At one point, the Jagged Alliance series was a staple in the genre of turn-based tactical strategy games. When the original developer went under, the franchise went through a series of releases over the next 19 years that saw standards take a drastic drop. THQ Nordic is now handing over the developmental reigns to Cliffhanger Productions for Jagged Alliance: Rage!, a spinoff title set 20 years after the first Jagged Alliance. For the first time in a long while, this modern entrant to the series gets a lot right - but it gets a fair bit wrong, too.
This time around, the game forgoes a bountiful roster of mercenaries for a finite group of series regulars who each have their own pros and cons. The game starts in an identical manner to Jagged Alliance 2: Unfinished Business, with the mercs' helicopter being shot down as it arrives on a fictional third-world island. From this point on, however, Rage! starts to build its own identity, introducing plenty of new mechanics to the series to make the title not only stand out from its predecessors, but the strategy genre as a whole.
The core gameplay is just as veterans of the series will remember it: actions like moving, aiming, and shooting cost action points, which refresh at the end of every turn. The game has a stealth mechanic that allows for players to quickly melee kill enemies caught unawares, heavily encouraging guerrilla tactics. There's also the namesake of the game itself - the Rage system. As mercenaries kill and take damage, they get adrenaline. This adrenaline grants Rage Points, which allow mercenaries to utilize special moves without spending action points. For example, Raven can take a shot that ignores enemy armor, and Shadow can move across the enemy line of sight without being seen. These kind of moves can make a huge difference in combat, and it's a pretty intuitive system that compliments gameplay nicely.
The game introduces plenty of survival elements into the mix too, like its infection and shrapnel systems. Mercenaries taking hits have a chance of catching shrapnel, which lowers their overall HP until a surgical kit can remove the shards. Likewise, using dirty bandages or drinking dirty water can lead to infection, which delivers similar setbacks until antibiotics can be obtained. Hydration is an important recurring mechanic as time progresses, adding a sense of urgency to keep players moving. Later on in the game a water reservoir can be captured, which helps mitigate at least one of the game's longterm dangers. Mismanagement of any of these three mechanics will be severely detrimental to one's campaign.
If one doubted the ambition THQ Nordic has with Jagged Alliance: Rage!, a quick look at the map is all it takes to assuage these doubts. The island map is huge, featuring plenty of combat zones interspersed between rest areas. As players traverse along the map, they have the option of setting up camp in order to rest, remove shrapnel, upgrade equipment, or use inventory. Just like in Jagged Alliance 2, enemy forces will begin patrolling between locations, forcing players to pick and choose when to rest and when to move on. In a game where scavenging the supplies needed to survive is difficult, this adds a pretty intuitive risk-versus-reward system to resting. Resting also advances the clock an hour, which will determine if combat takes place at day or night. For stealth-minded players, it's yet another strategic approach to take into consideration.
These mechanics combine into a strategy game that has a great amount of depth for a $15 title, so it's frustrating that a multitude of issues weigh down the experience. While the simplistic and choppy graphics can somewhat be forgiven given the price, the console edition of the game is rife with lag issues. Maps with lots of enemies - of which there are many - also cause massive delays as the AI slowly ponders moves off-screen. Pacing is a continual problem for Rage!, with some missions ending in moments and others taking ludicrous swaths of time to complete. The enemy AI also leaves much to be desired: we encountered several instances of enemies running back and forth in confusion, or just making nonsensical moves in general. Looting enemies after a battle is also a tedious process full of clicking and dragging, and it slows down gameplay to a crawl.
Despite the introductory sequence riffing heavy on sci-fi influences, the first hours of the game start off on a pretty generic note with absurdly evil enemies enforcing a brutal dictatorship. This dictatorship indoctrinates young soldiers into its ranks by utilizing a homebrew drug called bliss (yes, just like how Far Cry 5 uses a drug of exactly the same name, used in the exact same way, for the exact same purpose). While the late game plot does drag itself back into more interesting territory, most of the voice acting across the board leaves a lot to be desired. There's plenty of fan service to be found in the dialogue, though, and it's pretty indicative that Cliffhanger Productions has a realistic viewpoint on where the Jagged Alliance series is currently clawing its way back from.
Smartly, the game is priced as a budget alternative to the likes of strategy juggernauts like XCOM 2 or Civilization. Coming in at $15, the game delivers surprisingly in-depth gameplay and a good length of playing time. Many series veterans are bound to be disappointed by nostalgia-blinded high expectations, but for a $15 budget title the game delivers a good, if not memorable, experience. It may not be the best strategy game of recent times (or even of this year), but Jagged Alliance: Rage! did something that no other series entrant from the last 19 years has managed to do: give hope for the future of the franchise.
Jagged Alliance: Rage! is available now on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. Screen Rant was supplied an Xbox One code for this review.