Jagged Alliance: Back in Action review

We take an in-depth look at Jagged Alliance: Back in Action, developer bitComposer's reboot of the classic turn-based tactical strategy game, to see if it serves up a war worth fighting.

14

"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.]

From The Chatty
  • reply
    March 21, 2012 8:00 PM

    Jeff Mattas posted a new article, Jagged Alliance: Back in Action review.

    We take an in-depth look at Jagged Alliance: Back in Action, developer bitComposer's reboot of the classic turn-based tactical strategy game, to see if it serves up a war worth fighting.

    • reply
      March 22, 2012 7:01 PM

      While the game isn't perfect, too many reviews (including this one) are not giving it enough credit for the huge array of things it does right and great. There's also never any acknowledgement of the superb post-release support from the developers adding and updating new features. The latest update added a ton of new stuff based on player feedback.

      Also, I don't agree with the vast majority of your criticisms about the combat system. The level of control over your mercs, especially after the last update that added shoot-til-kill functionality is totally spot-on. JA2 required far more micro during combat, even up to multi-clicking to increase aim for every single shot for every single merc. I've been a huge fan of JA2 for over 10 years, and I'm not alone when I say this game is a worthy successor for the franchise. Sir-Tech was always planning for JA3 to be real-time pause. Even the old JA2 lead designer said BiA was very close to the direction they were planning to take the game.

      In my opinion, the only huge remaining flaws in the game are the lack of sector inventory which can make logistics a nightmare and the tedious method of equipping militia. Luckily, both of these things are being completely overhauled in the next major update.

      My suggestion to everyone who asks is the same -- wait for the next major update, it's going to be pretty big deal for the game and its future.

      • reply
        March 22, 2012 7:05 PM

        Alas Poor Yurik ... Sorry, had to do that ...

        The general policy is to review a game as released. Expecting players to constantly upgrade "to get it right" is not fair to players who plunk down money for the game as a finished product.

        How developers support the community or a game post-release is a separate issue all together.

        • reply
          March 22, 2012 7:32 PM

          But isn't that part and parcel of being a PC Gamer, Keef?

          Snip.

          *sigh*

          • reply
            March 22, 2012 7:52 PM

            agreed

          • reply
            March 22, 2012 9:14 PM

            Maybe, but I also think it is lazy development.They should get it right the first time, or strive to. Yeah, I'm idealistic but I think gamers expect a complete correct game out of the box, not something that has to be patched day one or two, even if it is automatic.

            • reply
              March 22, 2012 10:08 PM

              With you being a professional game reviewer, it's a real surprise for me to read that you believe that bugs and post-release updates are a sign of "lazy development". You aren't being idealistic, you are intentionally ignoring 20 years of reality. Nearly every game gets patches, even the huge blockbusters. Even console games get patches now.

              You guys gave Arkham City a near perfect review, but that game had a massive bug that randomly deleted peoples' saved games. It was a critical issue, yet they didn't end up fixing it until months later.

              And how can you possibly marginalize steam's auto-patching? It is a huge advance for the customer experience, and in most circumstances it is completely transparent to the end user. Even Valve uses it to patch their games -- and they have nearly unlimited time and resources to make their games "perfect".

              The real problem you should be attacking is developers who don't support their games post-launch. Deriding a developer for providing free updates based on user feedback is absurd.

              • reply
                March 22, 2012 10:31 PM

                There has to be a line though. Some people never run into those bugs like myself for the Arkham City save issue. I played that game over a course of a week almost non-stop, that's a sign of a great game. Games like BiA I've stopped playing and went back to JA2.

                And auto-updates isn't fool-proof. When I go overseas with the military I'm probably not going to have access to that luxury as much as I do at home.

                That's a lot in BiA that's just not there to excel at over the previous iterations. I preordered this game out of faith even though I saw plenty of warning signs. I guess I'm cursed with every year the first new game I get for that year ends up being mediocre. Last year was Homefront. I think the year prior was Army of Two: 40th Day. All games I bought driven on some kind of faith only to be let down.

                • reply
                  March 22, 2012 10:43 PM

                  Honestly I've put a ton of hours into JA2 and into BiA and love them both. I don't know what your issues are with it, but I'm hoping it wasn't just a bad first impression or because it wasn't a 1:1 transfer of JA2's gameplay mechanics.

                  Pausable real-time opens up a huge breadth of coordinated tactical options not possible in TBS. As fans of a niche genre it is self-defeating to give a bold release like BiA a meh and let the franchise die again.

                  I think if you wait for the next update (sector inventory, option fog of war, etc) and put some time into this game, you will end up loving it.

                  • reply
                    March 23, 2012 12:55 AM

                    The gameplay is fine and but it's far from the personality that the Jagged Alliance Games are known for. JA2 had lots of lol moments and hidden gems. They replaced some stuff and others they removed, so it feels less of a complete game.

        • reply
          March 22, 2012 7:54 PM

          "Constantly upgrade" is a complete misnomer in today's market. The game is Steamworks, if someone buys it right now they are seamlessly getting the updated version, not the release build. None of the updates have broken save games either. To ignore the excellent developer support is a mistake.

          • reply
            March 22, 2012 9:16 PM

            Support may be excellent, but why wasn't it done BEFORE the game was released. DLC is a separate issue. Bug fixes after release shouldn't happen with decent QA.

            • reply
              March 22, 2012 9:39 PM

              Jeff, let's be real about your last statement. Every pc game, even the AAA blockbuster budget games have plenty of bug fixes and updates post-release. There's no such thing as a bug-free game. Even Deus Ex, the shacknews pick for GOTY, had bug fix patches and feature updates post-release.

              • reply
                March 23, 2012 3:08 AM

                Yurik, we can agree to disagree. I'm just explaining my philosophy. As for the GotY, that was before I got here. TBH, I'm thrilled you like the game. Reviews are just opinions, as we all know, and not everyone will agree.

      • reply
        March 22, 2012 10:45 PM

        Totally agree with you Poor Yurik. This is an excellent turn-based game that is a ton of fun. It has a few minor flaws that I have no trouble overlooking because I am enjoying the game so much, but I also agree the support has been good. I love the consistent environment where you have to take and hold positions and can have multiple fights in the same area turn out completely different. It's worth way more than the $40 they are charging for it.

    • reply
      March 22, 2012 10:03 PM

      I was bummed about the game after reading the review. Then I realized how much fun I've had with other tactical combat games that suffered from pack-mule inventory incentives or slow pacing. And ultimately, if I enjoyed the hell out of the first two-thirds of a game (Silent Storm is a great example), it was worth the money.

      So my question is this: given the developers' strong post-release support, is the game fun enough to be worth the money?

      • reply
        March 22, 2012 10:24 PM

        Yeah, the limit on how much your mercs can carry was a "Wow, really?" moment.

        • reply
          March 22, 2012 10:29 PM

          You have to admit, (depending on their strength) a merc carrying 4 assault rifles and like 16 items per is quite a bit. imo, the real issue is the lack of sector inventory and the ability to swap items between mercs in the inventory screen, both of which will be added in the next update. I can't stress enough how much that will improve the game, that's why I tell everyone now to wait for that update.

    • reply
      March 22, 2012 10:24 PM

      The game really also lacks a ton of the charm of the original. I wanted to make a MERC and also have to deal with Pablo losing my shipments and giving him "coffee money." Basically the character interactions.

      Stuff like that. There was no draw to it. Better off playing JA2.

      Also listen to this Podcast from Three Steps Ahead that goes over JA2. There was a ton of stuff I never knew about like certain combinations of mercs that had their own dialogue and story arcs.
      http://dl.dropbox.com/u/31450/ThreeMovesAhead156.mp3

    • reply
      March 23, 2012 12:53 AM

      The review is ok-ish, but slamming the P&G mode like that really is harsh. If you actually send your mercs around in a tactical way, with things like bounding overwatch and buddy system its really good.

      Furthermore the more you use it the better of a tool it becomes, currently I'm able to wipe out 10-12 enemies through plan & go in one planning phase, of course afterwards I have to check on how the rest of the enemies reacted and adapt another planning phase to that.

    • reply
      March 24, 2012 5:22 AM

      The problem isn't inherently the game, it's that the we plan we go type of battle system is just ass. Real turn based combat is what these type of games require.