The life of a Jagged Alliance 3 mercenary is, surprisingly, quite close to that of a self-employed domestic plumber. You get up on a Sunday morning, open up your laptop, and you’ve got a job offer. Only instead of cleaning johnnies out of a U-bend, you head to some hot country on the other side of the world and shoot people alongside a bunch of other freelancers you’ve probably never met. And when the contract is up you just punch-out and go home, full of hasty bandaged bullet holes and with pockets full of ammunition and exotic “herbs”. Unless your employer (that’s the player) extends the contract, in which case you just dust off your gun and carry on until the money runs out or your breath does.
Jagged Alliance 3, as you may have guessed, is not a serious war game. It’s a turn-based tactics affair that sees your team of relentlessly mouthy, inexplicably cheerful international trouble-makers swan from place to place, putting bullet holes wherever they see a clean surface and generally saving the world one president-slash-dictator at a time. It doesn’t take itself seriously, which is a good thing, because it makes the jank in the tank much easier to swallow.
Because Jagged Alliance 3 is very janky at times. It bugs out now and then, enemies and mercs glitch, or the AI freaks out and doesn’t follow orders. But worst of all is that the Dreaded Chance-to-Hit Mechanic, also colloquially known as “That Fucking Chance-to-Hit Mechanic” is more of a menace here than it has been in any game since the first XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
How you can be a veteran globe-trotting gun for hire when you couldn’t hit a floor you’re lying down on is anyone’s guess. In the initial stages, the merc you just spent $12000 to recruit for seven days turns up packing precisely one handgun and maybe a pair of pliers or a med kit depending on their “specialty”, and then proceeds to miss any target that isn’t actively French-kissing the barrel of their gun. It wouldn’t be so bad if Jagged Alliance 3 didn’t have so many tools that are supposed to make shooting more accurate.
You can target individual body parts, use free aim, or even spend more Action Points to make the merc bite their tongue and knot their brows and really concentrate super hard – and they can still miss centre-mass from five feet away. It’s arguably the most irritating mechanic in gaming, and the genre has made great moves forward recently (see Gears Tactics and Showgunners, for solid examples). Jagged Alliance 3 isn’t interested in all that modern convenience, though: if the wind blows or a fly lands on a blade of grass nearby, the shot will spoon off into the bushes. And because of friendly fire, I had one merc outright downed by a teammate because he was within three feet of the 6ft doorway she was aiming through.
It’s a shame, really, because AI aside, Jagged Alliance 3 is a really fun, very entertaining tactical shooter. A lot of this comes from the mercs themselves. Each is fully voiced – and there’s around 20 of the buggers – and has their own personality. You can take any combination in, or even field two teams, and they’ll all comment on their own actions, your decisions, and events that happen around them. More than this, though, they’ll all talk during the static conversation cutscenes, meaning it feels slightly different when you replay levels with different mercs.
The story campaign is, overall, pretty serviceable. It doesn’t contain many surprises as this is no narrative-heavy adventure, but the plight of the fictional nation of Grand Chien (which I’m pretty sure means “big dog” though my French is rusty) is fairly easy to understand. The president has been kidnapped and the country is on the verge of civil war. So you need to prevent war by murdering all the enemy soldiers before they get the chance to mobilise properly. You do this by interacting with the people, including the loyalists who fight desperately against the evil Legion. While you will have set objectives across a given sector, you’ll also be given side quests that require you to go off the path to explore.
Travel between sectors takes time, which will in turn shave hours off your mercenaries’ contracted terms. In between objectives you can undertake various activities, such as treating your wounded, ordering supplies, or training the locals as militia fighters to defend places you’ve already liberated. This uses up some resources or money, or both, but it’s worth doing to keep your mercs fighting fit and your freed towns in-side.
The more you use each merc the more XP you’ll earn to unlock permanent perks that improve a multitude of different stats and abilities. These perks help shape your gung-ho mercenaries into much more dangerous fighters, and so that initial feeling of being about as much use as a chastity belt made of gummy worms doesn’t last for too long.
While you explore the terrain you can uncover boxes and crates or other lootable items containing body armour, clothing (non cosmetic, sadly), weapons, ammo, tools, bandages and ingredients for medkits and pills. Hitting alt will highlight items you can loot, and looting one will clear out the area immediately for your convenience. You can crouch and use stealth for silent takedown or to rob an area without being seen. Once you are spotted, though, you’ll enter the combat phase.
Here you move your mercs around a grid-based map, using full and half cover, overwatch fields of fire, explosives, special abilities and outright attacks. It’s very similar to any other TBT shooter, and fans of the genre won’t have any problems getting to grips with the mechanics. You’ll need to be mindful of elevation and distance to target, and whether or not it’s worth using a grenade to save a single mercenary. That said, the enemy AI isn’t great and they’ll often leave themselves open to flanking, or cluster in convenient grenade-ready groups.
Graphically, Jagged Alliance 3 is pretty enough but rarely spectacular. I suffered a little slow-down here and there during combat and I was playing with high settings. There’s a nice attention to detail in environments, and while the enemies are identikit, each merc has a distinct visual personality to set them apart.
You can play the entire game in online co-op mode if you choose, taking control of two or more mercs each, to coordinate actions, flank, and harry the enemy. You can’t explore separate map sectors or anything, but you can vary your tactics to tackle a given situation. The campaign is fully playable in coop, and both players can take part in conversations with NPCs.
There’s a lot to unpack and a lot to like in Jagged Alliance 3. The merc management system is solid, the gear system works very well, and it’s fun helping to manage and protect towns you’ve liberated from the enemy. The combat, too, can be very satisfying, particularly when you’ve been around a while and your mercs are well kitted-out and more likely to hit a wall from the inside. But the inconsistent AI and the awful chance-to-hit can occasionally threaten to unseat the whole experience. That it remains in the saddle is testament to how playable and likable Jagged Alliance 3 is.
Combat can be very satsifying
The mercs are all distinct
A good mix of action and management
The chance-to-hit mechanic hates you
Enemy AI is hit and miss
Can be a bit buggy