With a plot that wouldn't feel out of place in an Expendables movie, in Jagged Alliance: Rage! you lead a team of mercenaries on a jungle island on a mission to take down a drug lord and his personal army who are quite busy killing kids and committing genocide.
Following on from the success of Xcom on console, there has been a spate of isometric turn-based tactics titles, and coming out at roughly the same time as the highly anticipated Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden, this mid-budget latest instalment in the long-running Jagged Alliance franchise could find itself being a little overshadowed.
Rage! is a strategy RPG which offers a great amount of depth, so if you're a fan of the genre, there's certainly plenty of interest waiting to be discovered on this jungle-covered island. So, what do we have here and what sets it apart?
After a brief intro video in which a chopper goes down (it always happens in games), you get the option to choose two different mercs from a selection of six to take on your first mission. In true Jagged Alliance style, each of them has their own personality and comes with positive and negative attributes, meaning that you'll have to adapt your play-style depending on who you're controlling.
The positive attributes include things like having a bigger inventory, increased health, and better accuracy, while the negatives are often straight opposites of these as well as including things like taking damage from falling. It really did add an extra element of tactical planning and thought to the adventure, and it also means there's a little bit of replay value if you want to go back and play things with different characters.
After picking your heroes, you quickly get thrown in at the deep end and find yourself in a torture chamber to further add to the slightly cliched plot. There is some pretty hammy dialogue to get through before one of the scientists decides to defect and aid your escape, and this defector then basically helps you learn the ropes by guiding you to get your equipment back and commit your first kills. There seems to be quite the emphasis on stealth, and the triangle button helps you flick from run to sneak.
The scientist then helps you creep up behind two guards and - using your Austin Powers-esque 'judo chop' style ability - you kill them both. After that, you're able to loot two lockers for your stuff before rifling through the pockets of the corpses. Indeed, there seems to be too strong a need to go through the belongings of the recently deceased, as there you will find things like multitools to pick locked doors and extra bullets for your arsenal of weapons. You should also always look out for boxes and things on tables as you never know what you might find, although this kill and search element was a bit repetitive.
Your soldiers take turns and during the early part of the game you're mostly learning how to sneak past enemies. When it does come to combat, you can target different parts of the body such as the legs or the head, with different levels of damage depending on where your hits connect. You start off with a pistol with low ammo and pick up new guns as you find them, although you quickly learn that your fists and silent kills are some of your best early weapons.
There is a lot to think about at every turn, but rather than the action points you get in Mutant Year Zero and Xcom, you get a number of points that can be used for different moves, such as two to make your character go prone or increase their ability to aim. While this did provide new tactical options to the experience, often we found ourselves running out of points after moving too far.
The lack of clear remaining moves was a little bit frustrating to get stuck waiting to get shot before it was your next turn. We also found ourselves getting too close to an enemy to try and take them out silently, before working out that we'd run out of action points. Instead of our silent kill, the whole camp got alerted.
Once alerted, the AI seems pretty spot on as they rush into firing positions or go through various stages of alert as they search for you. There is so much depth to this game, with elements to consider such as keeping your troops hydrated or stopping them from bleeding out if they get hit. If one of your soldiers is in pain or kills someone, they will build up rage points (the mechanic which gives the game its name), which can be used to increase the damage you deal.
The range of actions on offer is what really pleases, but it does take quite a bit of time to get used to them and work out what you need to do to get through a section of the map. You move forwards from screen to screen in each area rather than pushing through one continuous open battlefield. This setup gave a feeling of progression, but we also lost an incentive to explore and enjoy the map as we found ourselves simply trying to get to the next screen.
Each map section came with a different challenge, such as speaking to a certain someone, escaping an area, or killing all the enemies therein. With the aforementioned emphasis on sneaking and stealth, you get a really interesting dynamic that isn't as driven by open combat when compared to the likes Xcom. At times, however, we found ourselves getting bored because the pace was too slow and we mostly just looked forward to the next chance we'd get to unleash some hell.
The maps and backgrounds themselves looked great, and they've been built with a very retro feel in terms of the graphics. Some of the camera angles at times did make it a little difficult to see, but you can turn your perspective around to see things from a different angle if required. Entering into buildings made it a little tricky to see exactly where you were moving, and we found ourselves making mistakes as a result.
This brings us on to our biggest qualm - the controls. The best word to use here would be clunky, as it felt a bit tricky to manoeuvre our soldiers with a controller on PS4 (we daresay things are a little easier on PC, although we didn't test the game on that platform). In the inventory screen it was hard to see where your cursor was, and on the combat screens it sometimes felt a bit difficult to move where you wanted to.
We're sorry to say that the controls did detract a little from our experience, but the rest of the game was pretty tight. In fact, with the retro graphics and the exaggerated dialogue, it felt a bit like we were playing through some sort of tongue-in-cheek Rambo tribute. That said, while we loved some of the cheesy lines (some of the quips would make Arnie proud), we did get a bit irritated by the repetitive comments we heard every time we selected a merc.
All in all, there's a lot to see and do here, although we can't help but think that the series is much better suited to the PC than it is to consoles, where the controls were a bit of a downer. The depth offered in terms of the tactical combat and exploration largely impressed considering the scope of the project, and we enjoyed the retro vibe along with the cheesy dialogue, but somehow Jagged Alliance: Rage! never clicked in the way that the best tactics games do, and so while genre and franchise fans may well enjoy what it has to offer, we don't think anyone's going to call this one a classic in years to come.
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