Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Jagged Alliance 2 is Teh Shit

Well, looks like the first organic extension is video games. I'm sure that noone is surprised. :-)

I'm not really a PC gamer, and I never have been-- I've always gone to consoles to get my fix. My post-Commodore PC gaming experience consists almost entirely of LucasArts graphic adventures and MUDs. So, that being said, the following statement lacks the gravity that it might otherwise have: Jagged Alliance 2 is the best PC game that I have ever played.

The only other real contenders for that honour would be Starcraft and X-Com. Both are great games, and the second bears no small resemblance to JA2 itself, but in the end JA2 blows them both out of the water. From its tongue-in-cheek look at the mercenary lifestyle to its deep and flexible combat engine, it just does everything right. My only real problem with it is that I suspect that I'll want to play it again when I'm done and I know that I can't afford to invest that much time in it.

The game begins in a fictional third-world country held firmly in the grip of a ruthless dictator. The country's former and more benevolent ruler has escaped alive, and has tasked you (as a mercenary) with the job of cleaning up his mess. You meet him at a bar in Prague, he hands you a briefcase full of money, and then you're off to the colourful little nation of Arulco. Before you arrive, you open up your laptop and begin preparations. First off, you have an email from IMP, the Institute for Mercenary Profiling, offering you a discount for their services. A quick visit to their website later (complete with a quite humourous questionnaire), and you've "created" your main character, complete with voice, picture, physical attributes, skills, and maybe even a personality quirk or two.

Next stop on the web is AIM's website, the Association of International Mercenaries. While there, you're treated to a listing of roughly 40-50 (I think) mercenaries of varying experience, skill, and personality (some are very colourful), from which you are tasked with hiring a balanced squad (0-5, plus yourself). Your starting money is limited, so while the silent sniper or the one-man army might look appealing, they're a little out of your initial price range. Still, there is some flexibility, and roughly 1/3 to 1/2 of the list is initially available to you if you're willing to make some trade-offs (also, on the beginning of the second day, a second service by the name of MERC, or the More Economical Recruiting Centre, becomes available, featuring very cheap mercenaries of questionable skill and temperament, and run by alumni from the first Jagged Alliance). Myself, I went straight to the bottom of the AIM barrel, snagging an angry bruiser, a green medic, a skilled mechanic/explosives expert, and a middle-tier prim-and-proper marksman/teacher before logging off.

Next thing you know, your team is dropped right into combat. I hope you made some sound choices. I found the learning curve for the combat engine to be a little steep at first, even with my past strategy game experience, but after you're past that curve combat becomes very rewarding. You can only see what your mercs collectively see, and each merc can only fire at what they have a clear line of sight to. Every action needs an appropriate number of action points to be performed, and the enemy works under similar restrictions. Generally, you learn pretty quickly to advance slowly, to take cover whenever possible, and to spend a lot of time crouched or prone. Once you get used to the mechanics of peeking around the corner, popping off a shot, and then moving back, things get more manageable.

Once you get used to things, the flexibility of the combat engine starts to become evident. Suppose you want to liberate a town. Your options are many. You can run from building to building to building, introducing your shotgun to anyone dumb enough to wander around the corner at point-bank range, and engage in a running fire-fight the whole way. For a subtler approach, you could climb up on a roof, throw a rock through a nearby window, and take your time picking off enemies from your perch with a silenced weapon one-by-one as they come to investigate. You could even go commando and have one person infiltrate the town under cover of darkness, sneaking from corner to corner and taking out opposition with a set of throwing knives. I like to try different ways every time to keep things fresh, but whatever your preferred style may be, chances are that the game supports it. You could even try out melee combat if you like, but don't expect the enemies to be sporting about it. :-)

The character interaction is also notable. Any given town you end up in probably has at least 1/2-dozen or so named NPCs with fully voiced dialogue. When you interact with them, you're given a range of attitude possibilities (Friendly, Direct, Threatening, etc.), and they'll respond appropriately depending upon your mercenary's statistics. These NPC interactions are generally enjoyable, and their personalities are as amusing and varied as those of your own mercenaries, who will often comment on the environment or something you might be doing, not to mention their team-mates if you've chosen a squad the meshes particularly well or poorly.

Anyway, that was longer than I intended, and anyone who cares already knows. Oh well. Suffice it to say, JA2 is very good, and I thank Nathan for advising me to pick up a copy a couple of years ago (which I only recently got around to playing).


Anonymous N. O. Scott said...

Ahem... told you so!

Also, if you do much night fighting at all I cannot recommend using break lights too highly. If your main character has Night Ops as a skill they come with a pair, otherwise you just have to scavenge them.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005 6:21:00 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...

Funny that you mention that. Upon my recent restart to improve my build (better physical stats, less diverse skillset, lose the dead-weight teaching skill), I did in fact get Night Ops as one of my two traits, and just a few hours ago used a break light effectively during a night-time raid on a SAM site. Also, shortly after that, I met my first grey-shirts. 4 people should not be able to mow down 14 militia. I was able to fend them off, but only because my full squad was still there recuperating.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005 10:02:00 PM  

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