Of all the turn based, grid bound games I’ve played this past year, I’ve enjoyed Jagged Alliance Rage! the most because of one simple aspect; it doesn’t take itself seriously. That’s always been a staple of the series during its 20+ year history but here, it’s front and centre. This isn’t however, the sequel you’ve been waiting for. This is a slightly different beast, more akin to Deadly Games than any mainline entries.
The premise; Set 20 years after the original Jagged Alliance, an old team mate’s helicopter has gone down in the jungles of a mysterious island. His last action before crashing is to call out for help from his old Merc pals with the promise of big bucks if you rescue him. And so, 2 of the old gang (of your choosing) set off on a rescue mission but stumble into a war between a manic drug lord with a grudge and a group of rebels looking to take back their home. Your pair of Mercs are alone, without back up and must fight to survive. The plot to Rage is a little rote but it’s got the balance of light hearted humour mixed with gritty drama just right that elevates it beyond the events that unfold.
Unlike other Jagged Alliance titles, Rage is broken down into a series of missions that are contained within 1 arena. There’s no moving between screens here, like in the original. This is a more modern take with a “fog of war” effect blacking out or darkening anything outside of your vision on larger maps. This is compounded at Night (with the time of day you attempt a mission effecting a number of stats like how easy you are to spot and how successful a long range shot might be) with even darker surroundings. Unlike other JA games, outside of missions your move around a map of the island which limits which missions you can attempt until you’ve cleared the current batch.
Once you’re in a mission, all of the typical tropes for the genre are there. There’s action points which limit your actions per turn. Most things cost action points from moving and shooting to reloading or unjamming your gun. A grid is overlaid on the 3D field of play with some squares having favourable characteristics; if a particular square has long grass in it, some Mercs can hide there while other squares that have a structure or object next to them offer cover from gun fire. Each mission in Jagged Alliance Rage! has its own objective from reaching a particular spot on the map, killing every villain in the area or simply getting to the exit box to move forward. As you might expect for a turn based game, you have a turn and then the AI has a turn. So on, so forth until every enemy has been eliminated at which point, you can loot anything from any distance and move freely with short, non-existent AI turns. Other genre tropes exist too – The success of weapons hitting their target is based on visibility, range, cover and time of day, presented to the player in a simple % chance. Unlike other games that use an RNG to determine success, this feels ‘fair’ too (which is an incredibly hard thing to do).
There’s a real focus on stealth in Jagged Alliance Rage. You start almost every mission with the troops unaware of your presence. You get to move in and, if you’ve got the gear and abilities, stealthily take out some (and maybe all) of your foes before they’re aware of your presence. Moving up behind an enemy and you’re given the opportunity to do a stealth attack. The way that enemies react, only spotting you once it’s their turn to move, means that even when troops are moving in pairs, you can usually take them out without notifying the rest of the map so long as you use your Mercs in tandem. The game’s UI helps funnel the stealth focus of the game too; If you’re moving a Merc into a place that will mean they’re spotted, the line of movement changes to red over the grid box where you’ll come into the enemies vision.
Once you’ve been spotted, the enemy AI becomes panoptic, every troop on a map becoming hostile as one, but still a little dumb. Half of the time, enemy troops will run for cover while the other half, they’ll stand in the open like deer in headlights just waiting to get run over. They also seem to have no consideration for what type of weapon they’re carrying while positioning themselves; you’ll often see a troop trying to shoot you from half way across the map with an Uzi and missing with every shot. In other instances, enemy troops have set up an overwatch (a status which enables them to shoot you should you cross their vision cone) in frankly stupid locations. While I’d normally complain about this sort of thing, it all kind of plays into the humour that Rage carries throughout.
An example; at the start of one mission, you arrive just as 2 harmless civilians are being set upon by some enemy troops. “What’s going on here?” your Merc asks themselves as the civilians are shot dead and the soldiers start to celebrate – until a message comes in over the radio from the enemy base. “2 test subjects have escaped from the labs. They’re been spotted in your area. Do not engage. I repeat. Do not engage. We need them back alive”. This then triggers a hilarious conversation between the guilty soldiers and their commander as they try to divert him somewhere else on the island so he doesn’t see the 2 test subjects that they’d just shot dead. This kind of humour laces almost everything that Rage does.
That humour permeates the stats and abilities of the Merc’s themselves too, adding a laugh as well as a challenge to proceedings. Ivan, for example, is now an alcoholic and needs regular doses of booze to keep his base stats from plummeting. His joints are also suffering from being such a bulky, muscular mass for so long so if he jumps from a ledge that any other character could take with ease, he loses a chunk of health. Helmut ‘Grunty’ Grunther is also feeling his age and if he’s in a state of adrenaline (more on that in a second) for too long, he suffers a heart attack which decimates his health bar. Alternatively, “Vicki” Waters, a character proficient in weapon upgrades and modifications making her a useful team member, suffers from claustrophobia which means if she enters a building and stays there for too long, she has a panic attack. Each of the characters in Jagged Alliance Rage have their own strengths and weaknesses in certain situations which forces your hand in the tactics you employ.
A new addition to the Jagged Alliance series with Rage is the Rage abilities. While being shot at or shooting at someone, each character’s adrenaline gauge fills which eventually enables the use of Rage abilities which don’t cost Action Points and enable them to use their unique abilities to great effect. Charlene ‘Raven’ Higgens, the long range specialist for example, is able to have 1 shot of her weapon that has a higher than normal chance of hitting the target. Other characters can unload an entire clip from a weapon at a target. Other characters can restock their AP points. These are a pleasing addition but can’t be relied on when deciding on tactics because the adrenaline gauge fills depending on enemy actions as well as your own. This means that they’re more of a showy superficial addition to the formula than a real game changer.
Another new addition is survivability and the systems surrounding that. Your time on the island is a hard one and to get through the experience, you’ll need to monitor more than just health. You’ll need to regularly drink water to stave off the various stages of dehydration that effect your base stats. If you’re shot and shrapnel gets stuck in your Merc, you’ll need to perform a resting action to remove it or take a hit to your stats too. If you use dirty bandages or drink dirty water, your Merc might get an sick or get an infection. There’s a lot of balls to juggle here but thankfully there’s more than an enough loot around so that you rarely run out of the essentials.
Visually, Jagged Alliance Rage is really quite lovely on the PS4. There’s this living comic book-esque aesthetic to everything from the Mercs to the environments that’s universal throughout. What’s more, the way the game removes or makes translucent anything that obscures your vision means you get to really appreciate some of the smaller details that have been added.
It’s the user experience and some of the UI that lets Jagged Alliance Rage down. Looting enemies or boxes becomes a real chore in this game because the inventory screen and how it’s utilised is obviously designed with a mouse and key input in mind. Even with the controller buttons shortcut’s, managing what your Mercs are carrying takes as long as some of the missions themselves. Elsewhere, button presses feel muted. Select where you want a merc to go on the grid and 80% of the time, the button press won’t register, forcing you to do it again a second later. Maybe this is a system to ensure you’re not sending a Merc somewhere you don’t want them to go by accident but there’s no visual indicator to say that’s the case.
To summarise, Jagged Alliance Rage! isn’t the threequel we’ve been patiently waiting for. Instead, this is a spin off the does things a little bit differently, some of which lands and some of which doesn’t, especially on consoles. The humour and light heartedness does carry much of this game because without it, you could be playing any number of grid bound, turn based games. It’s this attitude though that makes it assuredly a Jagged Alliance game worthy of the name that’ll carry you through till 3 finally sees the light of day.
Jagged Alliance Rage is available now on Xbox One, PS4 (review version) and PC.
Developer: Cliffhanger Productions
Publisher: Handy Games
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we recieved a review copy of the game from the publishers. Please see our review policy for more information.