A good character creator is like a powerful first scene, or a good first page in a book. And while there have been many takes on ways to make a character, Jagged Alliance 2 is still far and away one of my favourites.
Jagged Alliance and its sequel were born in an era where there was plenty of quality turn based strategy. It was the era of X-COM, the highs of Civilization 2 and Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, the beloved Heroes of Might and Magic series, and countless WW2 and Civil War-inspired wargames.
Jagged Alliance had more of a mercenary flavour to it. The original game introduced you to Metavira, an island that has been turned into a totalitarian state by Lucas Santino. A nuclear experiment genetically altered some of the trees on the island, making their sap highly profitable for medical purposes, and you've been hired by a pair of researchers to retake the island by force.
The original map of Metavira from JA1.
The original game was developed by Montreal-based developed MadLab software, with Canadian compatriots Sir-Tech picking up the mantle for the sequel. In JA2, the fictional country of Arulco has been overthrown by the dictator Deidranna, who framed the previous monarch for the death of her father. Enrico Chivaldori hires the player to save Arulco from her tyranny, and thus the game begins.
Principally, the Jagged Alliance series is a game about two layers: the tactical management of your mercenaries, juggling their strengths, weaknesses, loadouts, positioning and personalities; and balancing resources, not only the finances required to hire mercenaries to begin with, but their ongoing upkeep, their strategic deployment between missions, training, and fending off attacks from the AI's hired guns.
The first Jagged Alliance didn't give the player an avatar. Instead, you were the faceless connection to the Association of International Mercenaries, Incorporated, otherwise referred to as A.I.M.
JA2 went a step further, giving the player a controllable character in-game that would have their own personality, attributes and underlying stats. Like most games of the era, there was little in the way of cosmetic customisation: a few voice lines, your choice of name and gender, and a handful of portraits to choose from.
But the fun part lay in the stats: rather than simply giving you a bunch of sliders to toy with, JA2 gave you a personality test.
After using the XEP624 activation code - it never changes - the game gives takes you through a series of 16 questions as part of a faux psych profile. Three of the questions are just for shits and giggles, whereas the rest determine the underlying skills and personality of your character.
Personality doesn't have a huge affect on gameplay - an arrogant personality could have negative effects with interacting with NPCs, but you can negate that by just having a dedicated face for your group of mercenaries. Skills, on the other hand, can have a huge impact. Throwing gives you a better chance to hit; lockpicking is an obvious plus, while electronics improves your chance to disarm electronic traps, remote detonators, and so forth.
Martial Arts is a neat one: you can knock out damaged enemies with a roundhouse kick that doesn't miss. Of course, the fun of all this is that the game doesn't tell you what answers unlock what skills, and the manual didn't offer any tips either. It was just one of those things people discovered by trial and error, with gamemags helping out back in the day as essential guides for those without internet access.
The quiz was laced with the same kind of Die Hard-esque humour as the original. For instance, how would you respond to rustlings of a potential robber in your house? Would you grab a knife and wander down slowly, or would you grab a shotgun and start shooting holes into the floor?
A breakdown of a character's attributes, including their morale, inventory, HP and armour, the inventory available in a particular sector, and the overall status of a mercenary's contract.
Each question had at least four answers. Some answers in a particular quiz would net you a skill, while others would impact your personality. You can also develop particular phobias, like nervousness, claustrophobia or psychosis. Forgetfulness can be a right pain: characters in turn-based mode could lose a single action point, up to all of their action points (although once it happens, you're good for another 200 moves).
In a game where inventory management is crucial - because each merc can only carry so much - having bonuses like Camouflage can save crucial weight and space. Positive team members also don't get dismayed as much when someone retreats from a battle, which can be a lifesaver when you're dealing with limited cover.
Many games still deploy a range of hidden stats, traits that affect the player but can't be directly chosen for one reason or another. JA2's method was a neat way of involving the player in that process, while allowing for some cheeky writing as well.
JA2 had a couple of short, pre-rendered intro sequences - tanks blowing up a village, money changing hands at a shadowy cafe, people wasting behind bars - but the I.M.P. quiz was the game's true opening. It was a neat spin on character creation, and one of the many feathers that under JA2's clever cap.