Imagine if your favorite 80s action movie heroes got together to liberate a country whose president has been kidnapped by a bunch of bad guys. You’ve heard this one before, right? Now imagine that scenario in the form of a tactical RPG with turn-based combat, a fake country to save, and a band of knockoff 80s action heroes. What you’re picturing is Jagged Alliance 3 – a challenging yet addicting RPG that will suck you in for dozens of hours, and have you thinking about it even when you’re not playing.
Games like Jagged Alliance 3 always seem to get their hooks in me, and this occasion was no exception. There is a certain euphoria in executing a mission in the cleanest way possible, with no casualties, a backpack full of loot, and a nice chunk of change in my pocket. Which is to say that Jagged Alliance 3 nails its gameplay loop, setting the hook and sinking it deep early on.
I went into the experience mostly blind, with merely a trailer under my belt, so I admit to being concerned when the game opened with a word of warning about its level of difficulty. These sorts of games can be tough, and while it is a challenging game, the difficulty factor here is around a five or a six in my book – and that’s coming from someone who avoids Soulsbourne games at all costs.
The game opens in the fictional locale of Grand Chien, where the president has been kidnapped by a malevolent band of mercenaries called The Legion, who are led by a mysterious figure known only as “The Major”. The president’s daughter, Emma LaFontaine, and a security group called Adonis hire you to rescue both daddy dearest and Grand Chien at-large from their oppressive captors. To do so, you yourself hire mercenaries from tiers ranging from recruit to legendary, with each merc’s contract price rising accordingly from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars at the top end. The game starts you off with a nice wad of cash, but I strongly caution you to spend it wisely. Don’t be like me and splurge $20,000 to unlock the legendary tier of mercs right off the bat – instead, focus on hiring the cheap recruits early on, which are more than adequate. I chose four to get me started and, at the advice of the developer, made sure to select mercs with varying skills and weaponry. I began with a medic, an explosives expert, a marksman, and an “all-rounder” (Rambo type), which is a formula that works well even after the early hours of the game fade away – and they will fade away.
Each merc has their own set of skills, passive abilities, stat ratings, and starting equipment. They also have unique personalities, are fully voiced, and feature some great performances. They’re campy and over-the-top, and I loved every minute of it. My very first merc was a guy named Steroid (R.I.P.) who is a clear riff on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s action hero persona, complete with a very Arnold-like accent. Mercenaries also have relationships with each other, as later I tried to hire another merc who charged me extra on his fee because he claimed that he would have to go to therapy after working with Steroid, who he insisted would make fun of him incessantly. Depending on the traits of your mercs, you may also experience wildly different dialogue options. A merc named Meltdown has a “Psycho” trait, which means that she absolutely does not take any flack from anyone, going as far as telling an NPC to go curl up and die somewhere on one occasion – completely of her own volition. I know it’s nothing that Baldur’s Gate 3 hasn’t perfected already, but I wasn’t expecting this much from Jagged Alliance 3’s character building and production value, and it’s very well done.
I was constantly evaluating my squad and considering how engagements would play out. My marksman would head for high ground overwatch, when possible, my medic would hang back, my all-rounder would move in close for kills, and my explosives person would make all the things go boom. My tactics were sound, but things rarely go according to plan when moving around the sandbox, grid-based world of Grand Chien. It’s a dynamic world with things happening around you regardless of what you’re doing. Areas I had claimed on the map would get retaken by the enemy, valuable diamond shipments move about the map begging to be ambushed, and sometimes your territories will be outright attacked by The Legion. That dynamism means you must be proactive in planning outside of direct conflict as well. For instance, it may be prudent to train a militia squad (or several) to protect your precious diamond mines.
The majority of my time was spent in the game's turn-based combat as I ventured across the map trying to locate The Major and the missing president, which was perfectly fine with me because the combat is quite good. Not every tactical RPG that starts out on PC makes a graceful transition to console controllers, but that is not a worry at all with Jagged Alliance 3, which features a very intuitive control scheme for a gamepad despite its multitude of moving parts. The controls are usually half the battle (pardon the pun) with these types of games and is a big reason why combat is so enjoyable in this game.
Combat begins by deploying your squad, or squads, to a deployment zone around the sector. From there you engage in traditional turn-based combat with each member of your squad having a go, followed by the enemy team, depending on who detected whom first. Remaining in stealth for as long as possible is certainly desirable, as it allows you to pull off high-damage sneak attacks, thinning out the enemy ranks before open conflict ever begins. I always tried to pick off as many bad guys as I could before being discovered, and it was often the difference between an overwhelming encounter and a manageable one.
Inevitably, when all hell breaks loose, your skills as a commander will be put to the test. Positioning and properly utilizing your merc’s skills are the keys to survival. I found that setting up a heavy machine gun with a wide cone of overwatch was a massive help and created choke points in battles where I was outnumbered. Combined with my marksman picking people off from afar, I was usually able to quickly turn the tables for my squad. If you’ve played a turn-based RPG, you will feel right at home with Jagged Alliance 3’s action point system, with each merc having a different amount based on their stats and perks. Movement costs action points, as does attacking and executing abilities like setting up overwatch or bandaging wounds. Speaking of wounds, if your mercs become injured or tired, they can become combat ineffective if left unattended, making the medic the most important class in the game from my standpoint. The aiming system will be familiar as well, allowing you to aim for individual body parts, which is especially important when part of an enemy is behind cover or protected by body armor. The environment also features some destructibility, which can work both for and against you, and is yet another consideration to keep in the back of your mind while in combat. If several enemies are taking cover behind wood walls or doors, a well-placed grenade or shotgun blast will fix that problem for you. Combat in Jagged Alliance 3 is surprisingly nuanced, which is also part of what makes it so good.
There is a wide variety of enemy types to contend with, which makes learning their movement and attack patterns a key to survival. I found out the hard way that melee-based enemies are some of the deadliest in the game, as weapons like knives and machetes bypass body armor, but also boast high critical damage. One encounter with a machete death squad nearly wiped out my entire team. Melee weapons are borderline OP, and in hindsight, I would strongly recommend always having a melee merc in your squad. That wasn’t my first brush with a near-complete squad wipe, which can be costly considering this is a game that makes you pay for your mistakes in the most literal sense by having to hire new mercs, provided you have the cash to do so.
Outside of combat you can move freely from sector to sector, though conflict does sometimes sneak up on you when exploring new areas, though it can be “auto-resolved” for the sake of time if you don’t want to fight every battle. Again, your goal is to liberate the president and eradicate The Legion, but as you move around Grand Chien you’ll come across towns, villages, ports, diamond mines, and loads of other explorable areas. Some NPCs will offer side quests, which can reward some good loot, such as a stash of diamonds, or a powerful new weapon. These side quests are far more than just loot fodder, however, and often present meaningful choices that change how a town or character views you. Depending on your choices, you may even create new tactical options that can help you down the road, or you may burn a bridge entirely.
Before I knew exactly what I was doing, I discovered that quests could mean life or death for some NPCs. After helping liberate a village, one villager was being held responsible for the death of another. I discovered that the person in question was indeed responsible, but he offered me a huge cache of valuable loot to pin the blame on someone else. The twinkle in my eye led me to lie to the other villagers, which rewarded my coveted loot, but meant that an innocent man was executed instead – oops!
Between engagements, you can manage your squad by completing operations such as treating wounds, repairing equipment, training to increase stats, or forming a militia squad to help protect a sector when you’re not around. I found myself spending a lot of time treating wounds, which requires a medic in your squad, and likely indicates that I wasn’t the best at keeping my mercs out of harm’s way. I feel the need to reiterate how important establishing a cash flow and exploring sectors for loot is. Cash is king in life, and cash is king in Jagged Alliance 3. Mercenary contracts default to seven days in length, which means that every week you’ll need to renew their contract for thousands of dollars. If you are strapped for cash, you can imagine how that might be a problem. Not to mention, each of the operations requires cash, medical supplies, or spare parts to complete. To that end, after the tutorial area, I beelined it for a diamond mine, which provided me with nearly $4,000 of income per day, and you should plan to do the same early on.
The entire gameplay loop of Jagged Alliance 3 is deliciously addictive and is yet another RPG where the hours will fly by. I tapped my phone one night during a play session and the screen showed “1:42AM”. It was a work night, and I had inadvertently relegated myself to running on fumes the next day, all in the name of liberating Grand Chien. But what you must understand is that I had just experienced a harrowing fight clearing some old bunker that was loaded with loot, and I wasn’t going to bed until my inventory was sorted, and my next move plotted out.
There were a few minor technical issues present during my review that need to be ironed out. I ran into hard freezes that seemed to be tied to a particular mercenary named Omyrn, which occurred frequently when trying to select one of his abilities. These freezes forced me to hard reset the game and load up a save. Thankfully, Jagged Alliance 3 features a forgiving autosave function that prevented me from losing much progress, if any at all. There was another instance where the game told me at the main menu that save files had been corrupted – my heart immediately sank into my stomach, but thankfully the file in question was not of my current save state. All of which is a PSA to encourage you to have multiple save files, and probably not opt for the difficulty option that prevents save scumming. In addition, there is a multiplayer mode that I was unable to test prior to release, due to a lack of matches to join.
Still, Jagged Alliance 3 is a great tactical RPG experience. It’s a deeply engaging affair that marries campy 80s action movie charm with challenging, turn-based combat that had me hooked from the start. When I wasn’t playing it, I was thinking about playing it – how I could tweak my squad, what strategies I could employ, and maybe I do need another militia squad at my diamond mines. A few technical issues present at launch mean you should take caution with your save files, but it was never egregious enough that I wanted to quit playing. In fact, it was quite the opposite, as I can easily see myself playing this game for many more hours.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
Hello! I'm Jason, the newest member of Gaming Nexus. My favorite genres of games are strategy, management, city-builders, sports games, RPGs, and shooters, but I don't limit myself to those. My favorite game of all-time is Red Dead Redemption 2 and I have somehow played it for nearly 1,000 hours. I also co-host a weekly PlayStation news podcast called The Dual Sense Podcast, so I stay pretty well versed in that ecosystem. Before that, I co-hosted a basketball podcast.View Profile