Jagged Alliance 2 Review
Jagged Alliance is a series of overhead turn based strategy games with unique mercenaries in the lead role. If you've ever played any of the games in the X-Com series, this will seem familiar. However, JA2 is in a more realistic enviroment in that all the weapons are projectile-based. I've played some of the original Jagged Alliance; I found it to be much easier than JA2. There aren't many other original games to compare with. JA2 is close to defining it's own genre, with it's curious blend of the strategy, action, and RPG categories.
This is Tribsoft's first and (so far) only released port. Jagged Alliance 2 was originally conceived of and developed by Sir-Tech Canada Limited, and they won't let you forget it with their rather overdone intro movie. Titan-Computer is JA2's (Linux) publisher; Titan is also handling support. After recieving your copy you may notice it is in the DVD styled packaging (which is gaining popularity for game-packaging, as most ports released recently have this style). The Jagged Alliance 2 dead-tree manual is all of 49 pages long, and pretty descriptive. If you have never played another game in this series you'll probably want to read through the manual before and during play. The manual is also home to a number of amusing errors similar to this example desribing the location of the link for the online gun dealership: "You'll find a link to Bobby Ray's Gubs 'n Things..." A fellow writer convinced me that this error could possibly be an in-joke related to a film. However, there are far too many errors similar to this one.
The CD-ROM contains some unsupported extra software: XFree86 version 4.0.1; and 4Front's Open Sound System version 3.9.3s-001117. X 4.0.1 might be good if you're on a modem and want to start from somewhere, as oppossed to jumping right into downloading version 4.1.0. OSS is up to version 3.9.5c at the moment. This copy of the OSS drivers is better off left alone as the install complains about improper permissions, and the download of the latest version is only about 2 megabytes anyway. I can perfectly understand why the unsupported software is out of date as a book I worked on to have a CD-ROM with up-to-date software was largely out of date before it was even on bookshelves. Such is the path with software released early and often.
Jagged Alliance 2's Linux installer is of the simple text-based variety and prompts you for things like installation size. Some minor annoyances in the installer show up, as it doesn't allow for a mixed-case path. Documentation besides the manual is lacking. Unfortunately, Tribsoft neglected a bash shell script with the game, so you'll have to create something to launch JA2 yourself. This could have been automatically done if they used Loki Setup. Another annoyance remains in that you must have the game disc mounted to play, which has never been required of any Loki ports unless you choose to install less than the full game data. This might not be Tribsoft's fault as it could be part of their contract with Sir-Tech. I can easily imagine a naive Windows developer thinking he'd be able to resort to the same tactics in Linux, as in Windows. Cutting down on the protection would also eliminate the need for one of the CD's, as it appears only one file isn't installed with the full install option. The second CD (labeled 'Game Disc') doesn't really fit in with the DVD packaging: it is loose inside a paper sleeve.
While playing the CD-release version of Jagged Alliance 2 you might notice a memory leak; I have experienced a crash here and there possibly related to this. If you want to take preventive measures, it is suggested that you save often. If your processor doesn't have the MMX flags, JA2 will refuse to run. The game is designed for a bit depth of 16; if your X server runs at a different bit depth, each frame will need to be converted and can slow the game down considerably on older processors. For this review I ran my X server at a bit depth of 24, and did not notice any slowdowns whatsoever. This lack of slowdown may be due to my accelerated XFree86 server for my graphics card - an Nvidia/Hercules GeForce 2 MX with 64 MB of RAM,- or my CPU - Pentium 3 1 gigahertz - being much faster than the required Pentium 2 233 megahertz.
As the leader of a group of mercenaries, you are tasked with hiring, firing, and utilizing your team to the best of your abilities in your goal of liberating the small nation known as Arulco. Your in-game character was hired by the former ruler of Arulco (Enrico Chivaldori) for this task, which is appropriate as it is his wife (Deirdranna Reitman) who forced him into exile. You'll always have an in-game avatar of yourself on the team. This special character is named and custom generated in the beginning. The rest of your mercs are on a pay-per-day/week basis. You hire them through a fake laptop interface similar to the GUI Tribes 2 uses for it's IRC/mail/et cetera. Tribes2, of course had a science fiction setting, where Jagged Alliance is closer to reality, so the GUI isn't _that_ similar. If one of your mercs dies, and you've paid for more time than he or she was alive, that money is essentially lost. However, a kind of contract insurance is available from a "web site". Since you shouldn't lose too many troops, can frequently quick-save, and almost all health points can be replenished, most meathook realities in this game are dashed. Of course, that would be ignoring the plot, which does seem more adult that most games. Early on you may feel compelled to kill a heartless woman running a child labor factory. The town of San Mona even has a bordello (the "Shady Lady") down the street from the local saloon and pornography store. Violence is well represented: pools of blood form around corpses for each kill. Head shots can result in sprays of gore flying from where the skull used to be. It's not anywhere as graphic as, say, Soldier of Fortune, but it gets the job done.
Your troops are divisible into squads of six, and your maximum limit of squads is three. This feature is rather useful for coordinated attacks from multiple cardinal directions. It is obvious after playing for some time that these mercenaries are merely tools. They will attack each other if given orders to do so. Not all of your mercs are as skilled in the art of firearms as McBain, some are medics, and others are better with hand-to-hand combat or demolitions. It seems the most useful mercs are the real killers armed with automatics, who can perform other tasks on the side. Strategy is the easiest way to win, as I've lost more rounds to my inferior tactics than by having inferior mercs. Your mileage may vary, of course. The combat system is very similar to an RPG combat system. All actions are governed by a system of Action Points. Shooting, reloading, moving, lowering to a crouch or prone position, rising to stand or kneel, all these things take action points. Similarly, you have Health Points on each merc. Each time a merc is shot, near an explosion, or hurt in hand-to-hand, they lose HP. It's all reasonably realistic. In fact you can choose just how realistic the game is when you start a new campaign, with settings such as realism or sci-fi. The manual doesn't elaborate much on what the sci-fi setting provides, so I'll do the same and leave that discovery to the player. Another setting is available for gun options: Normal or Tons of Guns. Normal provides with a naturally smaller range of choices for those who do not understand nor care about differences between similar guns.
A few of the voice-overs in Jagged Alliance 2 are missing talent. One of the female mercenaries has a rather annoying accent which may remind the player of a whining child. Not all the voice acting is that bad, it's just that you may be letting that particular character die before his/her time. Audio is generally decent; you might notice clicks and pops every so often which seem to get worse the more CPU-load you have. This problem probably stems from the fact that Tribsoft ported the Miles sound system, rather than working on their own. Otherwise, Jagged Alliance 2 has some interesting audio effects. If you kill some foes in a sector and return later, buzzards will make chewing noises as they feed upon the dead. Character movement is a bit stiff; this is probably to be expected in an animated game. Art in JA2 suffers from the fact that the game was developed in 1999, although I don't believe you can totally put the year at fault here: games like 1997's Fallout (which runs rather well in Wine) had superiour graphics. Certainly, they shouldn't be boasting about the "high-resolution graphics", which are really just 640x480. The artificial intelligence is very artificial. Once, I had a random encounter while traveling from sector-to-sector and promptly cleared out the enemy except for a stray that managed to run away. He didn't get very far before he became lodged between a tree and a rock. This trapped him until my troops caught up, who viciously exterminated their foe. It seems as if the enemy AI may have somewhat unique ideas of what to do in certain situations. I've noticed some members of Deirdranna's army run away when their ammo is spent. One even charged my team, pulled out a machete, and started slicing.
What else does Jagged Alliance 2 have going for it? It's got some excellent tactical gameplay you can't get anywhere else natively. Each mercenary really is unique. You'll find them advancing in skill as the game progresses. Skills like experience, marksmanship, leadership, and more, increase for each character. Naturally this improves how they will handle tasks that utilize these skills later on. This lends more credibility to the claim of "Over 150 unique characters with unparalleled personality". The port is a little flawed. Certain issues I mentioned may be fixed in a future patch. There isn't any multiplayer, so there isn't any multiplayer compatibility to worry about. Those who desire more information should pay a visit to the Official Jagged Alliance 2 website. Some things like the lack of a shell script to launch the game seem so obvious you have to wonder if Tribsoft rushed this game out. At this time, the "Unfinished Business" expanision is not available for Linux. Also, unlike it's Windows-counterpart, there is no demo for the Linux product. The lack of demo is simply explained: Sir-Tech couldn't give Tribsoft the demo code. The retail code is incompatible with the demo data.
I hope after reading this review you will have a good understanding of what Jagged Alliance 2 brings to the Linux gaming table. When it comes to choosing to pick up Jagged Alliance 2, you can ask yourself if you enjoyed any similar games such as X-Com, the original Jagged Alliance, or if you just want to support gaming in Linux. Truth is, the currently small Linux gaming market may not be able to afford more than one porting house. To support this small market we really ought to buy titles (such as JA2) which are already available, and not purchase copies of games already available elsewhere which may become available in commercial, boxed, form on the Linux enviroment (such as Deus Ex, Fakk 2, et cetera). On the topic of support, if you've had problems with previous Linux games then you may not want to purchase JA2 thinking you can rely on the publisher for much support. From what I understand after reading the Tribsoft forums, Titan may not be very good in the support business. That being said, as I described earlier it really isn't hard to install Jagged Alliance 2 and get into the game. It should be noted that JA2 isn't a twitch game at all. The action provided is purely graphical. You won't be required to have quick reflexes in this battle. A sharp wit, and some tactical skills learned in-game should be all anyone needs for an enjoyable time playing.