This game is something of a classic already, and there's a reason for its popularity despite its potential for complexity; it's really, really, really fun.
Welcome Tribsoft! Jagged Alliance 2 is the first ported product of this burgeoning Linux gaming company and a great title to select for their debut performance. In JA2, a Sir-tech game from 1999, you direct the operations of a force of mercenaries as you attempt to help an exiled leader retake control of his ravaged homeland and release it from the clutches of its despotic ruler. In order to do this, you must manage your own fiscal resources, hire and fire the right mercenaries at the right time, help train guerilla forces, obtain weaponry and supplies, liberate the countryside of an entire nation, and somewhere in there, you have to find time to actually fight the bad guys. As one might imagine, a game with goals so grandiose is going to be a bit long on options and can pack a learning curve steep enough to twist your ankle on, especially if you have an aversion to reading manuals. However, this game is something of a classic already, and there's a reason for its popularity despite its potential for complexity; it's really, really, really fun.
Jagged Alliance 2 was actually the third installment in the Jagged Alliance series (the second being Jagged Alliance: Deadly Games), and actually it isn't the latest. However, Tribsoft is working tirelessly, we're told, to bring us the next JA2 in the series, Jagged Alliance 2: Unfinished Business, at some point in the near future. Basically, the game revolves around the actions of a horde of mercenaries under your control as you attempt to aid the exiled leader of the fictional nation of Arulco. It seems that Queen Deidranna has abolished the democratic government and set herself up as supreme ruler of the tiny country using her military strength to squeeze what wealth and power she can from her own people (I guess NATO's sitting this one out). The deposed leader of Arulco, Enrico Chivaldori, contacts you secretly, and you meet in a quiet bistro at the beginning of the game where he tells you his sad story and offers you lots of money to help him out with his homebrew revolution. The plan is simple: you go in, take back his cities, train his people to defend themselves and restore him to power. If you agree to help, he can provide a network of contacts and enough money to get you started (with the promise of more later). Well, of course you agree (you're a money-grubbing merc and he has a briefcase full of money for goodness' sake), and the adventure begins.
The internal story is really nonlinear. Though the ultimate goal of retaking the country remains paramount throughout the game, you are out there to help the people of Arulco, and as such, are often tasked with subgoals of various types. Objectives like finding wanted terrorists for bounty, giving messages to covert agents, training militias and clearing supply corridors for rebel forces are the kinds of tasks you'll run across at every turn in JA2. The map itself is so complex and detailed that you'll also find smaller goals hidden inside larger ones from time to time. For instance, during one phase as you clear out a sector of countryside of enemy forces, if you're looking inside buildings closely you might notice a small T-shirt company. Inside, you'll discover that the place is exploiting children for labor, and you can free them with the right plan. During the game, you actually can talk and interact with NPCs (nonplayer characters—there are over 150 of them); indeed, they're invaluable sources of information and add much to the development of your game's own unique storyline and history. Perhaps the only downfall of the free-form nature of JA2's storyline is that it opens the possibility for some very long, long games, and while people simply can play small portions of a larger campaign to get their fix between The Simpsons and The X-Files, there really isn't any such thing as a short JA2 game.
Jagged Alliance 2 is a bit of a puzzle. Is it a role-playing game? No, well, yes. Is it a strategy game? Sometimes. Is it real-time or turn-based? Yes, it's both; it depends—okay, JA2 is obviously a bit hard to pigeonhole into a single category. With JA2, Sir-tech blended the best parts of strategy, role-playing, real-time tactics and turn-based gaming in a clever balance that makes the game really flow nicely once you get into it. The getting into it, on the other hand, can be something of a challenge. The diversity and complexity of JA2's control interfaces can make SimCity look tame by comparison; however, I think most players would agree that once they master the basic elements of the game and get a certain feel for the minutiae of the interfaces, the level of control is not only necessary for the combination of role play, strategy and tactics to function properly, but actually provides a rather comforting degree of flexibility and adaptability in the game's mechanics.
The game starts off on your merc's laptop. Sir-tech has created its own faux OS interface, loosely based on Windows it would seem, called sirOS VIII, which can connect (via satellite modem one must assume) from deep in the jungles of Arulco to a Sir-tech mockup of the Internet. Much of the resource management in the game is initiated from here. Indeed, your laptop is nothing short of vital to your success as a mercenary; you send and receive e-mail from it (and even receive spam that says it's not spam), you browse trade web sites, purchase things (like guns and ammo) from e-commerce sites (some of which are occasionally under construction) and balance your budget on it. You store files on it, such as maps of Arulco and reconnaissance information, and can even browse your logs to recall what you've done and when.
The game gets going when, from your laptop, you connect to a couple of web sites and recruit your initial team of mercs. A.I.M., the Association of International Mercenaries, is the largest and most prestigious job exchange available to you, though you do have the option of personalizing and creating your own custom soldier, a mercenary who works for free in your group. Your only limitation on hiring mercs is money, and each merc has his or her own dollar amount.
What's more, each merc is totally unique—they have personalities, they have their own equipment, some get along well with others, some don't, some are true professionals who have been doing this all their lives and some are just crazy backwoods freaks who want to kill someone for money. One of your biggest challenges in the game is to construct a team of mercs that will get along with each other, compliment each others' abilities well, and most importantly, be able to fight their way through the evil Queen Deidranna's forces and do it all within your limited budget. As you progress in the game, you'll have the opportunity to hire or recruit some of the more advanced mercs and the mercs you hire now will learn new skills to become wise veteran soldiers.
It's interesting actually, to get accustomed to your team and see their individual potentials and personalities emerge and grow as you play. Some can be quite crass (parents be warned: some mercs curse like sailors and there are no parental controls available), others can be wimpy and nerdy or shy and introverted, and almost all of their random dialogues will leave you grinning and shaking your head. One of my favorites was a merc code named Steroid speaking in his Hans and Franz-style Schwarzenegger voice to announce that he was wounded with a deadpan “My skin is punctured and leaking.”
Your mercs are dropped into a city in Arulco, and basically from here on, you move around the map in real time. If it takes you two minutes to cross a bog, it really takes you two minutes. The large map of Arulco is divided up into large parcels of land, or sectors, that make up the map your mercs are on at any given moment. You can separate your mercs into as many squads as you like and send them to as many different sectors as you like (in fact, as the game progresses, you'll leave mercs all over the place to train the locals to be militia soldiers), but you can only zoom in to look closely at one sector at a time. If you like, you can exit into a control screen where you can speed up time to make those long six-hour journeys from one part of the country to another flash by in the blink of an eye, monitor the locations of all your mercs on one screen and zoom in at will to any particular hot spot that interests you. If your mercs run into an enemy at any time, whether in the close-up real-time view or in the overview, or Map Screen mode, the game immediately switches over into turn-based combat, and you have the options of either retreating your people to an adjoining sector (if you're near a border) or duking it out with all the Queen's men in the sector.
In turn-based combat, your mercs have dozens of movement options available to them, and you must use combat tactics to maneuver and manipulate them appropriately to win the battles. You can use the terrain or foliage to provide cover or even vantage points for ambushes. Your mercs can run across the map to new locations, crouch down, crawl or even go into a stealth mode that you can use to sneak up on enemies who haven't seen you yet. Should your mercs be wounded in battle, someone in your party with medical skill must administer first aid to them or they will continue to bleed and lose health. Your mercs can take and give damage to various body parts (leg shots tend to make them fall down temporarily, head shots can cause serious injury, etc.) and even fight hand-to-hand when close enough to an enemy.
Outside of combat, your mercenaries are still central to your game play. With your mercs, you secure your only source of income in the game, the gold and silver mines of Arulco. The more of these mines you can secure with your forces, the more monthly income you can derive from them, and thus the more mercs you can hire and sustain. Mercs also manage weaponry and supplies, they carry and find all sorts of guns, ammo and armor around the countryside, as well as medkits, lock-pick kits, crowbars, canteens, flak jackets and a host of other weird sundry items like bubble gum or beer. Mercs can also train militia or practice skills when left alone and actually need to sleep occasionally or will become fatigued and unable to fight well.
The graphics in JA2 are, well, they're from 1999. The resolution is limited to 640 × 480, and though I'm not sure you'd actually need to go higher to get any more information, the display seems somewhat pixelated and blocky by today's standards. The flip side of this coin is that you quickly forget about the graphics once you start getting into the game play or realize that 3-D-rendered bushes aren't really required for this type of game. The environment is phenomenally complex and epic in scale; moreover, thousands of objects in each sector can be manipulated, opened, closed, picked up, blown up, etc. Half the fun of playing is exploring the diverse landscape and poking around in buildings for loot. The character animation is really excellent (the close-up combat scenes actually reminded me quite a bit of Maxis' The Sims--the detail on the character movement is just that good), and the cutscenes and “movies” are drawn with the game engine itself. The only real fault I could find in the graphics engine is that the terrain modeling is almost impossible to interpret in complex situations—it's nearly impossible to tell if you are shooting over or at obstacles between you and your targets (who, incidentally, could apparently see through walls or trees from time to time). The sound effects are really awesome, and the musical score, while perhaps somewhat repetitive in a game that takes this long to play, always fits the mood of the action perfectly.
Unfortunately, there simply is no multiplayer mode for Jagged Alliance 2, period. However, at the start of each game, you do have several options available to liven up the party. The difficulty levels do make a big difference in this game, and your gaming experience changes dramatically based on which level you choose. You can also set a Tons of Guns option that drastically increases the numbers of types of guns available to you at any given point in the game, and you can even, get this, hit the Sci-Fi option wherein huge alien insects will attack your mercs at night!
Jagged Alliance 2 requires a fairly minimal hardware setup to run. Tribsoft recommends only a PII 233MHz with 32MB RAM, a 4X CD-ROM and 400MB of free hard disk space. Since nothing about JA2 requires 3-D acceleration, pretty much any card that will run at least XFree86 3.3.x at 640 × 480 or higher should work just fine. An OSS-compatible sound card is required, of course, and Tribsoft also suggests a version 2.2 Linux kernel (or greater) as well as glibc 2.1 or higher. The game played like a dream on both of the 700MHz and 500MHz systems I tested it on (GeForce/Debian woody and G400/VA-enhanced Red Hat, respectively). The installation footprint can vary from 305MB (the base installation) to over 800MB (if you want to put all the maps and speech files on your hard disk) and can be done with either a shell script or a nice-looking graphical installer.
This is really a great game. At first, I admit, I was skeptical about this title, owing mainly to its relative age in the gaming market, low-tech graphics and seemingly overly complex controls, but once I got to know JA2, I really began to understand just how cool this game is and why Tribsoft chose to port it. It's one of those games that you can play a hundred times and have a hundred different games and still want to try something different the next time. There's an attractiveness to this game that's hard to define; maybe it's the profound individuality of the mercs themselves, the personal touches from all the dialogues of the NPCs, the choose-your-own-adventure feel or the ever-so-smooth transitions between strategy, tactics, real time and turn-based action modes. Either way, JA2 is a game that you can play for hours on end and still want more. Highly recommended for anyone not afraid of a little complexity in their games.