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Rate this Review - Jagged Alliance: Back in Action
High: Completing a daring heist on a heavily guarded mine with everyone coming out alive.
Low: Do these soldiers have bionic eyes or something?
WTF: Why do they keep climbing the ladder of doom?
I find it a little distressing fondly remembering how I played Jagged Alliance as a kid. It goes to show how long ago it was that we last saw the mercenary title grace the PC. The remake, Back in Action, comes with very little pomp, and while solid, has many niggling problems that might make you question before you buy.
Jagged Alliance was a glory game from the 1990’s. The task: to oust a regime in the fabled land of Arulco with a private army of mercenaries. Raid fortified outposts for cash, hire mercenaries to complete assignments, kill the tyrant and bring peace back. Not very fancy by today’s standards, but refreshingly simple for its time with its twist on unit management and turn-based combat.
Back in Action’s (JA) first concession to the new generation is real-time. The overland map has changed to become a sweeping real-time blob with both your troops and enemy patrols slowly moving about. Missions are marked and it’s up to you how you want to get them done. Side missions such as raiding mines and such are presented as targets of opportunity, which can and are re-taken by the enemy. More on these battles later.
While the overland map is rather dull and drab (and even tiny, when clicking on locations of interest to find out more information) the same can’t be said for battles. Despite eventually realizing that I only had maybe a dozen or so actual maps to fight on and over, each location is so chock full of intelligent design that I rarely felt like it was monotonous.
Let’s start with the actual locations players fight in. They’re often filled with intelligent design, allowing multiple angles of approach, with several blind spot options almost always available. While it’s a shame that not all parts of the map are destructible – only specifically marked “weak points” can be breached or blown up, making for some of the toughest trucks in existence – the sense of permanence meant I could spend more time planning my attack, rather than bemoaning “more of the same”.
That intelligent design carries over to character customization. While it’s a neat touch to see items equipped reflected both on the characters and their in-game portraits, what’s more important is slowly learning how this ties into enemies as well. Early on, you’ll face plenty of axe-wielding, bare-chested berserkers or lightly-armed gunmen who clearly graduated from the Stormtrooper academy of can’t-shoot-the-broad-side-of-a-barn. Later, more heavily armed and armored troops become the norm, but by then quickly zooming in to examine what they’re holding gives players a good idea of what they'll face.
Should a band of mercenaries run into a patrol or get to the chosen objective, action flips over to real-time battle in the aforementioned maps. Players can certainly run JA as a purely real-time game, adapting on-the-fly to changing conditions. Doing so, which I tried for all of thirty minutes, can be fun. The ragdoll physics means explosions and so forth give off solid oomph and movement during these action moments. Pinpoint movement and rapid clicking can get the adrenaline flowing while frantically crying out to your mercs to get back behind cover.
Where players will end up spending time in though is overview mode. Hit spacebar and JA pauses, letting commands be queued up on a timeline – Run here, prone there, crawl behind the guy a little further on, and then knife him. It mostly works great, and developers Coreplay clearly gave it a lot of thought. Besides setting up long and complex chain of commands, actions can also be combined and timed together. So after all that setup, mercs can let loose simultaneously on a target.
JA reminds me of Frozen Synapse, the recent indie game where players plan out troops movements and then hit play hoping for the best. When a plan in JA comes together, it feels like poetry. But it can also feel like a slideshow of stop, order issues, hit play to watch movie.
That is a minor issue compared to the hit-and-miss of the core: The mercenaries. Mercenaries, you see, play the biggest role in the game. Players hire a team to suit their needs for missions through a sort of mercenary Internet. In the spirit of old Jagged Alliance titles, the Internet pictures look absolutely terrible, with blocky textures and campy voiceovers. Dig in, however, and discover that each has a plethora of statistics, perks and drawbacks to ponder over before contacting them for jobs.
This is great for the stat junkies, since careful management of mercs sees them grow ever stronger and more in-tune with your specialized needs. Sufficient stat padding can even overcome some negative perks, such as requiring glasses. Hidden relationships also mean it might be easier to convince some mercs to join the team based on who has already been hired.
But those minor benefits mask drawbacks. For instance, no matter how brainy a merc may appear to be, in combat they act like a bunch of kids that need to be mothered constantly. They’ll jockey allies out of position and into the open while maneuvering themselves. Or block another ally from opening fire. Or forget to reload. Or forget to tell players they are running low on ammo, till they actually run out. Or… well, yes.
These minor irritations flare if mercs die. It’s almost inevitable; JA requires some some serious hours spent leveling mercs or farming cash to hire the best mercs to beat the bionic eyes and crack aim of even the easier level A.I. enemies. In the meanwhile, those bionic soldiers are slowly chipping away at the mercs lives. Since dying is permanent, I almost felt obliged to tack on a quicksave every time I paused the game to load up orders as well.
There is also the issue of a small bug with overview mode. Line up a shot within this mode, and that’s all they shoot. One bullet. It feels a little odd since in real-time mode, mercs will keep shooting at the enemy if their first shots miss or fail to kill.
Finally, and perhaps most damaging, is how easy it is to outsmart the A.I. Ironically, despite the punishing difficulty, or perhaps because of it, the easiest way to win is to let them come to you. Enemies have no sense of squad tactics, and will happily rush towards the sounds of gunfire or any other noise. Find a good killzone campsite and watch bodies rack up as the A.I. continues to blindly walk in.
Reading this far you might think JA is a horrid game unworthy of your time. That would be doing it a disservice. Despite the issues I mentioned above, getting past this learning curve reveals a solid base of great action and how much clever forethought you can bring to a fight. The question is, can you afford to sink in the four to five hours to master that hurdle?
Disclosures : This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 8 hours of play was devoted to the single player mode.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains Blood, Sexual Themes, Strong Language and Violence. You should be concerned about letting your teen play this game, not least because the kid will likely throw the keyboard at the screen in rage at the difficulty.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing: Deaf players should have no problem with the game, as it can be tailored to pause when events happen such as spotting an enemy. You do get to miss horrible voice acting though, which some might consider a plus.
Edited v1.1: With Virgil012's edits in mind
Edited v1.2: Feedback from Syndicate review in mind, replaced instances of "you"
Last edited by Jaradcel; 03-10-2012 at 10:51 PM.