The Jagged Alliance series still has an imposing reputation in strategy gaming circles, despite the last mainline entry launching 24 years ago and the spin-offs being generally not great. Jagged Alliance 3, thankfully, does an excellent job of modernising the series while introducing engaging new elements, crafting a genuinely thrilling mercenary management simulator in the process. The jokes are a bit hit-or-miss and the pace of play might not appeal to everybody, but for those willing to take risks and get out of their comfort zones, the potential payoffs could be huge.
When the democratically elected president of the fictional nation Grand Chien is kidnapped, and a paramilitary force known as the Legion takes control, a professional (if highly unconventional) group of international mercenaries is assembled. Playing from an isometric perspective, Jagged Alliance 3 is a true tactical roleplaying experience, casting players as private military commanders responsible for decisions on and off the battlefield, and ultimately tasked with completing objectives. Everything else is negotiable.
Technically announced in 2004, Jagged Alliance 3 was shuffled around and shelved for years before ending up in the hands of THQ Nordic, with development helmed by the veteran Haemimont Games, the studio behind the best entries in the Tropico series. A somewhat unique game, the closest comparison to Jagged Alliance 3 in terms of gameplay would be an unholy blend of Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden and XCOM: Enemy Unknown, but with the backdrop being a mildly traumatic action movie that touches on real-world themes (think Blood Diamond).
Playing Jagged Alliance 3 requires balancing several disparate but connected gameplay modes designed to challenge. It's pretty tricky (even on the standard difficulty) so there should be no shame in turning the difficulty down here. The developer has implemented a Forgiving Mode, which makes the game's strategic layer more, uh, forgiving, speeding up healing times and granting the player a passive income. Conversely, multiple options exist to make life much more miserable, with scanter resources, permadeath, and the obligatory Ironman mode making every choice permanent (a requirement for the Platinum — truly sadistic).
Jagged Alliance 3 deviates most from something similar, like XCOM, in its squadmates. Each is a unique mercenary with strengths and weaknesses, personality and bespoke voice lines, perks, and gameplay benefits. There are more than 40 in total, and players can form squads of up to six, with the need to manage multiple squads as the game progresses.
The most consequential decisions are made on the larger strategic map, where squads are deployed across Grand Chien. There are enemy strongholds to clear, occupied villages to liberate, and lucrative diamond mines ripe for the taking, with some fairly simple side quests sprinkled throughout. Legion forces will attempt to retake your holdings, and you can train militia forces to assist them in combat. Claiming ultimate victory will require gaining intel and forming networks to uncover the identity of the Legion's mysterious leader.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Jagged Alliance 3 is its open-ended nature, which adds tremendous replay value for those hooked. Different squads, compromised of differing combinations of mercs, will inevitably face fresh situations, and the AI is reactive enough that the strategic layer will be meaningfully different. Each square on the larger strategic grid represents a bespoke map on which tactical engagements can play out, meaning there's a large variety in the combat environments, which is always lovely.
Deceptively deep, each merc has its statistical spread, which determines efficacy at various tasks and usually (but not always) correlates to that character's class. High marksmanship is always helpful, but you want an Explosives Expert whenever landmines are involved. Even more exciting, some of these characters have a history with each other and will prefer to work with those they respect and may refuse to fight alongside those they don't.
Combat is where players will spend the vast bulk of their time: a robust tactical affair that pits the player's squad — usually vastly outnumbered — against Legion forces of various configurations. Interestingly, there's no metric for how to hit outside of a vague range indicator, which we found made us more likely to take our chances on a shot. Mercenaries have a wide range of abilities that allow for plenty of tactical flexibility, determined by their class, weapons, and perks. Action points govern a character's ability to move and shoot, meaning they could attack multiple times per turn by not moving, for example, allowing players to adapt to evolving battlefield situations.
Specific forms of cover are destructible, and as in Phoenix Point, players can target specific body parts, inflicting additional damage or potentially inflicting debuffs. A physics system underpins combat, meaning that body parts not physically covered can still be targeted, which is an intriguing extra wrinkle.
Regarding PS5 specifics, we played in Performance mode, which felt snappy and responsive. The control scheme takes some time to get used to but intuitively binds specific commands together. Holding R2 and pressing the corresponding face buttons will allow players to quickly cycle weapons, reload, and change that character's stance, for example. A free targeting mechanic feels overly fiddly, and inventory management leaves much to be desired, but generally, Jagged Alliance 3 plays quite well on the controller.
Your mileage may vary here, but the humour underpinning everything is worth a mention, as each time the game boots up, players are greeted with a defensive-sounding message from the developer. In keeping with the Jagged Alliance tradition of poking fun at the cliches and stereotypes in action movies popular in the 1990s, Haemimont Games warns players that Jagged Alliance 3 "takes jabs at contemporary issues and pop culture". It's mostly fine, but the tone does start to grate as the hours drag on. Expect overt sexism and some regional stereotyping, depending on the mercenaries chosen.
Jagged Alliance 3 is a rousing return to form for the series, offering a solid tactical offering that finds a welcome home on PS5. Rough around the edges, with a tone that might turn some off, it offers plenty of replayability, with each turn as tense as the last.