Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Archive: Jagged Alliance 2

It seems somehow fitting that if last night's post was on my favorite ongoing game series of all time, today's would be about my favorite single game of all time.

SPOILER WARNING: This entire post is going to spoil the living daylights out of Jagged Alliance 2, its expansion pack: Unfinished Business, the demo, 1.13, two 1.13 mods, and pretty much everything else about, or tangentially related to, the game. That said: it came out in 1998. I am well within my rights to include spoilers at this point! If you haven't played the game, you have missed out on what I firmly believe was the best PC game ever made, but I have a small gift for you. Following the link in the previous sentence will take you to a FilePlanet downloads page where you can download the demo, still available almost a decade and a half after the game's initial release. Better yet, if it turns out that you like the game, it's available from for $10.

Unlike Mass Effect, Jagged Alliance 2 was very much on my radar from the moment it was announced. I followed fresh news of it with great enthusiasm, and when I finally got my hands on the demo, I played the living daylights out of it for over a year while I waited for the game proper to come out. When the game was finally released, the closest place I could get it was half an hour away, so I drove out there, picked it up as soon as the store opened, and then tore open the box and sifted through the manual in the parking lot before excitedly speeding home and installing it.

Before I get into the game itself, however, the demo deserves its own mention. Jagged Alliance 2's demo wasn't so much a demo as it was a small, separate game that used the JA2 engine. It had a large secret area, a fair amount of depth, and the maps from it appear nowhere in the main game of JA2. You can easily drop ten hours into just the demo and barely notice. It has all the tactical depth of the full game, though obviously the story is absent, and the devs didn't put the strategic level in at all for the demo. It was still the coolest thing on my PC at the time.

But that demo, as it turns out, only held a small fraction of the mind-boggling amount of content that made the full game such a masterpiece. The premise of Jagged Alliance 2 is fairly simple on the surface. The benevolent and rightful leader of a small, insignificant nation has been unseated in a coup by his brutal ex-wife. She has turned the country into a nightmarish hellhole of cruelty and oppression, but he's finally built up enough capital to hire you to take it back for him. Your job is nothing more, and nothing less, than to manage every aspect of a guerrilla war to liberate the small, forgotten nation of Arulco.

Oh, and by "every aspect," I really do mean every aspect. You must hire your team, manage their contracts, direct them in battle, negotiate with the locals, and otherwise micromanage every aspect of the battle to take back Arulco. It should, by all rights, be a miserable, tedious chore. Instead, it's a challenging, rewarding, sometimes frustrating, at other times exhilarating job. Low on funds? Seize some precious metal mines. Mercs shot up in the last battle? Get a merc with a high medical skill in to patch them up. Just liberated a town, but don't want to hang around trying to keep it under your control? Train some militia. In tactical battles, your troops can fire single shots with varying degrees of careful aim, bursts, or full-auto. They can throw grenades or throwing knives, pummel enemies with their fists, set demolitions charges, launch missiles, walk, run, crouch, and crawl along prone, and do any of these either fast or stealthy. The game takes into account weapon ranges, rates of fire, elevation, cover, camouflage, and even morale. Mercenaries can like or hate each other. Your troops ask for more money as they get better at their jobs. It goes on and on and on, but JA2's user interface is so slick, especially for a game from 1998, that you may find yourself forgetting just how deep and complex it is.

The game's story is also very good, considering how little time the game uses on exposition. Early in the game you have the opportunity to recruit a woman named Ira who acts as a tour guide of sorts as you move around the country, giving you little tidbits of history about the area you happen to be in. One of the most chilling moments in the entire thing is when you come across the ruins of the university in Cambria about halfway through the game and she casually mentions that the queen shut the university down. As you move through the map, however, it becomes apparent that she didn't do this by locking the place up after hours. The unexploded ordinance, blasted-out walls, broken windows, bloodstains, and overturned chairs tell a horrifyingly grim tale. She sent in the army while class was in session and massacred everyone. It's not explicitly stated, but the scene itself doesn't lie. And as you move further and further South, you discover more and more evidence of atrocities. By the time I reached Balime, I wanted Deidranna Reitman's head not because it was my job, but because she was a horrible monster.

That's not to say the game is emo, however. In fact, there are a ton of moments where it is laugh-out-loud funny. In what is normally the second town you liberate, Chitzena, you'll find the bickering retired American couple, John and Mary Kulba. Your mercenaries pepper firefights and downtime alike with sarcastic quips, and some of the locals are amusingly unhinged. You can send the queen flowers to taunt her. The queen's military adviser, Elliot, gets more and more beat up as Deidranna slaps him around in cut scenes as your team liberates the country. Digging into mercenary bios on the various websites reveals not a little humorous content.

And then they released Unfinished Business, which introduced more mercenaries, a mission editor, more weapons, and an entire new, if smaller, country to conquer. Snipers came into their own, shooting enemies from all the way across the map with .50 cal rifles and you could now customize your experience by building whole maps from scratch and bolting them onto the existing game.

All of this would be more than enough on its own, but after SirTech folded, the game moved out of their hands and into the hands of the Jagged Alliance modding community. At some point along the line, the game went from excellent through amazing and straight into transcendent. The inventory system in the 1.13 mod is based on load-bearing equipment, weapon attachments are no longer limited to four per weapon, the already-considerable number of weapons in the game has been massively expanded, and the ability to dig into .ini files and tweak all sorts of settings has made the game into something even more than it already was. I'd liberated Arulco with a rag-tag group of mercenaries already, but 1.13 allowed me to say "screw it" and give myself six super-elite customized mercenaries and a budget of ten million dollars. At that point, it wasn't a bunch of merceanries any more. It was much more akin to sending in the SAD or even Rainbow. Six expert operators wearing dragonskin and ghille suits, hauling FN SCAR-H and H&K SL9SD rifles while a sniper team with CheyTac M-200 Interventions watches their backs can absolutely destroy even the Arulcan elite guard. While this eliminates almost all of the game's challenge, there is a certain grim exhilaration in feeling like an avenging god of war sending lead-spitting, black-clad angels of death to punish the wicked, especially after you've liberated Tixa prison a few times in the normal game.

And then you can take this even further by stacking the AIM or IoV mods on top. Even more weapons and equipment. Or put Wildfire on and get new, even better maps, but the same story. Or Deidranna Lives and get a whole new story. Or... get the idea. Oh, and everything in this paragraph and the last one is free if you own a copy of the base game. If you're interested, check out the Bear's Pit. The community there is fairly friendly, and there are links all over the place to everything you need to get started. And the mod community is still very active, even 14 years after the original game's release.

With all of this going for it and no end in sight, is it any wonder that JA2 is my favorite game of all time? That I've installed it on every PC I've ever had since it came out? That I don't think I've gone more than 3 months without playing it at least a little since its release? I’ve never thought so. It’s a rare game that holds up this long, even with mods, but in a way, I think that makes it even more special.

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