This was written roughly five years ago for an old blog and was before the more recent (as of writing) Jagged Alliance releases. These releases were underwhelming making the tone of the first paragraph just as relevant.
I think most gamers have an obscure game that they love that they like to think nobody else knows about. Jagged Alliance is that game for me despite its cult status and a loyal fanbase. Originally released in 1994 and later again fully voiced on CD in 1995, Jagged Alliance became popular enough to have a series of four games by the late 90s. This is sadly pretty much where it ends as despite quite a few mods and continued fan support, the series has not seen an original release for more than a decade and I can’t say I’m optimistic for the future. This doesn’t bother me much because I constantly go back to the games and most recently to the original. Usually when people play a game over and over, they try different styles of playing and up the difficulty. What truly makes Jagged Alliance such a ‘Groundhog Day’ experience for me is that I rarely do anything different. I usually play the game exactly the same and use exactly the same characters. In fact I know the game so well the way I play that I don’t even want to try it any other way.
I first played the game back in 1996 when it appeared on a ten pack game release for our new family PC. It wasn’t the game that jumped out most at first but it fast became the only game we played despite the presence of other great titles in the pack. My brothers and I used to take turns and watch each other play it for days on end. Even our father was in love with it and it became the only game we played for many school holidays. This same addiction continued with the sequels Jagged Alliance: Deadly Games and Jagged Alliance 2. We never had the same love for the last original release Jagged Alliance 2: Unfinished Business or with any of the mods. Despite enjoying the sequels, it was the original that I originally fell in love with and many times over the past 14 years, I have gone back to it. Often with mixed success as newer computers are rarely kind to old DOS games. However with the various workarounds and most recently with the convenient version available on GOG.com, I have returned to it once again.
I’ve come two paragraphs without actually describing what type of game Jagged Alliance is so if you don’t know, this is the paragraph for you. If you do, you can skip it. Jagged Alliance is at its simplest a turn-based strategy game where you use mercenaries to retake control of a tropical island. What makes it unique compared to many other games in the genre, is that it includes many RPG elements like a levelling system for multiple skills and a detailed equipment interface. The most interesting for the time were the many characters with unique personalities and the tonnes of voice acting used to bring them to life. What was even better was the way they reacted to your actions as their commander. Fire a fellow mercenary they like and they and they might demand a pay raise to make them happy. Get someone they liked killed and they might leave no matter what you do. If you hire two mercenaries that dislike each other then you might have to choose which one stays. That’s just a taste of what can happen but there are many other experiences like this that actually do affect the outcome of the game.
I played the game so much that I experienced almost everything that could happen, though I’m sure there are some things I missed. That said, when I play it today I hire the same mercenaries and approach the game the same way. My usual team starts with Ivan the Russian communist who doesn’t speak a word of English. Then there is Grunty the German Mercenary who is cheap to hire and has good marksmanship. I also usually hire Bud the brownnoser and one other mercenary which changes depending on how I feel. In Jagged Alliance you really do need to consider the price of mercenaries and their skills. Hire too many or just one that you can’t afford and you could go bankrupt and have your angry mercenaries leave.
I think one of the reasons why I still go back to Jagged Alliance is because of just how addicted I was to it when it was still new to me. I have the same nostalgic reaction to games like Resident Evil 4, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Command & Conquer. The difference is that with the examples above I could never get into them the way I can keep getting into Jagged Alliance. Maybe it’s because too much stays the same on repeated playthroughs whereas the AI characters in Jagged Alliance are still slightly unpredictable despite my knowledge of the game. You never really know whether an enemy is going to stay back and fire, throw a grenade or run right up to you and attempt to stab you. There are also enough calculations going on in the background that could make the enemy repeatedly miss, the grenade a dud or the knife attack fail. These variables keep the game interesting and your mind focused. In the end it doesn’t matter how well I know the item placement, the layout of the level and in some cases the location of each enemy, the game will remain dynamic enough to be entertaining.
RPG enthusiasts will be able to relate to character customization. While Jagged Alliance doesn’t allow you to customize the stats of characters at the start, it does allow you to choose the armour, weapon and item load out for each mercenary. Once I understood the relative strengths and weaknesses of the items in the game, this small part of the game became one of the most entertaining. There were times when I spent up to an hour customizing my mercs and getting them ready for the days battle. The following actual combat ended up being remarkably short by comparison. What’s more enticing is the way this time spent can make all the difference. Forgot a medical kit? Decided to save those mustard grenades for another day? Then you go without and it could make the day harder or easier on these choices. On the other hand, if you take too much stuff you might have to leave something new behind. The relative scarcity of the equipment also makes scrounging around the environment a necessity. The sequels allowed you to order equipment to an extent but the original had no such feature.
Outside of the choices you constantly make. There are a few related directly to the outcome of your mission that come out unexpectedly during play. It would be unfortunate to spoil these but even from the start there is an item you need that is immediately important to your success. Later on other items and even characters will be involved. Not being sneaky enough in some sectors can result in damage to factories that will delay and reduce your income. You also come across coded letters that you can try and solve, some of which are time sensitive and some I’ve never actually found a use for. Even though I usually play the game straight, it is fun to sometimes let some of these things happen and see how they affect the game.
Jagged Alliance is one of those games that actually encourages permadeath/save deleting gameplay. It includes a quick save that allows you to repeatedly play sections over again but this actually becomes tiresome and easy, especially once you play the game well. Another major consideration is that your characters can permanently die and unlike the cardboard cutouts that make up the soldiers of RTS games, it truly is a loss when you the character dies and you know you have to let him go. Allowing an anything goes approach is a great way to enjoy it and the designers seem to want you to play like this despite giving you the option not to.
Although I will never be addicted to the game like I was when I was young, I can’t see myself ever not going back to Jagged Alliance. It is sort of like a gaming tradition for me to return to this and experience this game world that I know so well. I hope this post has gone some way to explaining why. I’d ultimately put it down to the addictive gameplay of turn-based strategy and the thoroughly entertaining characters that make up the world. I think this is also the reason the series has kept such a loyal fanbase for so long and I hope it continues even if we never get another release.