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Reinstall: Jagged Alliance 2

Reinstall invites you to join us in revisiting classics of PC gaming days gone by. This week, we roll into tactical RPG history with our soldiers of fortune in Jagged Alliance 2.

The Hamburglar has fatally misjudged the blast range of TNT. Wayne Gretzky is dead, too—his blood all leaked out on an airport runway through a sniper hole between the lungs. I can't keep my team of fantasy mercenaries alive.

Naming a party of characters is one of the game-given rights of X-COM-like turn-based tactical RPGs. It's instantly gratifying to take a commando named after your cat into combat. And when permanent death is a possibility, it's a way of emotionally investing yourself in the animated sprites you're sending into harm's way.

Jagged Alliance 2 didn't release with that feature, but the community-produced 1.13 patch/mod that I'm playing with adds it. It injects content into PC gaming's best late-comer to the isometric tactical RPG party without altering any story or quests.

Easily installed, 1.13 doesn't change JA2's identity—it's still a game of deliberate, tactical gunplay that feels like South American guerrilla chess, in which you hire a team of mercenaries to stage an insurrection against the unruly queen of Arulco. And there's still charming '90s action-humor threaded through the plot (“Let's pop some zits!” one lady-merc yells when an enemy is spotted).

1.13 enhances what's there, upping the maximum resolution to 1024x768, adding hundreds of new weapons—including gratifying super-items like Ghillie suits and depleted-uranium bullets—reorganizing hotkeys and altering the AI so that enemies flank better, take cover more often, can climb onto roofs and utilize suppressive fire.

Playing back through JA2 with 1.13 appended is an exercise in intricate tactics and character development. There are so few RPGs that make the act of fostering a party member a series of small-but-meaningful decisions in the way that JA2does. By the third mission—the liberation of a mine and sweatshop in Drassen—you're juggling piles of pistols and equipment that you've inherited from deceased enemies or found lingering in rooms, closets, shelves and refrigerators that you explore during and after combat.

But characters don't have a generic inventory—you can pick between pistol holsters (and which leg to strap them to), harnesses or backpacks, and each of these bags has a different weight and capacity associated with them. What those granular bits of design create is room for more creativity and ownership over your characters. In the middle of my playthrough, I had a knife-wielding explosives expert that I used to breach walls and lay traps, a dual-pistol-wielding femme fatale, a frail, dedicated medic and a 96-marksman-ship sniper that could dismantle enemy ambushes with his Dragunov rifle.

There's also an unconventional mechanic for improving characters. In lulls between combat, you can set any character to be a “trainer” or “student,” using a merc with high mechanical or agility training to teach another. In the same way, you can train friendly NPC militia within towns that you've cleared to fight better on your behalf. I hired a merc named “Raider” for a two-week, $20,000 job just so he could boost my militia in the town of Omerta.

Evan Lahti
Raised by a Team Fortress Classic clan, Evan can only communicate using multiplayer FPS jargon, sort of like that Star Trek: TNG "Darmok" episode. 2fort, when the walls fell...