The XCOM reboot in 2012 was a fountain of youth for the turn-based strategy genre. Shortly after, plenty of games would come to wash their feet in the waters. Invisible Inc. and The Banner Saga captured that rejuvenating essence, and turned it into great experiences. I can’t help but feel that here in 2018, those good vibes have run out.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown of course didn’t invent the turn-based strategy game. In fact, the original X-COM operated in a space and time as a peer to the original Jagged Alliance. Together, they changed the landscape for what their genre could be in the 90s. But after both took a long hiatus starting in the early 2000s, one came back and did it again. The other is Jagged Alliance: Rage!.
At its core, Rage! is a sound take on what we know the genre to be these days. Small tactical units that have a wide range of combat choices. Terrain, range, stealth, etc can be used as an advantage against a threat that grows in size and strength as you progress. Each unit has a unique sort of “class” or skill set.
Rage even takes the basic formula and pulls in some popular rogue-like elements. There isn’t permadeath, but health and persistent status effects stay with you from mission to mission. On top of each character’s unique sets of pros and cons, you will feel the ravages of battle early and often. It’s like Darkest Dungeon in that way, which is never a bad thing to be like.
Combat itself is pretty standard for anyone who’s ever played grid tactics games. Moving and actions share the same pool of Action points, which helps you feel like you can potentially do more with a turn than games that only let you act more limited. Each character has “rage” abilities that can be game changer themselves. Dr. Q can give himself more action points, while Raven can make armor-ignoring shots. You power your rage abilities with adrenaline, which you gained through taking or doing damage. The more fighting you do, the more intense you become in the moment.
Traversing through the overworld can provide its own tense moments. There are map points where objectives and story beats play out that you have to move to. But every move you make is an opportunity for enemies to deploy from bases and chase you around. Navigating them, as well as deciding which routes are best to take or where you will stop to rest and patch yourself up, is a welcome meta challenge.
But Rage! fails to really capitalize on these inspired these design choices. The over world movement doesn’t seem dynamic enough. Events are pretty predictable, and running from little red men gets old after awhile. Also, if there’s no one chasing you, you can just stop and rest as many times as you want, completely killing the “I am prey” vibes.
The AI is satisfying challenge in the occasional mission, their performance can be inconsistent. Most of the time, they look to take advantage of their numbers versus my pair of mercs via positioning and just volume of attacks. Other times, they stand ready and facing the completely wrong direction. I’ve had enemies just run away entirely, packing themselves in a corner just to get killed with even less effort by me.
Navigating them “the right way” meant spending an exorbitant amount of time playing particular missions. In the face of the sub-par AI, difficulty tends to come in just sheer volume of enemies. It doesn’t take too many bullets to put any of your mercs down. Every mission often becomes a trial and error search for the best cover against 15 armed guards, or a half hour of meticulous cloak and dagger ops. For a game that gives off a lot of “streamlined experience” vibes, mission length seemed super inconsistent and routinely killed the pace.
Casualties of War
Some of the unnecessary length of missions is contributed to by how they end. If an objective is to infiltrate a base and kill all the bad guys, doing so won’t end the mission. It will just open up a location that your units will have to make it to before the mission ends properly. In some cases, you might need to spend three whole turns just walking through a map. The only reason I see for not putting in some sort of auto-end option is that effects like limping and bleeding still apply. You can absolutely complete an objective and bleed out dead before you get to an exit.
Other frustrations include the UI, which requires its own battle to navigate. The hotkeys to do some interactions with map items eases the pain of trying to hover over objects and not get the correct prompt to click them. That said, the map itself can be a bear to use correctly. It never seems to zoom in close enough to the action. This is a problem when you want to make damn sure you’re taking the right route to an attack position without crossing into a patrol’s vision cone. Especially since the textures and models in the environment aren’t great. From the closest zoom of the field, tall grass looks a lot like short grass, except one grants obfuscation and the other is you sitting in the open like a target.
The map is at its worse when you try to change elevations. There seems to be no good angle to hover over spaces up ladders or walls on the first try. When moving up or down can be the difference between getting the drop on someone and getting a wall of bullets, this is a quality of life issue that can become unacceptable several hours in.
I’m sure much of this comes from budget constraints. The art direction is fine, but the execution is poor. Your mercs sit somewhere between Pixar and 80s cartoons, and much of the jungle is just a muddy mix of greens and browns. The enemy types are limited, as well as the tile-sets for the maps you’ll battle over. These would be easier to look over if the other parts of the experience were more polished.
Heart of Darkness
The mercs themselves seem creatively bankrupt, though. They’re almost all stereotypes, ranging from a giant Russian Ivan who blows things up with heavy weapons, or an Asian doctor who heals with Chi and is a master of martial arts. Lack of money doesn’t make those lazy decisions; lack of fresh ideas do.
Much of the writing relies on tired tropes of exotic jungle warfare provided by movies and TV. Helpless ethnic villagers being held under the tyrannical boot of the military caste. A band of enlightened and jaded foreigners come to pick them up out of the mud. Hell, there’s even a mad scientist. Abusing tropes is its own sin, but that can be forgiven if the dialogue wasn’t so banal. The acting does the words no favors, but you can barely hear it over the butt rock riffs during any given mission, so you quickly learn to ignore them completely.
So here Jagged Alliance Rage is, splashing around in the now dormant waters of that fountain of youth. It doesn’t have scope to be the successor to JA2 that much of the Internet seems to want. It also lacks the execution and originality necessary to be the beginnings of a new generation of the long-running franchise. Any charm Rage! has is hidden under thick and ugly jungle, and undermined by its weak execution and a narrative that is at its best boring. Save yourself the rage, and look elsewhere.
Jagged Alliance: Rage! review code provided by publisher. Version 1.03 reviewed on a PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.