Jagged Alliance Review
Jagged Alliance box art
System: DS Review Rating Legend
Dev: Strategy First Inc. / Cypron Studios 1.0 - 1.9 = Avoid 4.0 - 4.4 = Great
Pub: Empire Interactive 2.0 - 2.4 = Poor 4.5 - 4.9 = Must Buy
Release: May 20, 2009 2.5 - 2.9 = Average 5.0 = The Best
Players: 1 3.0 - 3.4 = Fair
ESRB Rating: Teen 3.5 - 3.9 = Good
Hired Guns
by Robert VerBruggen

Plenty of people have good memories of PC gaming in the mid-㥢s. Such gamers will probably have a good time with the new DS port of Jagged Alliance, a 1994 strategy-RPG title. Everyone else should probably take a pass, though: by today’s standards, this game is really, really boring, and ugly to boot.

Jagged Alliance screenshot

First, a quick note on false advertising. Despite the fact that an early version of the cover art (still shown on Amazon and other retail sites) matches that of Jagged Alliance 2, this is a port of the original Jagged Alliance. This is something of a dirty trick on the publisher’s part, given that the games are old enough that many players only remember them by the images on the boxes. To be fair, the art that actually made it into stores is based on the art from the original, so they corrected their mistake.

At the beginning of Jagged Alliance, you control a tiny corner of the island Metavira. Nuclear tests on Metavira caused mutations in some of the trees, and said trees now contain a sap that can cure diseases the world over. Unfortunately, the trees can’t reproduce, making them an extremely valuable and rare resource. There are two scientific teams on the island; you’re working on behalf of one, and the other has taken over the rest of the island (59 of the 60 sectors!) through violence, planning to harvest the trees for maximum profit.

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The goal is to take the island back from the evil, sap-exploitative capitalists, and to complete several tangential tasks along the way. To do this, you’ll need to hire mercenaries to fight the bad guy Santino’s forces. In turn, to do that, you’ll need to manage your resources carefully so you don’t run out of money. The idea is to capture as much territory as quickly as possible without losing too many men or spreading yourself too thin. Whenever you capture territory, you can hire locals to tap the trees, which earns you cash to finance your assault on Santino.

Jagged Alliance screenshot

This is a perfectly fine idea for a game; trees aren’t exactly the sexiest objects of contention, but they work. The problem is that the gameplay, on an hour-by-hour basis, is painfully tedious. When you traverse enemy territory, each and every movement, from walking to shooting to transferring items from one fighter to another, uses “action points,” even if there’s not a single enemy in sight (you can view the whole sector you’re in, but the enemies are invisible until they get close). Walking quietly (“sneaking”) requires even more points, as does crouching down when your mercenary reaches his destination. This system works when you’re in the middle of combat, as it forces you to end your turn when you run out of points, giving the enemy a chance; when you’re trying to find the next enemy in a sector, though, it’s a real pain. To make matters worse, you have to wait for each mercenary to finish walking before starting the next one on his way.

When battles do ensue, the tradeoffs between shooting and moving can become annoying, and there’s rarely a sense of tension. The sheer number of options (move around, attack with various weapons, use items, end turn, etc.) may have seemed manageable with a computer screen and keyboard, but it’s harder to be patient and easier to feel overwhelmed when hunched over a few square inches of screen holding a stylus. The control scheme is a very good reason to buy the game or rent it locally, as opposed to renting it through a mail service like GameFly; without an instruction manual, it can take a lot of time to figure out what’s going on, because there’s inexcusably little in-game guidance.

Jagged Alliance screenshot

This isn’t to say the interface is bad. Aside from the lack of assistance, it’s about as good as one can expect outside of the PC experience. For the most part, it’s simply a matter of choosing the mercenary you’d like to use and telling him what to do, and it’s not until you want to accomplish a lot in a short period of time that it becomes too much.

In other words, the problem isn’t in the porting itself, but in the decision to port in the first place. Today, the original PC version costs about $10 and runs on pretty much any computer, and the same is true of Jagged Alliance 2 (widely regarded as the better and deeper game). It’s not like this is the kind of thing one plays in short bursts at bus stops (though the quicksave option, a welcome feature, makes this possible), so it’s not quite clear what purpose is served by cramming it into a DS cartridge.

Screenshots / Images
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