Hired Guns: The Jagged Edge PC
Published by: Matrix Games
Developed by: GFI.SU
One of the most enjoyable PC games I've played over the years is Jagged Alliance 2. The game challenged you to hire mercenaries and attempt to rid the small state of Arulco from the tyranny of the megalomaniac Deidranna. The game offered a wonderful, X-Com style battle system that was both rich and rewarding. Of course it also had a quality storyline and a fine collection of mercenaries, who each had their own personalities, that you could hire to carry out your objectives. Jagged Alliance 2 was released in 1999 and since then there have not been many games in the same vein although there was an expansion pack entitled Unfinished Business and Jagged Alliance 2: Wildfire (which was never released here in the UK). Hired Guns: The Jagged Edge tries hard to capture the feel of the Jagged Alliance series (which is no real surprise as the game was originally meant to be a Jagged Alliance title before the rights were withdrawn by Strategy First who currently own the Jagged Alliance intellectual property) and it's a decent effort but it ultimately fails to be as interesting or enjoyable as Jagged Alliance 2.
As in Jagged Alliance 2 you are charged with recruiting a team of mercenaries to assist you in completing your objectives. The game is set in a country known as the Diamond Coast. You're initially hired to assassinate the brutal dictator in control of the country and you've been given a pile of cash with which you can use to hire mercenaries and pay for their equipment. You can have up to six different squads and you can place up to six mercenaries in a squad. Of course mercenaries are expensive so it's not possible, at least to begin with, to simply have as many of them as you wish. You can only hire a maximum of eighteen mercenaries at one time and the better ones will also refuse to work with you until you've begun to prove yourself and earn a reputation for completing your objectives. The Diamond Coast is split into territories, which are under the control of various factions. It's not possible to befriend all of the factions in the Diamond Coast so you'll have to choose who you side with and consider the advantages that each of the factions can offer you.
If you've played Jagged Alliance 2 you'll know pretty much what to expect. The game is split into strategic and tactical portions. In the strategic portion you'll get to recruit mercenaries (using a laptop, just as you did in JA2), and organise your squads, amongst other things, when you're on the global map screen. When it's time for combat you're taken to the tactical portion of the game and it's here you'll take control of your mercenaries, explore the environments in real time and engage in turn-based battles.
If you aren't accustomed to the Jagged Alliance games you'll be hoping for an interactive tutorial that enables you to get to grips with all of the game's nuances. Sadly there isn't one. Personally, I think this is a big mistake and the developers have, understandably to an extent, worked on the assumption that all players of the game will be Jagged Alliance enthusiasts. There are text tutorial messages in the game but they are not as helpful as they could have been. A PDF FAQ has been included and this does address quite a few of the questions a newbie to this style of game would have. Matrix Games are also doing a sterling job in answering questions on the game's forum. Had the game come with a worthwhile tutorial however, you wouldn't need to go to any effort to find the answers to any questions you might have.
What really struck me the first time I played Jagged Alliance 2 was how challenging it was. Even at the beginning of the game you couldn't afford to be sloppy. Hired Guns takes the difficulty to a whole new level however and at times it's downright punishing and unforgiving. The normal difficulty setting is much more difficult than it should be and your enemies seem overpowering. The number of enemies you'll face at times also seems quite ridiculous and this serves to make the battles last far longer than is acceptable. This causes the game to be frustrating far sooner that you might have hoped for. Your enemies seem to have a range and level of accuracy that your mercenaries just can't achieve and it feels more than a little unfair at times. If that's not enough, there are times when the sheer number of enemies you'll face make the task seemingly too difficult. I was playing the latest version of the game (the game was updated in December 2008) and this version was actually meant to have toned down the difficulty level for the easier difficulty setting. Even playing the game on its easiest difficulty setting however, doesn't exactly make the game a walk in the park and the challenge is far stiffer than it should be at this level. Essentially you'll find yourself being obsessed about saving your game and reloading the moment it all goes pear-shaped. At no point do the battles ever feel as satisfying as they did in Jagged Alliance 2 and they soon become tiresome.
It's not just the combat that disappoints however. The mercenaries just don't have the personality of those in JA2 and I missed the level of interaction between the mercenaries that was present in that game. The mercenaries you can hire early in the game seem pretty hopeless and can be wildly inaccurate with their shooting which makes the battles even more of a challenge than they should be. Pathfinding is also a problem for your mercenaries. It can be annoying to move all of them to a location only to find that one or two of them have gone in a different direction or have not moved at all. Movement seems to cost far too many action points during the turn-based battles especially when your enemies seem capable of covering larger areas during their turn. This has been improved somewhat in the most recent update but in my opinion it still needs improving.
I don't think there's too much to complain about in terms of the game's graphical qualities. Sure Hired Guns isn't visually stunning but it's as good as it needs to be and it ran fine on my malfunctioning ATi X1950 Pro (which surely hasn't got long left judging by the way it's artifacting after playing games). There were quite a few clipping issues however and it's disappointing to see unsightly visual glitches. On the plus side you have destructible environments and there's some decent physics modelling here too. There's also a nice variation of different environments that you'll find yourself in and most maps you'll fight on have been thoughtfully laid out.
Hired Guns isn't as deaf gamer friendly as it could have been. The game's awful cutscenes are not subtitled. Comments made by your mercenaries, when you issue orders to them, are not subtitled which is disappointing, especially when some enemy comments made during the heat of battle are subtitled, but it doesn't cause any problems. All of the important dialogue is subtitled so you'll always be aware of what's going on and what needs to be done.
Taken on its own merits, Hired Guns: The Jagged Edge is a decent game but there are quite a few problems to contend with. Those expecting a game approaching the quality of Jagged Alliance 2 will be disappointed and if you haven't played Jagged Alliance 2 you'd be better off picking up a copy of that rather than jumping straight into Hired Guns. Jagged Alliance veterans will certainly find some value here whilst they are waiting for a true sequel to Jagged Alliance 2. In many ways it's a blessing that it doesn't carry the Jagged Alliance name as it would have definitely been a disappointing addition to the series.