that devilry, a little about why Jagged Alliance 2 is one of the greatest games I’ve ever had the pleasure to play.
Complexity is a big part of it, with an incredibly detailed tactical combat system backed up by an overarching strategic game that covers hiring, training, deployment, purchasing, equipping and managing of personalities. Teams of mercs don’t just require specialists, who can either be hired or developed RPG-style, they also need to get along with one another. Clashes are frequent and can result in snide dialogue, a refusal to cooperate or, at extremes, abandonment and murder. None of this happens with a sliding friendship scale and the exchange of gifts, it happens through conversation and voiced complaints. There’s number-crunching happening and lots of it, but it’s rarely obvious to the player.
This is exemplified by firefights. Light levels, range, skill, position, stance, cover, and weapon type and degradation all have an effect on where a bullet will end up, along with a dose of the random number generator, but it all feels natural. A medic with a rusty revolver will probably miss a man lying prone behind a fence in the middle of the night. If she does manage to hit him, the type of ammo used along with the part of the body hit will determine how much damage is done, how much a wound bleeds and whether the target is knocked backwards or off his feet.
But you won’t be worrying about what the numbers mean because you bought or found that gun, you know what it’s capable of, and you’re the sadistic bastard who loaded it up with hollow point bullets. And that medic? You’ve been having your best marksman train her up for this, so you’re not quite as surprised when she takes a bead on someone and makes his head burst like an overripe watermelon. That happens too sometimes. Heads burst. It must be to do with some mathematics happening somewhere but, by golly, I don’t know anything about that, I just know that someone’s head exploded.
All of this is true in the strategy front-end as well. If mercenaries need to heal, they rest, if militia are repeatedly having their brave little minds shot out, someone should really be giving them lessons in self-preservation through the art of shooting first and never asking questions. Stop asking them if they’re friend or foe, silly militia, everyone but the mercenaries wants you dead. And even they are only your friends in the sense that they’re being paid to kill people who aren’t you. That’s what makes them mercenaries and presumably what makes the whole alliance so horribly jagged. It’s a terrible world, my little militia. That is today’s lesson.
That’s the only education they’ll ever need. Once again, in the background those lessons take the form of lines of code with modifiers for the skills of the teacher and the time spent, but as far as it all plays out, you’ll know who your best teachers are and the ever-changing situation will force your hand into action before anyone becomes perfect at anything. But progress will occur and the next time a fight breaks out, the training will pay off with victory, or at least a more evenly balanced death toll on each side.
So all that stuff that 1.13 adds does matter. Because Jagged Alliance is so good at feeding back information and intelligently showing the consequences of decisions, providing more decisions doesn’t actually make things more complex, it just increases the potential combinations. Guns with scopes and suppressors, guns with retractable stocks and laser aiming modules – they’re all in the mod, and you can cobble them together as well. The way they change your accuracy, firing speed and precision over distance makes sense straight away, so rather than adding migraine-inducing and needless configuration, they provide customisation at a personal and squad level.
But 1.13 does far more than simply overloading the game with things. There are more items in the form of load bearing equipment, a category including harnesses, pouches and holsters. These aren’t just cosmetic – they change the way the inventory system works but they can also be switched off if you’d rather not worry about that. That theme that runs through the 1.13 additions and alterations, allowing the player to choose the options he or she wants from the many available. If you don’t want to change the base game significantly but still want the extra guns, that’s entirely possible. But if you want the full experience, which I’d recommend, there’s enough changed to freshen the game even after years of playing.
The artificial intelligence is revamped at both the tactical and strategic levels, making things even more difficult than they were already. Jagged Alliance 2 is difficult, right? That’s not just me? I’ve been playing it since the day it was released and although I still think I’m improving, as should be the case in a masterpiece of strategic design, I’m still not very good. The changes to enemy reactions make the game harder by making things more believable though, presenting a force that reacts to your actions intelligently and cruelly. It can make the early game incredibly tricky but it forces deeper investment in your mercenaries and that investment is part of the game’s core appeal.
It matters when they get wounded because, like predators in the animal kingdom, if they’re too badly hurt, they can’t hunt anymore. And if they can’t hunt, they become a liability. The health system is brilliant and I’m constantly shocked (I’m reeling in my chair even now) that more games haven’t stolen it. Wounds bleed until they’ve received medical attention but once bandaged, they still reduce a merc’s overall health and need rest and proper treatment from a doctor to heal completely. It means getting shot in the leg actually matters, which it should if you want a player to look after his units and use interesting tactics.
I can’t sum up everything in 1.13 here but I can link you to this page, which does just that. But I will reserve a little more space to talk about technical changes. Higher resolutions are now supported, which helps the game to look rather good even in these modern times. There are also added tooltips to provide useful feedback where the visuals aren’t up to the task, such as details of enemy armour, helping you to decide if it’s worth going for that headshot or not. There’s even a multiplayer mode, supporting co-op, deathmatch and team deathmatch. Never tried it, but it’s there.
If you’ve never ever played Jagged Alliance 2 and you’ve actually read this far, you must be interested so go and buy it right now. The version over at Good Old Games is apparently the most reasonably priced and easiest to run mods on, although it's not the Gold edition, but this link contains an apparent fix if you do have the Steam version and are having trouble.
On the other hand, if you already have the game this is the perfect time to start all over again. The campaign map is fairly small as these things go but it’s almost endlessly replayable and you could always ramp up the difficulty and see how your skills serve you. And if you are a veteran who has somehow managed to avoid 1.13, there is nothing else you can possibly do with the weekend except treat yourself to an all new set of hired guns.
That’s not all though. If you have, somehow, become weary of the original campaign, you are an odd person indeed and I’m not sure I want anything more to do with you. But since you’ve been so polite, sitting there quietly and nodding politely in all the right places, I’ve got a few more mods just for you. The best part is, they should all work on top of 1.13.
The first is Deidranna Lives, which is a fairly simple overhaul of the original campaign. It takes the form of a second sorty, another visit to the scene of the battle. I’ve never finished it but word is that the further south you travel, taking you closer to Deidranna’s old capital, the more changes become evident.
For maximum changes in a minimal timeframe, you’ll want Urban Chaos, which throws your poor mercs up against their toughest challenge yet, dumping them in a concrete jungle full of murderous gangs. As a city-dweller myself, I sympathise with their inability to cope with the stresses of life on the streets, although my own particular brand of urbane chaos protects me comfortably from the wayward mischief of my fellow citizens.
What I’m trying to say is that Urban Chaos will hit you harder than a pile of hammer-wielding bricks made of tungsten. It adds all sorts of new things, all strung through a completely new campaign, and if you’ve seen everything else that Jagged Alliance has to offer, jump right in. Just don’t come crying to me when you’re riddled with bullets because I’m not a doctor but I am extremely squeamish. If you are on 1.13, Urban Chaos should be retrieved from here rather than the earlier link.
Finally, what about Jagged Alliance, Vietnam War edition? SOG 69 has you covered. I don’t know how well because for some reason it won’t work for me right now and I’ve never tried it before. So there’s a useful insight for you. I did read some forums though and it sounds like a fairly ambitious but quite flawed rendition of jungle warfare. Maybe one of you can tell me what it’s like?