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News Opinions 29 September 2022, 16:01

Jagged Alliance 2 - The Fall (And Hopefully Return) of a Classic Strategy

Jagged Alliance 2, despite more than twenty years on its neck, still draws in my memory as a nuanced and original strategy game worth talking about. It's just a shame that the brand has been suffering and slowly dying for many years, though hope dies last.

It's been twelve years since I last saved Arulco. During this time, the world has changed beyond recognition. My life did not stand still either. I can still remember the laptop on which I had Jagged Alliance 2 installed. It was a heavy, ancient (already then) Dell (probably XPi) with built-in vertical fans. A sight to behold. The fans could fit because the machine was about 1.5 inches thick.

I have never really parted ways with Jagged Alliance 2 since its original release in 1999. Those were the strange and wild times of the Internet's puberty – most people connected to the network using modems. Google wasn't the all-mighty digital entity, but rather a service making its first steps towards domination.

Finding people with similar hobbies was definitely more challenging, although the now defunct AltaVista search engine undoubtedly helped to find fan-created websites devoted to, among others, my beloved JA2. There was a time when everyone wanted to create websites about their hobbies, learned HTML and most often hosted them on free domains – preferably with a guest book, a visit counter and a ton of animated banners.

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The first city to be conquered, Omerta - ah, the memories! I can't count how many times my mercenaries landed right here.

And at that beautiful time, Jagged Alliance 2 was released. It was a strategy, tactical and turn-based game all in one. We played the role of a mercenary who had to solve someone else's marriage problems. The democratically elected monarch Enrico Chivaldori married Romanian Deidranna Reitman, who, a moment later, framed him for the murder of her father. Enrico fled the country, and Deidranna introduced authoritarianism and installed tyranny. Sad Enrico turned to players for help, and we, having a rather small budget, were tasked with preparing a military mission that would overthrow Deidranna and restore the good, old democracy, so that everyone could keep on rocking in the free world.

How to install and play Jagged Alliance 2 on PC?

Jagged Alliance 2 is a very old game and, well, on most modern Windows systems, including Windows 10, it just doesn't launch properly anymore (which doesn't mean you can't buy it – it's still available on Steam, never mind it cannot be played without modifying the files...). However, there are ways to get JA2 to run on modern PCs. One of them is to delete the file located in \SteamApps\common\Jagged Alliance 2 Gold\Data\Intro.slf. Another method is to install the Jagged Alliance 2 Stracciatella mod, which you can safely download from our own servers. To install it, select the JA2 install directory and the language version.

A.I.M. – mercenaries with issues

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With the help of this questionnaire-wizard, we created our mercenary. Source: Jagged Alliance 2, Sir-Tech.

At the beginning of JA2, we were able to create our own mercenary by answering – quite amusing – questions. Based on this, the game created our avatar. The rest of the money was spent on the iconic AIM organization, which advertised portfolios of mercenaries from around the world. By logging on to the "website" inside the game, we were able to hire a mercenary for a certain period of time (with or without equipment). Of course, the higher the stats were, the more money we had to pay, so at the beginning, we usually opted for low-tier mercs, and on top of that, we could also hire people from the competing MERC organization, which generally had much weaker mercenaries for hire.

However, there is probably not a single JA2 fan who would can't remember such mercenaries as Shadow (100% permanent camouflage, but never shared it), Steroid (a bit of a moron, but he shot well and had horse's stamina) or Raven (pretty cheap, but she was a great shot, a quick learner, and she was more effective at night). Each of the mercenaries did something different – some were good shooters, others were medics, and others still loved explosives. In addition, there were also those who preferred to operate at night or in secret.

Interestingly, the short bios of these mercenaries often revealed their issues – some would easily forget the orders given to them, others, after past experiences, were a bit detached from reality and seemed not to worry a whole lot about the notion of friendly fire, others still could turn yellow in the face of overwhelming odds, and there were those who, due to their age... could no longer learn, and thus be promoted to higher levels of experience (seriously!).

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List of mercenaries to be recruited by AIM – many of them are characters from JA1. Source: Jagged Alliance, Sir-Tech.

One of the most interesting mercs was Larry Roachburn, who could be recruited by AIM in the first part of the Jagged Alliance, but in the second part he was already hired by MERC, because the former organization severed his contract because of his problems with drugs... and indeed, Larry had two personalities, sober and otherwise. If he left alcohol or a first-aid kit in his inventory, Larry, well... consumed them off his own whim, turning into a pretty much useless fighter. Interestingly, Larry could also not be left idle in a part of the city where a pub was located... or otherwise, he'd just go there and get hammered.

To make matters worse, the mercenaries had their own attitudes and opinions about one another – and so Buzz, after breaking up with Lynx, didn't tolerate her ex-husband, Steroid hated Ivan and Igor because they were, well, Russian. There were many more such relations, flavors and hidden details, and all this meant that after two hours, we grew very close with our mercenaries and did could not get over it when one of them died. I mean, what kind of crazy idea is inventing a character that can't level up because he'd already seen it all and learned what he could during his long life?

The fight we need

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The first Jagged Alliance has gotten very old. Part two, however, is still holding on somehow. Source: Jagged Alliance, Madlab Software.

Jagged Alliance 2 had a combat system that may not be surprising to anyone today, but back in the day, it was a great expansion of the original one. On the surface, everything seemed understandable – turn-based fights, where everyone carries out their orders... in turns. Our mercenaries – as well as the opponents – could interrupt our movement if they had enough action points left at the moment when a target entered their sight. It seems completely understandable today, but back then, the complexity of the system made quite an impression.

We could play the whole game stealthily, for example resorting to silenced weapons or knives. We could build a sniper that used a Dragunov to fire at enemies from the roofs of tall buildings. We could also use mortars, rocket launchers, C4 charges, ambush enemies and shoot them like sitting ducks, or equip our mercenaries with NV devices and audio amplifiers and wait for nightfall, which limited visibility even to just a few meters.

In addition, there were all kinds of chemical weapons and smoke grenades, which, surprisingly, were really useful. There were also various types of ammunitions (they mattered and players eagerly took advantage of them), lots of weapons and various tactics associated with them. Last but not least, there was the aiming system (we could spend more action points to aim with greater precision), as well as hits – shooting someone in the leg would make them fall, and heavy fire could make them drop their weapons.

All this may not be particularly astonishing today, but let me remind you that we are talking about a game released in 1999. And still, I have the impression that some mechanics worked better than in, say, XCOM (just like the enemy detection system or darkness, which drastically limited our visibility, not to mention the fact that we were able to complete the whole map silently).

Liberating Arulco

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The map of Arulco – you spent a lot of time on this screen. Source: Jagged Alliance 2, Sir-Tech.

However, the advantages of Jagged Alliance 2 did not end with well-designed mercenaries and combat system. After we took over the city, we had to talk to the manager of the mine and tell him that he was now working for us. In this way, we obtained more money for the needs of our mercenaries (who constantly cos us money, of course). However, maintaining control over the conquered area was a challenge, so we also had to train the resistance movement, which, in case of an attempt of another coup, fought on our side.

Just moving our troops around the map took a tremendous amount of time – and besides, it made the mercenaries very tired (yes, they had to sleep, now show me a game where you have to put your units to beds so that the next day they won't pass out in combat). In addition, during the exploration, we could capture a helicopter with its pilot. However, in order to be able to fly it, we first had to neutralize the heavily protected anti-aircraft installations.

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Well, let's not beat around the bush – it's not a very beautiful game anymore, but to be honest, it is playable as hell. Source: Jagged Alliance 2, Sir-Tech.

In addition, the game had a "sci-fi" mode, which meant that at some point, in one of our mines, giant alien worms started breeding. In addition, there were easter eggs, paculiar humor, as well as some hidden mechanics (for example crafting, which was super easy to overlook), quests and dependencies.

Each time we liberated another city, a cutscene was triggered, in which Elliot, the queen's adviser, informed her that the rebels supported by external forces (i.e. us) had slaughtered her soldiers. Every time Deidranna slapped Elliot, and every time she shouted "Elliot, you idiot!" And finally – when we were attacking the capital – she just shot him in the head. Charming. Interestingly, the portrait of Elliot changed we progress, showing numerous bruises and swelling. All this made us feel we were part of a big, complicated and secretive world. This kind of meticulousness in game design is, unfortunately, a rarity today.

And then, depressing reality

Jagged Alliance 2 has never been a real sequel. After the excellent second part, we could play the Unfinished Business expansion, which was received in a rather lukewarm manner. Later, the brand disappeared and reappeared many times, which was associated with the fall of the Canadian developer, Sir-Tech Canada. The series went to various publishers and developers (even Interplay) – most of these projects never saw the light of day, and some were realized (rather unfortunately, to be honest).

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Jagged Alliance Back in Action from Coreplay.

Over the years, we got Jagged Alliance 2: Wildfire (basically a mod that was later transformed into a separate product), Brigade E5: New Jagged Union (Russian spin-off, although looking at the level of performance, the adjective "Soviet" probably fits better) or Jagged Alliance Online (let's forget it was ever created). Finally, in 2012 there was Jagged Alliance: Back in Action (a remake in some respects bold, and rather coldly received, although it has its fans) and Jagged Alliance: Crossfire (a sequel to Back in Action... which only differed with maps and DLCs). Then, in 2014, Jagged Alliance: Flashback was released – one of the weakest installments of the entire series.

So the fans have come to terms with the fact that they will not return to a modernized version of Arulco, nor will they play another good installment of Jagged Alliance – over the years, big fan mods have appeared for the second part, and they were often better than commercial productions. Nevertheless, it is 2022 and soon, another studio, the Bulgarian Haemimont Games, will make another attempt at revitalizing the classic franchise. And there may be hope for something better than just capitalizing on nostalgia. Jagged Alliance 3 looks interesting on the trailer, and the developer previously delivered such projects as Surviving Mars or Tropico 5. I keep my fingers crossed, although looking at how unlucky this series was, it is hard to find more enthusiasm. If it succeeds, however, it will be a beautiful, slightly wistful story. So beautiful that I don't believe it will come true.

Matthias Pawlikowski

Matthias Pawlikowski

A literary reviewer and critic in the past, he has published works on literature, culture and theater in a number of humanistic journals and portals. Somewhere along the way he was involved in copywriting, producing and translating descriptions for Mattel toys. He studied literary criticism and literature. A journalist for GRYOnline.pl since the end of 2016, he first worked in the guides division and later managed it, eventually becoming the managing editor of Gamepressure.com. An enjoyer of old games, city-builders and RPGs, including Japanese ones. He spends a huge amount of money on PC components. Outside of work and gaming, he plays tennis and does occasional charity work.

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