This top-tier strategy game loses points for the slurs and racial stereotyping in the writing. The best urban combat in a tactical game in years, but the world feels paper-thin even as the fights impress.
Tense urban combat
Several interlocking systems
Hides important information
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Platform reviewed: PC
Available on: PC
Release date: 14 July 2023
Jagged Alliance 3 is a throwback. The turn-based strategy pays homage to the ‘90s brilliance of Jagged Alliance and Jagged Alliance 2 in both its core mechanic and collection of action hero stereotypes. Sadly, it also veers into the ‘90s lack of political correctness, aping the attitudes of those times with racial caricatures, fan service, and even the use of an ableist slur.
I wanted to put this right here at the front because, for many people, you’ll lose interest here and close the review. If I weren’t reviewing the game, I would have closed it when a former mercenary describes his colleague who had previously been shot in the head with a slur. It’s lazy writing and harmful to sling slurs into your game, but it’s not the only problem with the game’s script.
While the central plot has an exceptional yet predictable moment that shifts the way Jagged Alliance 3 plays after 15 hours or so, it’s poorly written with a bunch of juvenile jokes and irritating characters that make me reach for the skip button whenever chat comes up on screen.
One NPC near an in-game brothel barks, “New in town? Let me show you the sights. The sights are what I call my boobs” - if this doesn’t make you want to look at a hidden camera like Jim Halpert, I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe you, dear reader, are the target audience for these jokes.
Away from the writing, the varied climates of Jagged Alliance 3 are great fodder for combat. In the south of the game world, you’re wading through humid jungles and fighting off Crocodiles and enemy soldiers while fighting with tight sightlines. To the north, there are desert and arid climes with expansive open views that are a paradise for snipers. There’s been some real thought put into these battlegrounds, and they feel like real places people might actually live.
In one memorable firefight, I hid a marksman in a billboard advertisement where they could look upon the advancing enemies in each direction, laying waste to the forces of a villainous coup before they could reach cover. In other areas, you’ll be fighting through streets choked with debris and broken down cars or an open desert with nothing but thin tarpaulin tents to take cover behind.
This world is a large part of the joy behind Jagged Alliance 3’s tactical strategy layer. At this level, you’re just trying to win fights with your small group of troops, often against a larger force of poorly equipped troops. At first, this is tricky - while you can have six mercenaries in a group at any given time, you won’t start out able to afford that many soldiers, and several units will be armed with just pistols and shotguns initially.
Later, this becomes mundane as you clad your forces in better armour and weaponry. Besides better gear, as your soldiers fight, they’ll earn points across several disciplines, and with each level up, they are given access to powerful perks. Soon enough, these soldiers will get hyper-specialised, so instead of pushing into an enemy with four mercenaries armed with pistols, you're using a deployed machine gun to keep enemies in cover while snipers pick them off, all while someone else is running around with a comically large knife attacking anyone else.
Hiring an experienced merc and putting him behind the barrel of a customised machine gun can also tear through enemies, shredding 5-6 opponents a turn in a hail of gunfire. As you start to learn these synergies, you understand the game's depth.
A bizarre omission is that you can't see the exact chance to hit on attacks, so you have to guesstimate how likely this is. I think this makes sense from a realism standpoint — you never know how likely a shot is to land at any given moment in a firefight — but it does make the game more irritating to play.
Which is a shame, because you’ll want to play many of these battles, and there’s a pleasing lethality to it all. Still, you can automatically resolve many filler battles later, ensuring you don’t get too bogged down fighting over the same location five or six times.
Using a rocket launcher or breaching charge to make your own entrance is incredibly satisfying, but the sweet spot is when you’ve positioned your squad ahead of time to catch your enemies in a perfect crossfire as soon as the walls come crumbling down.
The meta-level to Jagged Alliance 3’s big strategy cake is that it’s a mercenary simulator. This means when you’re not in the tense and scrappy turn-based combat of the tactical layer, the strategic layer is all about making enough money to pay for the colourful cast of killers for hire to remain happy, healthy, and well-equipped as you trundle your way across the island to try and liberate it.
Healing, repairing your items, and rest and recuperation all take time, and the contracts of your mercenaries are constantly ticking down, meaning that you're keeping an eye on the clock. Your close-quarters specialist getting blown up isn’t agonising because he’s injured or needs some of your scant through medical supplies to be patched up: It’s that his selfish recovery eats time you don’t have, holding up your entire squad.
Later, you’ll have the cash flow to hire additional mercenaries and even recruit several mercenaries for free. Then you’ll be leaving troops behind to train a militia, or paying people to stay out of combat and work on the vast armoury of weapons that need repairs and modifications, operating like a sort of ad-hoc arsenal.
These little structures forming are fascinating, but because this exists within the game world, you’ll also need to keep those areas secure so that an enemy doesn’t retake your hospital or equipment stores. It’s compelling stuff and something that Jagged Alliance 3 does really well: as your team gets more equipment and gear, you’ll suddenly find yourself caring about different things. A suitcase of diamonds is no longer necessary for survival but might instead pay for a load of repairs or to pay the trained killer you’re using like your own personal Deliveroo driver, winging his way between stores and combat hotspots to bring your A-team new and more brutal weaponry.
This arsenal is ridiculous too. Weapons like an M249 machine gun, SVD sniper rifle, and even AR-15s are all present. They can be customised with a multitude of attachments - including suppressors, foregrips, and even a thermal scope if the mood strikes you. Throw in some truly terrifying grenade launchers, unique weapons from quest rewards, and the ability to mortar your enemies with mustard gas, and you have a stupendously extensive collection of things that make your enemies go boom.
Jagged Alliance 3 has a lot of areas to loot or hack for intel on the surrounding area. This system worked terribly for me: I struggled to find the hot spot on the screen to trigger the interactions. However, as long as I was okay accepting that sometimes I wouldn’t have the best gear possible because I hadn’t combed the sector for loot, it was okay. There’s plenty of treasure to scrounge for, but I preferred to simply take my weapons from people I’d killed.
Jagged little ills
Some bits don’t land: a random zombie invasion feels like an odd distraction, especially because the game is terrible at showing you what is selectable within the game world.
Honestly, while Jagged Alliance 3 is a true RPG in a lot of ways, it’s best enjoyed as a tactical action game. There’s easily 50-60 hours of game here, and it does a lot of things well, but telling a story and getting you to invest in its world isn’t its true strength. It’s the possibility found in this island full of urban combat and rugged action heroes stomping around it slaying bad guys.
Sadly, it can’t offer much more than that. The strategy is deep, but that’s the only thing here that will make you think. Many of Jagged Alliance 3’s faults can be forgiven, but the harmful parts of its writing will linger, and it makes me think twice about recommending a game that I had a good time with.
There’s no unique accessibility menu here to speak of, but a series of auto-pause options in the Gameplay menu could let you keep the action at a chill pace if you want to take your time. Subtitles are here but not particularly customisable. All in all, there are many points to be awarded for effort.
How we reviewed Jagged Alliance 3
I played Jagged Alliance 3 for around 50 hours on PC. During this time, I noticed a few bugs and hiccups: one made it impossible for me to move my cursor around the map without a restart, while another issue I encountered a few times made it impossible to move or salvage any items, which forced me to restart each time it came up. We didn’t get a chance to play the multiplayer co-op, and I spent most of my time with the game in a single-player campaign.
Jake Tucker is the editor in chief of TechRadar Gaming and has worked at sites like NME, MCV, Trusted Reviews and many more. He collects vinyl, likes first-person shooters and turn-based tactics titles, but hates writing bios. Jake currently lives in London, and is bouncing around the city trying to eat at all of the nice restaurants.