Jagged Alliance: Rage Preview – A Veteran’s Touch
Time hasn't been kind to Jagged Alliance. At a ripe old age of 23, the series has seen its fair share of ups and downs. To be more accurate, it performed incredibly well when it began, which rose even higher with the second release, to then slump into a drunken stupor offering only a glimmer of hope.
That glimmer of hope, for me, came with Jagged Alliance Online: Reloaded. At least in the case of the reloaded version that was released on Steam, which managed to perform well despite being hamstrung by free-to-play mechanics that impeded free players at the best of times. Cliffhanger Productions, who developed Jagged Alliance Online, are developing the upcoming Jagged Alliance: Rage for THQ Nordic, who acquired the license from then-bankrupt publisher bitComposer Entertainment in 2015.
Set 20 years after the original, one of the major focuses for Jagged Alliance: Rage is showing just how human your ragtag band of mercenaries are. Over the past twenty years, what were strong, almost superhuman fighting machines are showing the effects of constant battles. Ivan, a mainstay of the series is now an alcoholic. Grunty, who idolised Ivan, has lost the heart for the business. Sadly, Grunty also has high blood pressure and is at risk of a heart attack when under strain. Shadow, from Jagged Alliance 2, now prefers to work alone and has a terrible immune system following a friendly-fire gas attack. Others also have their downsides but are still excellent fighting machines when they need to be.
These elements are more than just flavour text to enhance the characters and show the passage of time. Simply put, they have a huge effect on the game. If Ivan doesn't have a bit of booze, he'll get the shakes and his accuracy is largely diminished as a result. Shadow, one of my personal favourites, best hope he doesn't get a wound - infection is a seriously high chance and can lower his HP, making it much easier to kill him. The tradeoffs are interesting and seriously add to the difficulty of Jagged Alliance: Rage, they certainly make you think too.
Another thing that makes you think is the starting crew. You can only pick from two of the six available mercenaries. This does mean that each run will take on a new tactical view. Using Shadow and Vicki allows for a more fluid run, keep yourself moving and do your best to stick to the shadows. Going with Ivan and Grunty, however, means you'll be relying more on brute force to achieve your objectives. In theory anyway, because stealth is by far the best tactic in Jagged Alliance: Rage.
This is where things become a little more simplified. The objectives have never been extensive, nor are they here. How you went about them was the best part of the earlier Jagged Alliance games. Combat, here, is simplified and borrows from more modern real-time tactics games like XCOM. For the most part, you'll find that your actions are boiled down to move, shoot, stab, go prone/stand up and perform a few basic actions. These actions can be as simple as using a multi-tool to either cut through a wire fence or pick the lock of a door or possibly just picking up a body to then hide it in long grass.
Streamlined is the best word to describe it, which sadly can't be said for the enemy. As you only have two mercenaries, your turns can go very quickly. Once enemies notice you, then waiting for your move can feel like an age. There desperately needs to be a way to speed up or skip enemy turns because it's genuinely painful. Even more so when you want to restart the mission because you can't even go into the pause screen during an enemy turn.
It's the same loop that you'll be used to from other titles. Kill the bad guy, loot him for items that help you to survive and kill the next bad guy. Rinse and repeat. Ideally, you'll be doing this as quietly as possible though. Stealth kills are, naturally, one hit and are by far the best way for you to get through a mission. Once you get into a firefight, it's a whole different ball game. You get to use the new rage abilities, gained through adrenaline through either dealing or receiving damage. Firefights are also when you notice just how fragile your characters are, as well as other issues.
One major issue is the fickle whims of the random number generator (RNG) god. The UI is clear enough that it shows you what your percentages are. You can choose to aim at the legs, body or head of an enemy, each with varying percentages. Also, you can use additional action points to increase your percentage. Sadly, it doesn't seem to matter sometimes. I struggle to believe that I'd miss multiple shots in a row that had above a 90% chance of hitting. One turn which led to me restarting the mission saw me missing four out of 6 shots, leaving me in far too vulnerable of a position. Sadly, I still had to sit through the enemy turn.
Vulnerability is something you'll have to get used to in Jagged Alliance: Rage. Here you're constantly on the go. You can clear areas to make it easier for you, for example clearing a camp will stop it from sending out troops to attack you, but every bit of damage is persistent. Unlike previous Jagged Alliance games, there's no home base to return to. You can camp out and recover, or use items to improve your chances, but every time you rest you'll see more enemy troops closing in on you. Once they reach you, you'll be ambushed. Though if you're lucky and good, these can be excellent ways to get gear for your characters.
I doubt that you'll ever get that lucky. At least not after the first few. The incentive to keep moving is actually one of the best parts of Jagged Alliance: Rage. You're constantly being harassed and the constant battles take their toll very quickly thanks to the permanence. Take some shrapnel and it'll be lodged in your mercenary until you're fortunate enough to make camp and perform a bit of battlefield surgery.
You also need to constantly meet the needs of your little revolution. Keep some bottled water to prevent your people from getting dehydrated, or take over and control a reservoir for an unlimited supply of fresh water. Be careful with dirty water though, as that can lead to infection and reduce your combat capabilities. How you explore the island, what you take over, will be different each playthrough. What matters the most is that everything has been balanced perfectly. You'll rarely find yourself too far behind nor too far ahead, landing in that sweet spot where the game stays challenging.
There are a few issues to be found in the preview copy I played, but it is a preview copy. Namely the inability to skip or speed up enemy moves. Other issues persist, bugs like enemies disappearing into the ground, and missions not completing. Another issue, which may or may not be fixed, are enemies actually shooting through buildings. Some things won't be improved, such as the cheesy dialogue and average at best voice acting, but it's something I can live with when the core game is so engaging.
All things considered, I've genuinely enjoyed my time with Jagged Alliance: Rage and I'll definitely be playing more. Especially so when it finally releases, though when that is I don't know. It's a refreshing take on the older series and certainly has the promise to be a strong outing. It may put off fans of the series due to the introduction of new ideas. All I can suggest is that people should give it the benefit of the doubt and give it a go when it comes out. When that is, I couldn't say - the last date given was in September, which we've passed by.