Jagged Alliance Online can be fun, but these mercenaries are far from free.
I want to love Jagged Alliance Online — I really do. I have increasingly vague memories of playing the original Jagged Alliance back in the mid ’90s and I can thus admire the spirit in which this newest incarnation was made, but the pricing structure involved makes me feel as though I’m actually hiring its mercenaries in real life. That’s a shame, because otherwise it’s pretty fun. The final release is packed with features that were absent for much of its beta run (including the ability to form alliances with your friends and an extended crafting system), and there’s a lot of fun waiting in the player-versus-player mode which pits you against real players, but it’s all tainted by a payment model that holds you hostage.
For the uninitiated, gameplay in the Jagged Alliance series focuses on an enjoyable mix of turn-based combat and real-time action. It’s a fun concept, particularly because you’re not just moving and shooting. Here, each shot you take has options, such as skipping an attempt at a headshot for a chest shot (with increased accuracy but lower damage), and you need to control your team of mercenaries on a series of dangerous missions. Jagged Alliance Online maintains that heritage, but it’s a little surprising to find that the story’s signature humor has fallen by the wayside. Several old favorites make an appearance here, down to their occasionally humorous intro in the merc selection screen — such as “Steroid” Gontarski — but the story itself buckles under the weight of their seriousness. It does the job well enough, but it somehow doesn’t feel like the Jagged Alliance we once knew and loved from a narrative standpoint.
Still, it’s fun, and the mercenaries work well and the turn-based nature of the combat feels rewarding. The in-game chat channels seem quiet, but it still feels like there’s a strong social element with the alliances even though you spend much of the game alone with your companions. At times, the visuals can be stunning for a browser game (although you shouldn’t expect it to compare to heavyweight downloadable titles), and the voice acting is extensive enough to keep the experience entertaining. But for all that, it’s hard to escape the impression that most of the game is a grind, especially since you’ll have a tough time completing missions at your level unless you do previous missions over and over or shell out cash for upgrades and additional mercs. A cooperative option would make the experience more fun, but it doesn’t exist here.
Unfortunately, Jagged Alliance Online suffers from the inevitable hidden costs of the free-to-play model, which seem particularly intrusive here. It starts early, such as when you need to buy an additional mercenary to help you out right after the tutorial mission, leaving you with the option of buying one limited to 24 real-time hours or a permanent one with outrageously priced premium currency. It seems fine at first, but it soon becomes apparent that the gold cost of mercenaries far outstrips the pace at which you earn gold if you’re playing casually, so eventually you’ll have to spend cash. Then there’s the fuel (which acts as “energy” somewhat) that replenishes over time, but not at a rate that’s fast enough to balance with everything you need it for. Inevitably, you’ll run out, forcing you to run to the cash shop again. And all this before you’ve even tried to expand your inventory.
At this rate, it’s hard to believe that they didn’t just make a $9.99 model with fewer payment requirements and make it available on Steam. As it is, Jagged Alliance Online‘s model makes the act of playing a fairly depressing experience, particularly once you’ve realized that success in PvP also hinges on how much you’ve paid for good equipment and gear. There’s the outline of a good game under here, but its edges are so jagged you might only find yourself getting hurt.