Jagged Alliance might not have been the most beloved turn-based mercenary sim when it first launched, but its effects were certainly felt as the years passed on.
Jagged Alliance‘s brilliance and simplicity wasn’t so much the tactical, X-COM style calculations on whether your mercenary could hit that pistol shot. There was tactical positioning and a ton of care — Sir-Tech invested a lot of time into the narration and audio making sure the characters had a soul, and you as the player had spent plenty of money on training, recruitment and carefully balancing your squad. Losing mercenaries mattered.
What made Jagged Alliance stick was the management layer underpinning it all. It was inspired by the design of Axis & Allies, a classic World War 2 board game that was published in 1981, built around the idea of taking individual sectors. Jagged Alliance reused this idea: but instead of retaking parts of Western and Eastern Europe, you were controlling a squad that was slowly liberating a fictional nation from a despot, raiding its provinces for resources.
Jagged Alliance 2 is the most beloved game in the series, and rightly so considering how much it added to the turn-based tactics layer, the characterisation, improvements to the UI, larger maps and one of the best “personality tests” ever created in a video game.
But the original Jagged Alliance is still worth playing for what it spawned. It’s also free to own today, courtesy of a promotion from THQ Nordic (the current owners of the IP). The game will be free to add to your Steam account until 3:00am AEST September 24, but it’s not alone: Titan Quest Anniversary Edition, the updated version of the mythical Diablo clone, is also free on Steam.
Out of the two games, however, Jagged Alliance will always be the more special. It’s legacy is often compared against X-COM, even though Jagged Alliance was actually first built out as a real-time strategy game initially. (The developers opted to change to turn-based mechanics for a few reasons: it avoided the problem of the AI either being too weak or too good, which would have ruined the experience, and it also stopped the player from being able to blame the game for any failures. If a mercenary you cared about died, that was on you — so you were encouraged to be more careful, and think more deeply, about the moves you made.)
Jagged Alliance: Gold Edition is available for free on Steam here, so have at it. There’s also an excellent book from Boss Fight that covers mostly Jagged Alliance 2‘s development, although it also touches on the foundations of JA1 and its development.