Jagged Alliance 3 preview – Fulfilling its contract

Jagged Alliance 3 has some clear rough edges, but at its core is a solid combat system that rewards experimentation and preparation.

Jagged Alliance 3 menu screen showing mercs and a jungle

A turn-based tactics game where you recruit and manage a team of mercenaries and attempt to liberate an island nation from the shackles of a totalitarian regime, Jagged Alliance 3 certainly doesn’t stray far from the series’ roots. Which is unsurprising, because of course, Haemimont Games hopes to recapture the magic of 1999’s Jagged Alliance 2. This cult classic is much loved for its complexity, gameplay variety, and emphasis on player freedom. So, how is the new modern sequel stacking up?

From what I’ve seen of the preview build, Jagged Alliance 3 demands patience. In some ways it is a difficult game to review, because if you rush on, attempting to delve as deep as one can in a limited timeframe, you’re bound to come away thwarted and annoyed. This is true both in battle, where one wrong move can spell disaster, and in the game’s management map screen, where you can plot and prepare for encounters.

Here for instance, if you press on without careful forethought, you may find a merc’s contract expires, and suddenly they’re swanning off home, taking your best gun and most of your equipment with them. Or you might turn up to a battle only to discover your weapons are mud-caked jamming machines and your damaged kevlar plating offers about as much protection as a torn plastic bag.

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One of the first things you’ll notice when entering combat in Jagged Alliance 3 is the conspicuous absence of a percentage chance to hit. According to the devs, removing this information was a deliberate choice to try and avoid players treating the game like XCOM, camping behind cover and only taking guaranteed shots. The decision is likely to be a divisive one, especially if your main experience with tactical turn based games includes games like XCOM, or if you only played Jagged Alliance 2 with the mod that added this feature.

After overcoming my initial apprehension, I’ve found it actually works out pretty well. Jagged Alliance 3 lets you see the factors that are affecting your shots, even if you can’t know the percentages, so you get a better feel for how likely each attack is to connect as your experience with the game grows. Doesn’t soothe the rage when a point-blank pistol shot misses, however.

There’s a deliberate vagueness to the combat system in fact, with both hit chances and enemy HP somewhat obscured (instead the game tells you the general condition of enemies). Some will enjoy this, others will find it infuriating. I will say that while it definitely leads to a lot of desperate shots, it sometimes seems at odds with the granularity of combat. There’s so many little decisions and factors to take into account, like the stance of your mercs, the amount you choose to aim, your position, cover, line of sight, weapon mods, weather conditions, and whether you choose to target specific body parts. I can see the benefit of stopping players ‘gaming’ the system, but it can make decision making hard when you don’t, for instance, know what would be the better use of your Action Points: crouching and aiming, or moving up closer.

Jagged Alliance 3 posh villa

I should say though that I love this level of detail in Jagged Alliance 3 and how it can make similar fights feel so varied. For instance a battle on a sunny day feels very different to one on a foggy night, as in the latter bullets become drastically less dangerous. Meanwhile, in noisy, rainy jungles you may have a much better time picking off small groups of enemies with stealth.

I really enjoy the spectacle of battles in Jagged Alliance 3. Each encounter can take up a healthy chunk of time, but I never tired of the way missed shots would plink into obstacles, blast away cover and absolutely do a number on defenceless market stalls and other innocent wooden objects.

Careful planning is key. A merc in cover is fairly safe – unless they’re being targeted at close range by multiple goons, but you’re usually dealing with waves of enemies with just a few combatants of your own, so avoiding damage is crucial. It’s satisfying when a plan comes together – grenade this group of enemies, set up an overwatch in that zone to hit multiple guys, finish off the terrifying melee fighter just before he gets close. And it’s terrifying when things don’t go to plan and you have to end your turn with a merc in a vulnerable spot, praying they’ll survive so you can retreat them behind a wall, make them lie down, and hope they’re forgotten about.

Jagged Alliance 3 stealthy mercs

One advantage of Jagged Alliance 3 over XCOM is that the roster of available mercs is entirely made up of unique characters with their own special talents, starting equipment, and personalities. These characters are all pretty cartoonish stereotypes: the sexy one, the gym bro, the hippy, but to be honest when there’s so many in the game, this at least helps you keep track of who everyone is. As they spit out corny one liner after corny one liner, you may find an odd kind of attachment growing to your mercs, even as they induce many, many eye rolls. Or you may just want to throttle them. More importantly, you won’t want to lose their unique skills…

It seems like the mercs are either dramatically unbalanced or will take a playthrough or two (or the combined efforts of the internet) to fully figure out. For instance, I found Blood, armed with infinite knives and able to throw them for just a few AP, could mow down two to three enemies per turn, while another character struggled to even get close to the fight. I anticipate that while I wasn’t always able to figure it out, there’ll be some interesting gameplay here, deciding how different mercs can work well together or be built to complement a particular playstyle.

Jagged Alliance 3 map mode

Combat is clearly the focus in JA3, but the management side of the game holds up fairly well. It’s a fairly functional system where you can spend time to heal, repair equipment, train local militias, and plan where to head next. While I found it frustrating that misclicking can sometimes cause wasted time, it just about gets the balance right. It’s not so fiddly that it’s annoying, but not so sparse that it’s pointless. One thing I did dislike though, is that groups of enemy troops are clearly displayed with icons for each unit type, but the names aren’t provided. So you’re given perfect information on enemy combatants… but only if you bother to learn what kind of face paint each type of baddie wears. Strange.

It’s whenever you’re asked to move your mercs around outside of combat that I had the most trouble with Jagged Alliance 3. Navigating the maps in real time with your mercs is finickity to a fist-clenching degree. For instance, you can select all your guys to move them around, but then click on an item to loot, and only one member of the team will run over there. That’s frustrating since inventory space is severely limited, and your mercs must be bunched up to swap items around. Similarly, icons are hard to click on, and sometimes placed frustratingly close together.

Environments are attractive, and I found some interesting quests like someone scooby-dooing it up with a ghost costume and landmines. But the interactivity seems strangely underdone in some areas. For instance, you can hack anyone’s devices right in front of them with no consequence, and NPCs can’t be spoken to if enemies are in another building down the road. The world, luscious though it looks, feels rather flat and dead, outside of the few dialogue trees with special characters you’ll find in certain zones.

Jagged Alliance 3 satellite view

You’ll also need to set up for battles in real time, which is really tricky when you’re trying to move multiple units around in stealth, and enemies are marching swiftly around the map. I found lightning fast reflexes (or trial and error) were required to pull off stealth kills, or even start the battle in reasonably good positions, and this is the main reason why I personally avoided the iron man mode. It left a bad taste in my mouth when a fight would start out horrifically because I found it too much of a faff to get my mercs into the right places.

Jagged Alliance 3 has an addictive and rewarding combat system. Its map management system flirts with frustration at times but ultimately adds a needed layer of preparation and planning. It’s the RPG aspects where Jagged Alliance 3 shows the most cracks, but if you’re looking for a new turn-based strategy game, this one is certainly looking like it’ll be worth a try.