First off, my apologies for putting the “late” in “fashionably late” with this review. Still, that should give you an indication as to what Jagged Alliance: Back in Action will do with your free time: chew it up, spit it out and demand more.
For those of you unfamiliar with classic strategy games from the late ’90s (that’s a topic, right?), Back in Action unabashedly bills itself as a remake of turn-based strategy icon: Jagged Alliance 2. This point is unquestionably accurate: the familiar story returns (unseat Queen Deidranna, despotic ruler of the fictional country of Arulco, with a hastily assembled team of misfits) as do the mercenaries (Hitman, Grunty, Grizzly, the Dolvichs, Fox, MD and more). So, what’s changed to make this remake necessary? Well, how about the whole damned game-play engine?
That’s right, turn-based folks: Back in Action has made like a hipster couple buying a car and gone with a hybrid model. Instead of the classic one-at-a-time (plus reactions) method of ordering your squad, you’ll instead attempt to bring peace to Arulco through what’s billed as the “Plan & Go” system. At any time, you can press the space bar to pause the game and queue up a stream of tactical commands for your mercs. Everything from firing on targets to lobbing grenades to running for the hills can be set in advance in any combination and executed upon resuming the game. While this isn’t a true turn-based setup, it’s about the best thing a strategy gaming nut could hope for in this day and age. As I mentioned in my game-play trailer preview, the writing has been on the wall for tactical games for years now and, after getting some serious hands-on time with “Plan & Go”, I am more than happy to accept it for what it is: a chocolate-and-peanut-butter mix of real-time and turn-based. Being able to set my orders, then have the flexibility to modify them or call them off if necessary, all in the safety of a time-stopping planning screen? Fine by me, folks.
Where things can fall apart with “Plan & Go”, though, is getting those plans to actually, y’know, go. As the saying goes, “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy”; this is no truer when seeing your mercs swiftly gunned down in what was looking to be a tense firefight against Deidranna’s militia (thank goodness for the pre-level and pre-combat autosaves). Case in point: in a bold attempt to wrest control of a hospital away from the Queen’s defenders, my mercs assaulted a doctor’s office and managed to gain a foothold thanks to some timely close-range shotgun blasts to the face. This progress was swiftly blunted when an enemy seeing-eye three-shot burst found a paper-thin line of sight through a window, then through a glass door…from across the lobby. As I ordered my covering merc in to relieve the pressure, he, too was nailed in two successive bursts and dropped. Partially my fault for a desperation charge, sure; but this was not the first instance of unerringly accurate AI combat at a distance, nor was it the last. Likewise, an earlier attempt to liberate Drassen Airport showcased more incredible AI abilities; namely, the Superman-esque hearing capabilities of a guard. Machete in hand, I sent a merc crawling on his belly to silently cut down the guard. Should’ve been easy, right? After all, I’m approaching from behind, as slow as you like… except, somehow, the guard not only detected my merc and spun around to deliver a hail of lead into my prone, formerly living mercenary; but then stopped on his turning back around to notice another merc who had foolishly taken cover beneath a lamppost. Light is equally important as sound when it comes to detection, and down went another of my combatants*.
If it wasn’t clear at this point, let me make it so: this is a hard game. Now, personally, that’s my kind of game: something that’s going to challenge me tactically for months on end as I fight to master the intricacies of combat in order to gain the upper hand. Those of you wanting something a little more immediately and consistently rewarding, however, may find this frustrating; if not an outright turn-off. I can’t imagine gamers of all stripes sharing my motivation to, for example, re-take the roadblock outside Drassen after the third time a Deidranna patrol captures it**.
Every tactical squad needs a guy named “Igor”. Bonus points if that guy is a girl.
Where I take issue with the game’s difficulty is where nobody should be having any problems whatsoever: manipulating the camera. With Jagged Alliance’s roots as an isometric tactical game, it’s only natural that developer bitComposer would take the opportunity to unchain the fixed three-quarter camera angle and give you the freedom to move and zoom around the battlefield in glorious 3D. One problem: with the action unfolding in real-time over multiple elevations, not having the ability to zoom in and see the action from over your team’s shoulder is a nuisance. Zooming out for a bird’s-eye view of battlefield gives you no depth; zooming in too close gives you an acute angle that doesn’t show you what’s within your field of view. That elusive, perfect camera angle just can’t be found short of rapidly rolling your mouse-wheel, which is neither convenient nor aesthetically pleasing.
Ultimately, my biggest complaint with Back in Action has to do with a major design decision: removing you, the player, as a member of the mercenary team. In BiA’s predecessor, Jagged Alliance 2, one of the aspects of recruitment was creating a custom avatar mercenary to lead the team into battle. This mercenary could be built in any way you wished within the limitation of a set number of skill points, plus bonuses based on how you answered questions in a “psych profile”. Not only did this add the juicy RPG bacon to the strategy game sandwich, it added a key component to your tactical approach: having the perfect complement to your opening assault. Need a medic? Build yourself with high Medical. Worried about your expensive weapons jamming and falling apart? Crank up that Mechanical rating and keep your toolkits handy. Just want to blow the Deidranna militia away? Hello, Marksmanship and machine gun affinity. Removing this valuable asset from the remake is a huge blow to tactical possibilities, especially considering the above-average difficulty setting.
Who pooped in his Corn Flakes? No, really: he wants to know.
Graphically, the 3D engine does its job well without any major hiccups or lag. Equipped items show up on player models and the levels look suitably run down, befitting a country plagued with infighting. The only complaint worth noting is that some of the animations of the mercs’ actions occasionally bug out: either endlessly repeating until another action is given or going out of sync with their actual command. As far as terrain and line of sight go, there’s nothing to fault or point out in that respect – not that it would matter in a game where the primary focus is on good tactics as opposed to looking pretty.
Audio, on the other hand, well, that’s just sublime. The personalities of the mercenaries return, with their voice clips adding plenty of character to firefights and even simple exploration. While it’s not at the level of, say, Dragon Age inter-party relations or even Baldur’s Gate matching voice clips, there’s still charm oozing out of every pore, be it Hitman calling everyone “Ace” and recommending new enemy contacts be shot at “so they know they’re gonna die”, or Igor Dorich trusting his good friend Grunty’s judgement when being asked to join the team. Likewise, weapon sounds are varied and distinct to the point where you can tell exactly when a Desert Eagle is pinging the sheet metal behind you and when a SPAS-15 just took out Steroid at close range***.
Overall, Jagged Alliance: Back in Action is about as loving and authentic a throwback to the halcyon days of isometric strategy games as you could ask for, taking modern gaming sensibilities into account. Difficulty issues and a disheartening lack of an avatar, aside, it’ll scratch the itch and then some!