Ask any old-school PC gamer about his favorite tactical games, and more often than not you'll find a Jagged Alliance title near the top of the list. It's a name held in nearly as high regard as X-COM or Syndicate, and for good reason. Sir-Tech's classic series combined impressive depth with character and personality, cementing its place in the pantheon of all-time PC greats.
In a word, it doesn't, but players looking for a substantial, generous tactical game to sink their teeth into should give this one a look all the same.
Jagged Alliance: Back in Action (PC)
Developer: Coreplay GmbH/Bitcomposer
Publisher: Kalypso Media
Released: February 9, 2012
Reviewer's Rig: Intel Core i7 920 @ 2.66Ghz, GeForce GTX 560 Ti GPU, 6GB RAM
Specifically, Back in Action is a remake/reimagining of Jagged Alliance 2, which puts players in the battle-hardened shoes of a mercenary commander tasked with infiltrating the fictional country of Arulco and toppling the despotic Queen Deidranna. To do the deed you'll need to employ a bunch of hired guns from a disturbingly convenient mercenary-recruitment website, then proceed to dismantle Deidranna’s dictatorship, town by town, grid location by grid location.
Many players, myself included, will find that Back in Action’s evocation of Jagged Alliance 2’s spirit and tone is more than a little bit successful. The very first mission drops your initial hires right outside the fence of the unforgettable (to Jagged Alliance vets, anyway) Drassen Airport, ready to conquer their way to Deidranna’s doorstep. Familiar faces and names all populate the game’s roster of available mercs, with character profiles lifted almost verbatim from Jagged Alliance 2, and accompanied by the original bad voice acting (or approximations thereof). The layout of the map is the same, with most of the towns and geographical features in the same places. Even the user interface for the game’s larger strategic layer looks like that of an outdated laptop, just as Jagged Alliance 2’s looked a decade ago.
Unfortunately, it's at that strategic layer that the veneer of familiarity begins to peel away, revealing significant -- and potentially upsetting -- differences from the original. Put simply, many of Jagged Alliance 2's larger, "strategic" features have been pared down, simplified, or eliminated entirely. The main map screen itself is of little use beyond facilitating travel between zones. Recruiting and upgrading local militia to defend locations in your squads' absence is now done on-location. Healing has been simplified and permanent injuries no longer require significant downtime to heal. Skills progression is handled by a simpler leveling and point-distribution system. Mercenaries are now hired for the duration, eliminating the need to renew their contracts every few days.
Perhaps the most disappointing omission for veterans is the inability to create your own custom mercenary via gaming's most entertaining, inscrutable personality test. New players won't know what they're missing, but hey, Back in Action is aiming at oldsters, validating the criticism.
As a result, the mercenaries feel more like bundles of statistics and less like "real" people. That said, they still do ooze more character and personality than the interchangeable automatons of X-COM or Syndicate, or even the bland Tier One-types of many modern shooters. The sixty-odd mercs available (though the budget recruits of M.E.R.C. are gone) all come with their own unique traits and hangups, which oftentimes affect their morale and performance in the field. "Team Players" work better when in a fully-staffed squad, while loners roll best solo. Short-sighted mercs feel more secure with their glasses on, and macho mercs get more gung-ho when there are ladies around to impress. And the nudists? Well, you can imagine what would make them happy.
Merc uniqueness extends past personality quirks as well. Many of the folks you hire have their own, preexisting relationships with the other mercs on offer, to the point that they might be unhappy if forced to work with someone they dislike. Some might even refuse forming a contract outright if you, say, hired their ex-lovers. As time goes on and you hire more mercs you'll start to build squads made up of fighters who get along together, forming complementary "circles of love" that net massive boosts to morale and combat performance.
Speaking of combat, it is therein which Back in Action's most striking -- and controversial -- changes lie. Fighting is no longer a matter of action points, initiative, and alternating turns, but has moved into the realm of real-time, with a system they call "Plan-and-Go." But before you cranky elders start spitting bile and bullets, it's worth knowing that the real-time action can be paused at any time, with a host of available conditions that initiate pauses automatically. Back in Action is no Starcraft-like click-fest, and treating it as such will result in a lot of dead mercenaries, which may affect your reputation, and thus your prospects for hiring more expensive, discerning agents in the future.
"Plan-and-Go" is at its core a fancy name for the ability to issue orders while paused, but in practice it can go much deeper. In addition to simply allowing breathing room to issue complex commands, Plan-and-Go enables players to well, plan out their actions in ways that, in practice, can be more engaging and intelligent than in Jagged Alliance 2 or X-COM.
A sample scenario: My man Grunty and his best friend Igor are about to clear a sweatshop full of armed men. Unfortunately, said men know we're coming and are sitting in the perfect position to shoot anyone who comes in. Using Plan-and-Go, I can pause the game, and send Grunty creeping down the hall to the opposite door, ready to open it, and lay down some fire. Then I can issue an order for Igor to kick down his door and do the same, setting up a deadly crossfire. But to do each action one after the other would be suicidal, for Grunty and Igor would be gunned down piecemeal. However, Plan-and-Go allows me to "link" their chains of action, so that they open their respective doors simultaneously, executing the enemy from both sides while leaving no room for retaliation.
When such plans come together one can feel like some kind of omniscient god, whispering divine inspiration into his warfighters' ears as they traipse around Arulco as liberators. And when such plans don't come together...well, the game auto-saves as combat begins, so there's always a reload at hand ... if you're feeling wimpy. Real commanders swallow their losses and write them into the budget.
Couple this new system with the fact that all enemies on a given map are visible at all times -- that's not as bad as it sounds -- and you have an approach to encounters that's almost completely different from Jagged Alliance 2's. In Back in Action, much of the emphasis is weighted on what happens before the shooting starts, and then adapting to conditions after things invariably go wrong. You may know that the sweatshop up ahead has three men crouched in the north, south, and east corners of the room, but the challenge lies in getting Grunty and Igor inside the building and to the doors without said men noticing their approach. Planning, setting up, and executing ambushes, assaults and crossfires takes precedence over the slow belly-crawling and shot-by-shot sniping that characterized the previous games.
In Jagged Alliance: Back in Action's firefights, timing takes the place of action-point conservation, and every second counts -- literally. Almost every combat action a merc performs displays the number of seconds and milliseconds it would take to execute. While firing shotguns from the hip in a standing position would be much less accurate than carefully drawing a bead through a sniper rifle's scope from prone position, doing the former takes only a fraction of the time needed to do the latter, an interval which can mean the difference between your mercs' clearing a crowded room without taking a scratch and them getting hacked to death by shirtless, machete-wielding peasants.
This is all well and good in theory, but in practice Back in Action takes a while -- perhaps too long a while -- to reveal its nuances and substance. Part of this is due to the game's unforgivably passive AI. Most enemies are barely aware of activities beyond their immediate vicinity, with a cone of perception as limited as that of a guard from Metal Gear Solid. Now, that wasn't a huge problem in Jagged Alliance 2, because the fog of war hid the enemy's (lack of) activity until your mercs were practically crawling up their pants. But now that the fog is gone, one can see that unless under attack, the enemy are little more than zombies. As a result, tactical encounters in the early game usually boil down to posting your mercs in a firing line, setting them in "guard" mode (in which they fire at any target in range), letting off a single shot to catch their attention, and watching the peasants run at your guns.
Things get more complicated (and far deadlier) as you encounter armored troops that can just shrug off the damage from lower-caliber guns, and can return fire from range. At that point Plan-and-Go becomes essential for queuing up headshots and conserving ammo.
And all the while you're trying to manage your funds on the strategic level, balancing the need to fill out your squad with skilled (and expensive) mercs and keeping them armed and supplied, while managing your inventories, using "mule" recruits traveling back and forth to pick up new weapons and equipment, and training up militia to defend your conquered zones. Combined with the need to defend captured territory from roaming squads of enemies (militia aren't exactly quality fighters), the result is a tense, dynamic sense of tug-of-war. With guns. Back in Action's strategic gameplay may have been diminished, but just enough of it remains to evoke its forebear's hybrid appeal.
While all this sounds well and good, Back in Action suffers from a number of significant flaws, ones that stem from some truly baffling design decisions and interface issues that were "solved" in the decade between the original game and this release. It's almost inconceivable that such improvements were not thought through during development. Back in Action should be faithful to the spirit of Jagged Alliance 2, not its problems.
For one, squad inventory management is a nightmare. Why do I need to press a separate "trade" button every time I want to transfer items from one person to another? And why can't I handle it on the main strategic map or even just the local inventory menu? Why must I manually re-equip every first aid bag or repair kit when I perform the actions, even if those items are already in my inventory, ready for use? Oversights like that become especially infuriating as squads grow, increasing their need for a constant supply of weapons, armor, ammo and other necessities. At one point I spent almost an hour resupplying two squads of six mercs, reduced to dropping items onto the ground in makeshift supply caches, moving and selecting each merc one by one to claim their gear. Chores like this are necessary in a game of this depth, but they needn't be this tedious.
Worse still, recruiting militia is almost as hellish. While the process is simpler than before, it's been made even more annoying. Now mercs need to travel to every zone that potential recruits spawn into and manually place a gun from their inventory into the recruit's hand, with the same clunky trading interface. And since your mercs can only hold four weapons a piece, my "mules" were constantly trudging back and forth from the airport (where ordered guns and equipment is delivered to) to individual zones, manually loading into them and rushing back and forth across the map handing out weapons, then running all the way back to the airport to get more. It's ludicrous.
Pathfinding is similarly atrocious. As often as not your men will bunch up in doorways and clog halls, spinning around like armored dervishes, getting caught on corners or simply stopping in place. The graphics, too, aren't exactly state of the art. They're certainly much better than the original's generic sprites and limited animation, but in terms of complexity they're more 2007 than 2012.
If nothing else, all equipment is now visible on models, and I was often able to tell what gear the enemy on sight alone. The engine isn't particularly well-optimized either. My rig can run Battlefield 3 at a consistent 50+ frames-per-second, but Back in Action often slowed into the 20s or less in the more crowded cities and military bases.
Environmental interaction has been limited as well. Mercs can't vault over low obstacles anymore, and can't destroy walls except at predetermined points. They can't climb without a ladder, and while the camera angle can be changed, it can't be lowered to ground level or used to look inside buildings -- a curious choice, since you can already see every enemy on the map.
All things said and done, though, these flaws are superficial. Irritating and baffling, sure, but ultimately irrelevant to the core of the game and its ability to capture the soul of Jagged Alliance, that intoxicating blend of in-depth tactical play and big strategic decision-making, infused with a charming, colorful cast of heavily-armed characters facing the monolithic challenge of liberating a whole country under your command.
Jagged Alliance: Back in Action may ultimately be inferior to its legendary predecessor, but it has just enough of that spark in it to be a compelling, substantial impostor.