Jagged Alliance: Back in Action review

By Jeff Mattas, Mar 22, 2012 5:00pm PDT

"War never changes," is what the post-apocalyptic Fallout series touts as its sort of top-line motto. However, bitComposer, the developer behind the relatively recent Jagged Alliance: Back in Action, has taken a tact to the contrary, aiming to improve and update a number of the systems and gameplay pioneered in the original games, while staying true to the things that made previous entries such long-term hits among fans. The game delivers a strategic and protracted battle over the tropical region of Arulco that can be incredibly engaging in many ways--at least until the frustration caused by shortcomings of the AI and the new pause-and-play battle system start to stand out like snipers in neon ghillie suits.

Things start out quite promisingly, especially if you're a fan of previous Jagged Alliance titles. Back in Action still offers players a dizzying amount of RPG-like elements, and recruiting mercenaries for one's squad(s) is still a fun process. Each mercenary has specific areas of specialization indicated by a robust list of stats, and associated costs, based on how proficient they are. The soldiers also have their own personalities, conveyed largely through the charmingly-cheesy dialog snippets uttered during missions. Weapons and equipment are still managed via a paper-doll like interface, and can be outfitted with specific upgrades ranging from scopes to silencers. On the whole, customization in Back in Action is incredibly deep. However, it's a constant process that always needs attention, and--especially after a huge battle with tons of bodies and caches to loot--felt like a pace-killing hurdle that I had to surmount to get to the next mission.

I also spent a significant amount of time managing equipment and getting to know my mercs' key strengths and weaknesses. This contributes to one of the things Back in Action did quite well: get me attached to my individual squad members.

The funding available to the player at the beginning of the game is quite limited, with many of the list of 40 available mercenaries firmly out of reach. Starting squads are relatively weak. Completing side-missions for allied denizens from zones you've liberated and finding cash on fallen foes are the primary ways to build a bankroll, but the process is slow-going, and certainly not as straightforward as it could have been. A number of times, I found myself taking a break from important goals to village-hop through conquered areas so I could find someone willing to pay me for a fetch-quest.

Back in Action's tactical overhead map is quite expansive, littered with locations that set the stage for all of the game's meat and potatoes: Combat. Capturing an airport allowed me to order supplies from an online merchant, but anticipating your squads future needs is still an important part of ordering new supplies. This is because ordered goods won't show up for some time after you buy them.

Furthermore, time only passes when viewing the tactical map, not during the combat phases. I was able to hop through my first few battles during the game's first "day," and probably could have completed more had ammunition not dropped to dangerously low levels.

Another "cool on paper" idea that ultimately turned into more of an annoyance is fortifying areas of Arulco that you control. Enemy squads will occasionally appear and attempt to take back areas that you've already captured, but you can outfit allied townsfolk with weapons and armor that you've found or purchased. The problem is that, in practice, I felt compelled to pick up every sub-par firearm that I could find, turning my mercs into heavily armed pack-mules who would then have to sidetrack from primary objectives to bop around the map like a sort of NRA-Santa. To make matters worse, even a fully outfitted village still can't really defend itself well against a squad of enemy soldiers, meaning that I'd often have to pull a squad away from an objective to go on defense.

Where Jagged Alliance: Back in Action really began to fall apart for me was the ways it attempts to handle its plethora of tactical gunfights. Whereas previous Jagged Alliance games assigned action-points to each mercenary during its turn-based combat system, Back in Action forgoes this setup in lieu of a real-time system that allows the player to pause and issue orders at any time. In theory, this sounds like it could be a good idea, but in practice, it doesn't work as well as the original system it was meant to improve upon. The absence of movement-grid overlay on the ground makes it incredibly difficult to anticipate how long it will take a merc to go from "A to B." While in real-time, selecting two or more mercenaries and instructing them to climb the same ladder or walk through the same doorway would sometimes create infuriating path-finding issues. The available auto-pause options that can be enabled did help me keep my squad from getting turned into hamburger a few times, but it didn't really get around the problems inherent in the minute-to-minute combat.

When the game is paused, mercenaries can be issued a combination of orders that they'll execute once the action resumes. I might tell one mercenary to ready his weapon, take cover behind an embankment, crouch, switch to burst-fire mode, and then shoot any enemy that comes within his field of view. I might tell one of his merc-buddies to lie prone and set up a cross-fire position behind another piece of cover, and then fire on an enemy once a third mercenary had also taken aim at his assigned position. Frustration often arose when trying to execute those orders, because enemies can react to your squad in real-time, without having to adhere to the same tactical limitations. If a pre-made plan went south, my best course of action was to pause the game again, delete all of my previously-assigned orders for my mercs, and make subtle, individual adjustments every few seconds. Not elegant, and not particularly fun. As a result, I got to the point where I rarely planned more than a few commands ahead, and winning a particularly hairy firefight often gave me more of a feeling of relief than of accomplishment.

Enemy AI is also spotty at best. When it worked, battles were tense, with enemies taking cover, lobbing grenades, and creating interesting flanking challenges. Just as often, however, melee-weapon wielding foes would try to bum-rush my squad of machine-gun toting Rambos like a bunch of mindless zombies, or happily take a few reaction-free shots to the back before crumbling into a bloody heap. Furthermore, the player-controlled mercenaries don't do much of their own thinking. Case in point, I realize it was ultimately my fault for not double-checking before the few times I had one of my mercs storm a room with an empty shotgun, but it's that level of required micromanagement that makes you realize how helpless your mercs are without you. In the prior games' traditional turn-based implementation, battles feel precise and tactical, like a hyper-advanced game of Chess. The real-time approach taken by Jagged Alliance: Back in Action tries to make the action flow more quickly, but ends up having the opposite effect by inadvertently lessening much of the tactical precision afforded by the original games.

A relatively punishing (and true-to-the-series) damage model also means that even the most heavily outfitted mercenaries can be taken out quite quickly when caught in the open. Some of the game's later missions include literally dozens of well-armed enemies to deal with, and with AI that doesn't seem to do its job correctly all of the time, pausing, quick-saving, and patience quickly become critical. Add to this the wrinkle that medics are the only type of mercenaries that can heal their fallen brethren, sometimes even bringing soldiers back from the brink of death. Since death in Jagged Alliance is permanent, losing my medic to enemy fire pretty much guaranteed I'd reload a prior savegame. If you do play Back in Action, I highly recommend saving early and often.

Jagged Alliance: Back in Action's shortcomings--specifically those related to the problems that arise from its "pause-and-play" tactical combat that's not glitch-free--result in a game that manages to fall short of fun, despite some good ideas. Back in Action made me feel like developer bitComposer was trying to fix a formula that wasn't really broken in the first place, and (despite positive intentions) ended up doing more damage than good to the series' tactical, core gameplay. In short, the game is simultaneously complex and clumsy, and will likely disappoint long-time fans while also making it difficult for new players to understand what all the Jagged Alliance fuss is about.


[This Jagged Alliance: Back in Action PC review is based on a copy of the game provided by the publisher.]

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