Jagged Alliance 2 was one of the last great sprite-based games, released at a time when 3D was starting to hit its stride, and games like Half-Life and System Shock had begun rubbing elbows on store shelves with old-guard 2D games like Planescape: Torment, Baldur’s Gate, and any of a dozen iterations of the Command & Conquer series. While 3D games were busy nailing down concepts like strafing, mouse look and auto-aim, 2D games were taking advantage of established and well-understood paradigms to focus on grander gameplay concepts.
After a brief cinematic hastily sketches out a thin plot, Sir-Tech quite literally dropped the player into their world, rappelling a player-sculpted avatar onto the sun-parched soil of Arulco, a country in civil turmoil. Although ostensibly hired to restore freedom and democracy and honour, the player was truly a for-profit fixer in charge of a hit-squad with one target: Deidranna. The player could grapple with patrolling squadrons and train resistance fighters ’til the cows came home (to be punched repeatedly for cheap XP), the game only ended, the credits only rolled when Deidranna’s heart stopped beating. It was the job of the player to make that happen, in any manner they saw fit, and therein lay the grizzled but beautiful soul of Jagged Alliance 2.
The game wants the player to form a squadron of likeable rascals, to wage a campaign of hit-and-run ambushes across the deserts and forests of Arulco, to meet and join forces with its citizens and explore all its hand-crafted locales. It wants the player to surge, to stumble, to be beaten down and rise in triumph, and experience every minor side quest into which the developers clearly poured hours of toil.
But what if the player doesn’t do what they’re told? What if the player wants to forego the vast majority of the game’s content, ignore practicality and hire a single mercenary, to laboriously sneak him under the cover of darkness past outposts and patrols, into the heart of Deidranna’s compound, to kill her unceremoniously with surgical precision? The game’s systems can and do handle this. Deidranna dies, end scene, roll credits, no lectures or complaints.
Sir-Tech respects the player enough to adhere to their own established rules, no matter how the player tests them. There are no invisible walls that funnel the player down an accepted path, no scripts that have to be triggered in a proper order to advance the plot, no one-way scenery gates that ensure the player experiences the game’s set pieces and speeches. There’s a target hiding somewhere within a country at war, and it’s up to the player to reach it, using only their wits.
There are admittedly scripted events to be found in JA2, some that just play short cutscenes, and others that actually impact the player (Surrendering in battle teleports the cowardly mercenary to a prison facility). New characters are introduced, weapon shops made available, and enemy reactions triggered, but all of these are only little surprises for the player to introduce new challenges, and none hamstring their actions.
The source code behind Jagged Alliance 2 was released to the internet years ago, and it’s fitting that the instruction set that makes up its intricate systems be laid so bare, like a pocket watch’s mechanical cogs and gears laid out across a workbench for repair. Briefly skimming through some of the files reveals the simple algorithms that govern how bullets ricochet, how corpse decompose over time, or how soldiers react to strange noises. Understanding the rules doesn’t diminish the fun of testing one’s mettle within them though, it only deepens one’s respect for they variety of battles and mouse-gripping stories they can generate. There may be no atheists in foxholes, but at least when your team is pinned down by .45mm ACP rounds in a corrugated metal shack and your covering sniper has passed out from lack of sleep, you know empirically the game’s enemy are playing fair.
Though the years since its release have seen many attempts at remakes and reboots, none have quite recaptured its magic. Fan-made mods have chaperoned the game onto new operating systems, polished away any rough edges, and added features like cooperative multiplayer and a refined AI. The sprite graphics are as not-beautiful as they ever were, but they let the player read the battlefield quickly and easily, even when shrunk down on higher-resolution monitors. The game has been lovingly preserved for posterity, and deservedly so. People who know strategy games know Jagged Alliance 2, and recognize it importance, even if our politicians think trivial things like the economy or human rights are more deserving of attention.