The island has been overtaken by despots. Wielding military force, maintaining control by massacre, they oppress the people. Thankfully, a ragtag group of mercenaries, hired by a benevolent rich man, have arrived to set things right. They are here to take the land back for the people, one village at a time. This is the premise behind Jagged Alliance: Crossfire, the stand alone expansion to Jagged Alliance. You command a mercenary company, fighting to take back Khanpaa. You’ll order your troops to fight in real-time pausible combat, recruit new mercenaries, free and then defend territory, until you finally free the land from its oppressors. All of that sounds fun, and it generally is. This is a decent game that, while not without it issues, allows players to scratch a very specific itch in a unique way.
The game begins with you in possession of $30,000 with which to hire your team and begin the campaign to free the island. The first thing you’ll notice is that $30,000 isn’t a whole lot of money. At best, you’ll be able to hire 3 low level characters (a full squad in the game is 6) to begin your assault. 3 isn’t very many, and the first mission has you getting off a boat and ending up right in the middle of a town full of hostiles. It’s a difficult baptism of fire, and I guarantee that if you were unsure of this title when you first started, you’ll know at the end of the first 30 minutes or so whether it’s the game for you.
In mission, you’ll order your team around in real time. You may also pause, in order to issue orders to your soldiers, which they will then carry out to the letter. If you were expecting dynamic actions, well… your soldiers don’t really have minds of their own. Be prepared to take stock of the situation for each of them at all times. Soldiers can crouch, go prone, sprint, throw grenades, and generally do all the things you’d expect an individual to do. All characters are spec’d out to be good at one thing or another: demolitions, medical work, or killing people. As characters do things successfully (take out or wound an enemy, heal someone, set off an explosive charge) they gain XP. When leveling up, you can start to mold your soldiers in whatever manner you wish. The RPG element, combined with the copious amounts of loot, is the most addictive parts of the game. Each soldier themselves has a bunch of unique characteristics which affect their performance in combat. Some are tougher, some prefer to stay in the back. Proper team management requires mastery of each soldier’s unique abilities.
The combat is very tactical in nature. Position and cover matter. Soldiers standing in the open are much more likely to be cut down than those who go prone. Soldiers can be flanked, and taken out from behind with a stealthy knife attack. There are a lot of tactical options. Sadly, though, the AI doesn’t seem up to the task. Enemy soldiers tend to wander aimlessly in pre-determined paths. Patient players will simply wait for groups of foes to separate, as enemy soldiers never seem to hear the copious amounts of gunfire you unleash on their comrades. If they can’t actually see the attack (or are in very, very close proximity), they don’t react, allowing you to easily defeat large groups of foes. They also tend to stand in the open instead of taking advantage of terrain or going prone.
As you free sections of Khanpaa, you’ll gain access to merchants. You’ll also earn cash each from any held territory. This will allow you to purchase new and more powerful equipment, and to recruit new mercenaries. As you complete the first area, you’ll gain access to the world map. You’ll be able to manage your squads, taking them into battle and defending against any counter-attacks on territory you’ve taken. The world map map also allows you to speed up the passage of time, giving your fire teams time to rest and your cash time to pile up. Counter-attacks do seem frequent, however, so don’t expect to rest on your laurels very long. Then again, you also have the option of arming the local militia to defend their own territory. Depending on their numbers, you may not have to help them at all.
Squad based tactical combat games seem to be getting a bit of a resurgence. This fall we’ll be seeing the turned based X-Com: Enemy Unknown, and early next year, the turn-based Omera: City of Gangsters. Jagged Alliance: Crossfire, though, travels the more realistic real time path. While it’s not perfect, it is the rare game that allows you to manage your own mercenary company, and the addition of light RPG elements make the game more engrossing and tie you more closely to your team members. If you’re wondering what it would be like to command a company of mercenaries, striking back against the forces of terror, Jagged Alliance: Crossfire is an excellent bet.