It's hard to overstate just how important Firaxis's XCOM reboot was for PC gaming. In the years since its release, the turn-based strategy and tactics genres have experienced a renaissance, and most of the games that followed owe a debt to Firaxis's mix of classic tactical depth and more modern, streamlined conveniences.
But what if you're trying to make the successor to a different turn-based classic? Then, it seems, XCOM's legacy can be a hindrance instead.
"We found that, no matter what we did, everyone played just like they played all the other games like XCOM," says Brad Logston, senior producer for Jagged Alliance 3. "We weren't playing it like Jagged Alliance. We didn't even know how to fix it. We were doing things like tweaking AI, tweaking weapon damage ranges, all these different things. Nothing was really working."
The solution may seem small, but it's had an oversized effect on how the game plays. "One of our combat systems designers proposed: 'you know, this may be crazy—and people are gonna kill us—but what if we just remove chance-to-hit and see how that works.'" It's a standard part of every turn-based tactics: go for a shot, and the game will tell you how likely you are to hit your foe. It's such an ingrained part of the genre that it's almost a meme. Every XCOM player has a story about the 99% chance shot that missed.
"Once we did, everything shifted. Before, if someone had a 75% chance shot, they wouldn't take it. They'd hold back, and the AI would have to react to that—it had to know that the player was only going to move up when they could get the kill shot. Once we removed chance-to-hit … they're experimenting. It also meant we could make the AI more fluid. They could try things, they could be a little sloppy during play."
Some of my favourite turn-based games of this new era are ones that give the player an overabundance of information—games like Into the Breach or Invisible, Inc., that reveal not just chance-to-hit, but fully telegraph the enemy's response as well. But here, Haemimont Games have discovered something that gets to the essence of what made the early Jagged Alliance's mix of turn-based combat, 4X strategy and RPG-lite management so good. These are not games about responding perfectly to the situation. These are games about messy, chaotic combat simulation, where unexpected things happen that force you to react.
"It's not just chance-to-hit," says Logston. "Even things like weapon jam chance, or grenade fumble chance. I've had situations where I've been on the second story of a building, fumbled a grenade, and blown up the floor beneath me. All the mercs fell down one floor, took fall damage and were stunned for a turn. But those are the things that happen in Jag sometimes—it just goes that way."
The Jagged Alliance series has reemerged a few times in the last couple of decades, but never in a way that did justice to the spirit and depth of the first two games. But here, it feels like Haemimont wants to get it right. Its African setting features extreme weather effects that will change the combat simulation—in the jungle, during heavy rain, visibility is lowered, but so too is sound, giving your mercs an opportunity to be exploited.
Its roster of 40 mercs are all fully voiced, with personalities that may clash against each other. And, in the spirit of the original games, they're hired diegetically—this time through an early 2000s version of the internet. The strategy layer is also classic Jagged Alliance: a dynamic map that tracks and simulates both the missions you deploy your mercs on, and the enemy force's attempts to retake what was once theirs; where intel you find in missions can provide hints at where and when to go to discover sidequests and opportunities.
But the real sign of Haemimont's commitment is that one seemingly small decision to upend the conventions that XCOM laid down. It would have been easy to make another XCOM-alike. They're pretty popular, after all. But it wouldn't have been Jagged Alliance.
"It's really hard to explain to people who haven't seen where we've gotten to, but where we had it before, it was just XCOM," says Logston. "There was nothing unique about it. And we were like, 'well, are we just cloning what someone else has already done?' That's not what we're trying to do. There are already games out there that have done that. That doesn't make us special. It made a lot more sense for us to find how to bring that Jagged Alliance experience back."
Perhaps the bigger question then, is whether people want a departure from the systems that have come to define the genre. Is there a place for Jagged Alliance in this turn-based renaissance? As someone who loved the borderline chaos of those early games, I really hope there is.