Jagged Alliance: Rage! Review
Set twenty years after the 1995 original, in Jagged Alliance: Rage! you are tasked with assembling your team of two from the six operatives on offer and are dispatched on a mission to a remote island. Fans of the original Jagged Alliance game will find this setup familiar as well as feeling a warm glow as they balance the mix of turn-based tactics and survival elements that they’re presented with. The question on those fans’ lips, however, is whether or not they finally have a reboot that captures the original two games’ magic?
As a series, it has bounced between several developers and has suffered because of it and Jagged Alliance: Rage! marks the twelfth title in the franchise but made by another new developer Cliffhanger Productions. Their choice to set the game many years after the original allows them to play around with some of the characters. Time is a cruel mistress and all the operatives have been through a lot of trauma as well as getting old. Some have developed a few bad habits along the way. Ivan, for example, is a heavy weapons expert but is an alcoholic, requiring you to feed his habit for him to function. Or there’s Vicky, someone who can throw grenades or knives with great accuracy but suffers from claustrophobia. As a result, making her run through buildings causes her to panic.
In gameplay terms it forces you to be very careful about who you select to make up your team of two. If you pick Ivan, for example, you get the benefit of heavy weapons expertise but that’s tempered by the need to keep a good stock of alcohol to keep him going. Having Raven on your team gives you someone who uses her teammate as a spotter, allowing you to hit enemies out of her sightline. Unfortunately, civilian deaths demoralise her quickly so, on some maps, it is more difficult to move her around in an effort to avoid this. Shadow can move stealthily past enemies but is susceptible to infection whilst Dr Q can barely use a firearm but is awesome in hand-to-hand combat. Finally there’s Grunty who seems the most stable and doesn’t take any penalties during night ops but he’s not so good at single shots and is rather clumsy, so throwing things is right out.
It’s a unique hook and it’s worth bearing in mind that whoever you pick here is your team for the duration. You see, predictably, things take a turn for the worse and you need to guide them off the island. You’ll not only need to fight your way through enemies but keep your team alive too. From keeping them hydrated to healing wounds and removing shrapnel, it all needs taking care of. So as you move around the map being chased by enemy troops you’ll need to choose your steps wisely. Do you try to knock out the nearby camp, reducing patrols, or go after the nearby dam giving you access to clean water? If your team has injuries can you afford to rest or will they ambush you? It drives up the tension a fair bit and a wrong move can severely hamper your progress.
Fortunately, along the way, you’ll team up with local rebels who, once you gain their trust, will run ambushes for you and add an extra strategic element for you to consider. The plot that Jagged Alliance: Rage! follows wouldn’t look out of place in an 80’s action movie and the dialogue that goes with it is equally as clichéd. Some characters get along more than others and depending on who sees what first can influence how you see things. Playing with Shadow and coming across a random person on a map, his instant response was of suspicion, causing me to be very careful in my approach. Running the same map again but with Raven seeing them first was met with one of care as she mused whether they were lost or fleeing nearby troops. Perspective is an interesting beast and it’s a nice touch by the developers to include varied responses by each of our selectable operatives.
In many ways there’s a lot to like about Jagged Alliance: Rage! not least of all its cel-shaded art style with colours that pop and a look that really does make it stand out. Unfortunately its looks are also a hindrance as it’s sometimes hard to see certain objects. When moving your operatives around the map — either by running or stealth crouching which limits your movement distance — it was hard to tell what was blocking my way as boundaries weren’t immediately apparent. As such we found ourselves guiding our operatives one way, only to discover that we couldn’t go round the back of a hut that would give great sightlines on some enemies.
Equally as confusing was the field of vision of our enemies. Hovering over one would show their cone of vision which extended outward. In the red-zone you would be spotted for sure and beyond that was a white-zone in which one could move freely. After that you would think they couldn’t see anything and stealth is your best friend in Jagged Alliance: Rage! So we were somewhat surprised that, after hiding a body of a downed soldier somewhere we thought was out of sight, when we whistled to distract another, they spotted said body almost halfway across the map. Now we’re not saying that they shouldn’t be suspicious about a colleague missing, but we’d hidden them in the weeds which we’d previously used to sneak up on the poor guy. After repeating the same experiment on several maps we can only conclude that whistling raises their awareness to superhuman levels. As such we relegated whistling to being used only when absolutely necessary.
Because of this, missions became long slogs as we watched soldier movements and worked our way around each map slowly offing the enemies and moving them to a safe spot. Sometimes we’d miss one and get embroiled in a gun battle which, with only a few enemies isn’t so bad, with many, well, it could cost you the mission. Unlike with their superhuman vision, the fact that all soldiers within the vicinity can hear you shoot your gun isn’t a surprise. However, getting shot isn’t always a case of losing health. You can get shrapnel in there which can become infected if you don’t sort it out. If you keep ending up in gun battles you’ll slowly run out of supplies or get ambushed if you need to keep resting to recover. Fortunately you can find throwing knives and other weapons to aid in stealth kills but you’ll still need to move bodies out of sight if you wish to remain anonymous and that’s easier said than done.
Really it’s this that costs Jagged Alliance: Rage! dearly. Whilst having operatives that aren’t perfect alongside the need to rest or patch up wounds and fix weapons adds extra tension and required us to make meaningful decisions, we can never really say that we had fun. Each mission often needed repeating or dragged on for so long that there was palpable relief by the end of it. When compared to X-COM’s more focused missions the ones encountered in Jagged Alliance: Rage! feels almost monstrous. They’re also very repetitive seeing you mostly take out all the enemies on the map or getting from point A to B. Coupling this with a control scheme that is a little fiddly and suffers from input lag causes frustrations to mount fast.
Overall Jagged Alliance: Rage! isn’t a bad game but when compared against its peers it falls short. This is mostly due to its stealth issues and fiddly controls which can make some simple tasks feel like completing a Rubik’s cube under severe duress. It took us several attempts to drop a body on the spot that we wanted and even longer to realise that we could only drop one tile from our operative. This makes sense, sure, but no in-game instruction was telling us anything and we just had to figure it out. There is a tutorial which covers an intro of sorts as you escape your imprisonment but it only covers the absolute basics.
The changes needed to improve the experience here isn’t long and really reducing how enemies can see downed bad guys would help immensely. Sort out the input lag and throw in a few more tooltips during play if you need them and things wouldn’t be too bad. Though, the fact that there is a list of things to improve and what they would improve is the fun-factor should probably tell you all that you need to know. If you’re a fan of these types of games and are perhaps looking for something other than X-COM then you may find Jagged Alliance: Rage! a decent alternative, especially the survival elements. Otherwise, we suspect most gamers will likely find it a frustrating experience that many will not see through to its completion.
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