There’s a scene in the 1991 film The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell Of Fear where Lt. Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) finds himself in a shoot-out with a gang of thugs. The camera quickly cuts between Drebin and one thug as they alternate gunfire, each man popping out from behind cover to fire a shot before ducking back down as the return fire ricochets off nearby metal. Then, a wide shot frames both men to reveal them crouched behind a garbage can and a vent, respectively, just a few feet from each other, engaged in a ludicrous point-blank duel. Jagged Alliance 3 is full of such moments.
It’s an RPG centred on bouts of turn-based tactical combat where your mercenary squad and their many enemies are more likely to miss each other than hit, and where their frequent incompetence is by turns infuriating (when you miss a seemingly easy shot), triumphant (when the enemy misses, sparing you what seemed to be certain death), and very funny (when you miss the enemy but accidentally hit the nearby landmine which then explodes and injures your squadmate, or when the enemy misses you but the stray bullet hits the other enemy who had crept up behind you, or any number of similarly hapless scenarios).
All this incompetence is emphasised via a combat engine that deliberately obfuscates information relevant to the chance of success of any action. When lining up a shot in Jagged Alliance 3, you aren’t shown a specific chance-to-hit. You can see that certain factors have come into play – that the distance between you and your target is at the limit of your weapon’s range, or that the enemy is wearing armour on their torso and legs, or that they are behind partial cover, or that your shot can penetrate this specific cover, or that an obstacle is blocking your view of everything but their arms, or that you’re wounded, or your target is pinned down, or that it’s just really dark–but the precise calculations of these factors to determine whether or not you hit with that shot are left unclear.
Audio cues provide additional context. When you target an enemy your merc might say something like ‘I have the villain in my sights!’ to presumably indicate a relatively high percentage chance of making the shot. Or perhaps they’ll say something like ‘My gun is not a magic wand, you know!’ to suggest a relatively low percentage shot. But it’s never revealed just how high or low. Every time you line up a shot you don’t really know if you have, say, a 50% chance-to-hit or a 75% chance-to-hit. You can spend Action Points to increase your accuracy, but without a firm baseline it’s not clear whether you’ve gone from 20% to 25% or from 60% to 80%. The end result is a lack of confidence in whether you’re making a smart decision or about to commit a terrible mistake.
There’s a kind of scrappy, desperate feeling to a firefight in Jagged Alliance 3. Hits to the arms reduce accuracy, and damage to the legs impedes movement. Cover can be destroyed. Losing line-of-sight allows your merc to re-enter Sneak Mode and return to surprise the enemy. Saving a couple of AP to drop into a prone position at the end of a turn can be the difference between seeing the next turn or bleeding out. Yet, despite all this tactical granularity, the successful play is often a matter of running around the cover the enemy is hiding behind and shooting them in the back. Assuming you don’t miss, of course.
Three Stars: ★★★
The PC version of Jagged Alliance 3 was provided and played for the purposes of this review.