the classic 80s guyflick The Dogs of War? Based on a Frederick Forsythe
novel, it featured a spooky post-Deer Hunter Christopher Walken as a
mercenary whose task was to organize a small mercenary unit and overthrow
a corrupt dictatorship. The movie had all the required shoot-em-ups, but
what made it stand apart from the run of the mill action movie was its
fascinating portrayal of Walkens preparations for the mission,
particularly as he carefully assembled just the right team of mercs with
just the right combination of skills to pull of the coup.
This sort of intelligent action is just what you get with the turn-based strategy game Jagged Alliance 2, a much-anticipated sequel to the 1995 game. Though the action is fast and furious, the game requires a good amount of extremely enjoyable tinkering with your mercs and places a real premium on thoughtful decision-making.
In Jagged Alliance 2, you play the role of a leader of a mercenary army that has been tasked to liberate the country of Arulco from the iron fist of Queen Deidranna. Dont expect a deep political model; her ex-husband is your employer, and Deidrannas ideology seems to consist mostly of just being really, really, mean.
Your first step towards the conquest of Arulco is to assemble your team.
This is done over a nifty internet interface that allows you to pick from 40 different mercenaries, each of whom has wildly different skills. You can also buy weapons and intelligence over the web. Of course, at least initially, youll have limited resources, so your first team will consist of decidedly middle-of-the-pack mercs. But dont despair; as you take over provinces and mines, your income will increase, so youll be able to hire some real hotshots. Even better, the mediocre mercenaries you hire early on will improve through experience and training as the game progresses, adding a stylish role-playing aspect.
Throughout the game, your main goal is to take over the cities of Arulco. Since the game is non-linear, you get to choose whatever order of conquest you wish, but its best to take the easier outlying cities first, especially those that have mines, which provide you with the income to hire better soldiers and buy better weapons. Once you take provinces, you can task mercs to train a militia in order to stave off Deidrannas inevitable counter-attacks.
While the strategic aspects of the game are engrossing and enjoyable, the real meat of the game is in its tactical combat, which combines the combat of X-Com with the roleplaying aspects of Fallout. Mercs each have a certain amount of action points they use up during their turn, after which your enemies take theirs. Enemy AI is pretty competentthough theyll sometimes make mad dashes into your line of fire, they are usually clever lads indeed, making the most of cover and holding their fire until they can get off a good shot.
As the game progresses, your mercs will amass a truly impressive arsenal. Though theyll typically start off with pistols, subsequent purchases and discoveries will find them fitted out with everything from grenades to Mini-14s to missile launchers to H&K machine pistols. Targeting enemies is a breezeyou can even choose which body location youd like to aim forbut it can sometimes be difficult to figure line-of-sight. And if you choose to eschew firearmsor for those moments when stealth is of the essence--you can opt to sneak up on enemies and employ knives or fists in hand-to-hand.
Though combat is usually a lot of fun, it does have its problemssometimes pathing can be a little funky, as NPCs refuse to move out of the way or stand over an important item that you cannot them pick up.
But typically interaction between your troops and NPCs is very smoothand hilarious. For all its emphasis on planning and combat, Jagged Alliance 2 is a very funny game. Some of your mercs will hold grudges against others, and the dialogue between them is quite humorous. Even better are the encounters youll have with the inhabitants of Arulcosome are very much scum, and some are willing to help you out, but most of them are very amusing. In fact, the whole game is full of enough tongue-in-cheek humor and ironic pop culture references to make you wonder if youre not playing Grim Fandango.
Ah, but youll remember its not Grim Fandango soon enoughmostly because of the graphics, which are not quite on par with the original Fallout. Im probably the only grognard alive who refuses to make excuses for bad graphics, so if youre the type who thinks strategy games attain some sort of moral superiority through substandard graphics, skip this paragraph. Jagged Alliances graphics are functional enough (sigh) but dated and unimaginative. Given the overall excellence of the rest of the game, this rankles me. Here follows a list of sins: the game only runs at 640 x 480, the terrain looks very much the same, no matter what its portraying, and the mercs look more like a bunch of people dressed for a office picnic than for a coup detat. I mean, would it have hurt to at least have given them camo fatigues, to have the characters actually look like theyre wearing a helmet and a Kevlar vest, instead of a polo shirt?
Ah, well, this may well be the price we pay for superior strategy games, but Im still baffled by the logic of this. Overall Jagged Alliance 2 is a deep, complex, funny, and thoroughly enjoyable game. I recommend it highly, but I wouldnt show it off to any of my art school friends.