19 Jun 2009

Isometric Masterpiece: Jagged Alliance 2

It's pretty much gone unsaid so far on this site as to what I would truly hold aloft as my favourite PC game of all time. Anybody would think it was something actiony and violent, simplistic in form, but addictive in nature. Surely it's a game by illustrious action-innovators Valve Software? Portal perhaps? Half-Life even? Nope, you're way off. The clue is in the post title. And that picture right there.

Back in 1999, one whole year after Valve's magnum opus hit the shelves, Jagged Alliance 2 gave me my first experience of turn-based strategy gaming. I'd missed out on the UFO series a few years before so it became my first real stab at the genre and it was life-defining in the sense that my obsession with PC gaming was forged and I had experienced, in that early period of a lifelong hobby, computer gaming's vast capacity to entertain.

JA2 wasn't released to any kind of fanfare though. It received decent enough reviews, but I seem to remember PC Gamer awarding it just over 80% and being genuinely hurt by a lack of obsession or understanding on their part as to what made it game of the year - nay, game of the decade - for me. It says something that over ten years since its release very few games have come close to matching the effect that the Jagged Alliance series had on me.

The first game was generally forgettable, but this sequel presented all parts in the correct amounts. It was the ultimate splicing of genres. Part dumb action movie, the selection of mercenaries you could choose from were full of character whilst widespread stereotyping reigned supreme and hilarious accents offered up genuinely funny quotes. There were forty Schwarzeneggers at your disposal and each had the potential to make you laugh as much as the first time you ever watched Commando.

JA2 was also an RPG, the tactical decisions that you made ultimately affected your future experiences. The country of Arulco in which the game was set was split into grids to allow you to go anywhere you pleased and shoot whomever you wanted. You were able to choose your path thoughtfully or let chance dictate if the direction you had decided on led you into a war zone or an entertaining distraction. Like all good role-players your mercenaries boasted stats that could be raised through combat or training. They had energy levels that indicated when they were running on empty and when they couldn't last another minute without a good, hard nap. They interacted with the other characters in your party in what became a monumental clash of egos and each reacted differently to the NPCs you'd encounter on your journeys.

JA2 was, for the most part though, a turn-based strategy. Working on the universal currency of Action Points, you and your enemy exchanged turns until one of you was left with their force's guts spilled onto the dirt. It was a gun fetishist's wet dream and the tactics you could employ were intricate and varied. The whole system controlled in a way that meant you rarely felt that failure to win a battle was anyone's fault but your own.

Is that all? Not quite. When you had made it far enough through the game it became a management sim too. Whilst playing around with all of the above you were required to build up a militia, to train a rebel army and manage your income by utilising the various mining towns dotted about the country.

So why am I going into such enormous detail about an age-old game when I could be covering newer, better (well, not better) games? Well, it's because I believe Jagged Alliance 2 is well overdue an update. It needs a brave sequel that really shows how the limits of gaming can be pushed and highlight comparatively how little we have progressed since those halcyon days of epic ideas and endless playability. You can cite tales of Fallout 3 and Oblivion and the features of a range of recent sandbox games as the evolution of gaming, but it would mean little to me. For the most part they're testing the water of the genres that they are alleged to have defined.

And so, over the next few months I'll be chronicling the adventures of my small band of heroes as they journey through Arulco, liberating the inhabitants and setting straight any punks that happen to get in their way. I'm hoping it'll be of interest to any that may have never heard of the game and demonstrate what a cracking play it really is. Following that you'll want to pick it up from GOG.com for only $9.99. In fact, pick it up right now. It would be foolish to wait.

For a brief -albeit poorly made- introduction to the plot of the game check out the game intro video below.

More to follow...


Nick said...

I'm tempted to do the same - great, great game. Not sure there are enough hours in the day though.

I still have the save games from the campaign we went through at Uni.

Rowan Davies said...

That's nuts. There's something weird about leaving a game for years but always be able to rejoin it at the exact point that you left it. I'll wager that you've still got those Baldur's Gate saves too...

I remember you being really sceptical at the start about the level of cheese in the game. The cheese will always win though. You just can't beat enemy taunts like 'You'll be remembered as nothing!'.

Nick said...

I do have them and I plan on getting back into it at some point. I'd just like to clarify though: it's Baldur's Gate 2. Which is pretty damn long.

Yeah, I admit that I wasn't overwhelmed by the set-up, but then I'm not really into 80's action films so...