Hired Guns: The Jagged Edge – PC Game Review
Hired Guns: The Jagged Edge.
Matrix Games / GFI. PC game. $39.99 (physical) $29.99 (download)
Passed Inspection: Hollywood-style gun battles for the turn-based fan.
Failed Inspection: Strange line-of-sight issues. Out-of-shape mercenaries.
When the sun finally sets on a free Diamond Coast, the player is left with the warm glow that comes from playing a good game.
Long ago, in the golden past of computer gaming, Sir Tech Software published a phenomenal game called Jagged Alliance. In the game, the player hired a colorful band of mercenaries to take back a Caribbean island from an evil dictator. That was 1994. Fifteen years later, the game is back … well, sort of.
Hired Guns: The Jagged Edge, published by Matrix Games, is not only a spiritual successor to Jagged Alliance, it borrows directly from it. The result is a game that imitates rather than innovates, but it is still a great deal of fun. For gamers who want all the action of a good gunfight, without the need for lightning reflexes, this turn-based game is well worth a look.
The venue for Hired Guns is the imaginary country of Diamond Coast in Africa. The player is hired by a banished opposition leader to topple the evil dictator who rules the country. The player, that proverbial mercenary with a heart of gold, takes up this mission by hiring and equipping mercenaries from the IMA, or International Mercenary Association.
Using a faux internet terminal, the player connects to the IMA to hire a small band of mercenaries from a selection of 30 colorful characters. All of them have distinct personalities and usually throw a characteristic quip the player’s way now and then. Eventually these characters do grow on the player, but hammy voice acting and ungainly grammar tend to keep the happy band of mercs at arms length from the player’s heart.
Like any good RPG, all of the characters have a set of key statistics that govern how well they fight and interact with non-player characters. Ratings for agility, accuracy, dexterity, strength, leadership, medical and explosives skill make up the characters’ persona. The player can also create a personal character using a series of questions to determine his characteristics.
Once the player has an initial team, he has to equip them, a mini-game in itself. There is a huge variety of weapons and ammunition, all lovingly detailed. The weapons are rated for characteristics like range, firepower, rate of fire, ammunition capacity, and even recoil. Attachments such as silencers and laser sights are also available.
Matching a merc with a weapon requires thought; the game is realistic in portraying what characters can carry. One or two rifles, a hundred rounds of ammo, a pistol and some grenades will be enough for all except the strongest characters. So, players should spend some time deciding the merits of giving a favorite merc a combat shotgun with buckshot or an AK-47 with armor-piercing rounds. Give a merc with high accuracy a sniper rifle, but for those with good strength, a grenade launcher might be the best fit. Body armor, a good knife and few first aid kits will round out a well-prepared merc’s kit.
The best weapons only become available as the game progresses. Frequent trips to the on-line arms store, and sweeps of bodies after a battle, keep your troops equipped with the best hardware. Some of the more exotic weapons, like the SVD sniper rifle, have hard-to-find ammo, and often the player finds himself choosing a mediocre weapon with plentiful ammo just to appease the logistics gods.
The game is played at two levels, strategic and tactical. The strategic map plays real-time but pauses during key events. On this map, the player groups his mercenaries into one or more squads, distributes arms and ammo, and dispatches the squads to the various regions of the country. If enemy troops are present, the player can go into tactical mode to fight for control of the region.
The player can also use the tactical mode to interact with non-player characters in the game. Occasionally, the inhabitants will have information or even a mission for the player, but if blasting your way through Diamond Coast appeals most to you, much of this interaction is optional.
As the game progresses, troops are wounded and equipment starts to wear out, but when squads are not needed in battle, the team can heal and repair equipment. One nice concession to game play is that healing is pretty fast; a character can go from nearly dead to fully functional within a game day. Training is also possible to improve skills, but progress is slow.
Strategy is not the main focus of game play, but the big picture element cannot be ignored. Balancing the books to keep your happy band of mercs, well, happy, is an important part the game. Hire too many guns too early, and you will run out of money. Don’t hire enough mercs and you won’t be able to defeat the Dictator. As your mercs gain experience, they demand even more money. Fail to pay them daily and they leave. Fortunately, income derives from each controlled region, and the player can purchase improvements that increase revenue, like an office at the train station.
The Dictator does not sit idle; from time to time, he dispatches squads to counterattack and take back key regions of the map. The player can hire troops to hold these areas or send squads of mercenaries to play whack-a-mole with the interlopers.
When squads move into a new region where the Dictator has troops, a gunfight breaks out. These tactical fights are the meat of the game. Combat is turn-based, fun, and there is plenty of detail to please grognards.
The 3D tactical maps offer realistic environments that lend nicely to the immersion factor. Villages have destructible buildings and there are usually neutral civilians hiding or running around in terror. Sometimes, however, the map is so busy that it is difficult to find your troops, and the interface does not always help in these situations, as it is sometimes difficult to swing to the exact view you want, but these are very minor issues.
To start a battle, the player deploys on the map edge. Some maps are very large, and if the two sides have not spotted each other, the player does his initial maneuvering in real time. But once contact is made, the game changes to turn-based mode.
While most maps offer plenty of maneuver room, some are almost too small. The road to the airport is the best example. The Dictator has about two dozen troops on a small map of the road’s checkpoint. The player’s mercs are forced to start so close to the enemy that they are always spotted immediately. The inevitable stand-up gun-duel is more like the O.K. Corral than squad combat.
But combat in HG often feels more Hollywood than real anyway. A typical fight has lead flying all over but few hits. When a bullet does connect, damage is often low, and there are few killing shots; often, five or six hits are required to take a player or enemy soldier out of action. In terms of game-play, this is a good thing, however, since more lethality would certainly hurt HG fun factor.
While realism may be sketchy, the mechanics of combat are detailed enough for even the grognard to appreciate. During the player’s turn, each character has a certain number of action points, based on skills and wounds, which they use to go prone and crawl, reload, dig through a backpack, etc.
Firing also requires action points; more can be spent to aim or target specific body areas. Single shots or three-round bursts can be selected. Bursts are a good way to quickly put lead down range, but the recoil of some weapons sprays bullets all over.
Where a character is hit is often as important as how much damage is taken. A bad leg wound may force the character to crawl. An arm wound will affect shooting ability. After several rounds of combat, there are usually more than a few troops crawling and limping around the battlefield.
Line of sight works well most of the time. As the player clicks on each character, enemy troops that can be seen are highlighted by a red target. If a player can hear but not see the enemy, a sound marker shows the approximate position of the bad guy.
The LOS system works wonderfully most of the time but sometimes comes up with strange determinations. In one battle, this reviewer had two mercs standing next to each other, looking at an enemy down a clear street. One merc saw the enemy fine, the other did not. While this does not happen enough to affect game play, it does happen enough to be noticed.
Some really cool things can happen during HG battles. Bullets fly their entire path, for example. Often, a missed shot will hit another enemy soldier or something in the background that explodes. In one game, this reviewer’s sniper completely missed her target, but the bullet kept going and killed an enemy officer who was unlucky enough to be standing in the wrong spot.
Along with the good, a few irritating things also happen in battles. Of particular notice is that your mercs, despite being professional killers, are all badly out of shape. All actions take breath points, so if characters don’t pace themselves, they run out of breath and must rest. While this feature sounds good, in practice your mercs can’t run to the end of the block without collapsing from exhaustion. This is not an issue in most battles however, since running around in a gunfight isn’t good for your character’s health anyway.
The tactical AI is mediocre. The game relies on large numbers of mostly inept troops to keep the player on his toes. Even if your squad faces a dozen of the Dictator’s troops, they never fight as a unit, but come at you as individuals. That is not to say your opponents take no action. In a typical fight, the bad guys move towards the player’s troops until they are within hand-grenade range. Then the fight becomes very nasty. Fights are still fun to play, even if enemy troops fight with half their brain tied behind their back.
There is some other AI behavior worth mentioning. Bad guys, once really hurt, give up the fight and try to escape off map. The game offers quite a few Dirty Harry moments where your mercs administer the coup de grace on a bad guy who is crawling away from the fight. In some battles, when the player has turned the tide in his favor, the enemy troops decide that discretion is the better part of valor and start to rout off the map.
At the latest patch level, the game is stable, and this reviewer did not notice any major bugs. The learning curve is pretty easy, and the interface is fairly intuitive. The manual covers many of the key aspects of game-play, but some details are purposely left out so players can discover them for themselves.
When the sun finally sets on a free Diamond Coast, the player is left with the warm glow that comes from playing a good game. Hired Guns takes great pains to emulate its spiritual ancestor, Jagged Alliance; the result is a fun game that satisfies. Fans of the original game and those turn-based gamers who want a good gunfight can’t go wrong with this one. So check ammo, chamber a round, and put Morah and Dagger on point. It’s gonna be a bad day for the Dictator.
Armchair General Score: 79%
ACG Intel: Larry Levandowski has been a wargamer for more than 30 years, and started computer gaming back in the days of the C-64. Until he recently discovered the virtues of DOS box and virtual machines, much of his computer game collection was unplayable. A former U.S. Army officer, Larry has done his share of sitting in foxholes. Since leaving the Army, he has worked in the Information Technology field, as a programmer, project manager and lead bottle washer. He now spends his spare time playing boardgames, Napoleonic and WWII miniatures, as well as any PC game he can get his hands on.
Larry Levandowski has been a wargamer for more than 30 years, and started computer gaming back in the days of the C-64. Until he recently discovered the virtues of DOS box and virtual machines, much of his computer game collection was unplayable. A former U.S. Army officer, Larry has done his share of sitting in foxholes. Since leaving the Army, he has worked in the Information Technology field, as a programmer, project manager and lead bottle washer. He now spends his spare time playing boardgames, Napoleonic and WWII miniatures, as well as any PC game he can get his hands on.