Jagged Alliance: Back in Action - First Impressions
Fans have had to wait an eternity for a 3rd Jagged Alliance game, not counting add-ons and mods. After an odyssey of failed projects, the German publisher bitComposer aquired the rights to the Jagged Alliance franchise in early 2010 and contracted developer Coreplay to make a Jagged Alliance 2 remake under the working title Jagged Alliance 3. A couple months later, Jagged Alliance 2 - Reloaded was announced but over the course of the project the intention to create a remake was dropped and the name changed to reflect this.
Jagged Alliance: Back in Action is a reboot – a new start for a classic franchise. A lot of established JA2 elements stand in contrast to significant changes - in this article we will shed some light on what can be expected from bitComposer's new squad tactics RPG.
Your task is to liberate the island Arulco from its dictator, Deidranna. To achieve that you hire a small number of mercenaries, form squads and explore the zoomable strategy map. Exploration can be done in whatever order you desire, including different map regions at the same time by multiple squads. A couple of crucial locations have to be seized, for example: the airport. Others are optional or part of a side quest.
When you decide to engage a sector, your squad's location on the strategy map determines its starting location on the sector map. The mechanism isn't 100% precise, but a full zoom-in on the strategy map should give you a good idea where you'll where your squad will start. After the battle, armed militia can be appointed, to make sure Deidranna doesn't take back what used to be hers.
Mercenaries are hired from a merc organisation. They're paid only once - a lot of money upfront. The maximum squad size is 6 mercs, the number of squads only limited by money and the number of available mercs.
Each mercenary has his or her own special set of stats, skills and traits. The RPG mechanics are standard: XP for doing stuff or shooting enemies, 5 skill points per level, level cap is 10.
Jagged Alliance: Back in Action comes with an interesting camouflage system. Clothes have camouflage values for four different environments. The overall values, in combination with other elements, influence how easily a mercenary can be seen or heard by a guard. Both visibility and audibility are displayed next the the character portraits, so they can easily be watched.
Let's get it over with: Jagged Alliance: Back in Action is not turn-based! Instead it uses a custom-built version of the well known and generally totally mediocre (read: mass market compatible) real-time with pause (RTwP) called „Plan&Go“. Everything happens simultaneously. There's no fog of war. All enemies can be seen as soon as you enter the sector, only enemies inside a building are displayed as one bigger cluster representing an unknown number of troops.
So much for the bad news. Here is the good news: Plan&Go works well and it's not primitive at all. The player not only has a lot of control, he actually should pause the game to plan his next steps and coordinate his squad members. Going into RTS auto-pilot and casually shuffling mercs around will lead to a rude awakening. JA:BiA is neither an RTS nor an action game, it's still a tactical game which requires slow and careful play. A hasty course of action will lead to frustration. Effectively, the RT in RTwP will only be used to move quickly from A to B.
Now on to the the juicy details. You can choose from a list of Stop conditions. When a condition is met - or you press space - the game pauses and the screen turns grey. Mercs, neutral NPCs, enemies and their field of vision are highlighted on the map.
Every squad member has his own command queue you can fill from an assortment of options. The key to Plan&Go is that command queues can be coordinated on the timeline by simply dragging order B (do this … ) over order A (… simultaneously to that). A multitude of commands are available: You can choose between stealth gameplay and more noisy solutions, fire X times at an enemy's head, body or legs, change your merc's body posture, move to a different position and then look in a certain direction, use a med kit, change weapons, reload, switch fire modes, throw a grenade, enter guard mode …
Such a selection makes it possible to plan relatively complex combat tactics while still maintaining good control over your squad. Only "good" control because an important Stop condition and a vital command are missing: there's neither a pause when the command queue is empty nor a "fire until target is dead" command.
Injured mercs can be healed if one of his comrades carries medical supplies - he won't regenerate to full health though, just to a certain percentage. If he gets shot again, this regen value shrinks more and more. Full regeneration is automatically be done on the strategy map, if you let enough time pass until this merc has to go to work again. Valuable time Deidranna will use to strengthen her grip on Arulco.
The limitations to climbing or use of explosives are a bit disappointing: both are reserved for specific locations only. Blowing a hole into a wall really would have added interesting tactical options.
The lion's share of the playing time in Jagged Alliance: Back in Action is spent on the tactical map, using Plan&Go to decimate enemy troops. Hence, the most important question has to be how good Plan&Go works in practice.
Fortunately it's easy to answer: Plan&Go combines exact control over every single mercenary with a surprising level of flexibility in contructing reasonably complex commands. The interface isn't exactly elegant, but it gets the job done without having to read the manual. Planning attacks flows smoothly and is a lot of fun. So, I think Plan&Go is a clear success, even though the new Jagged Alliance is now similar to Commandos.
Graphics and sound are more than okay for such a game. Little details can be found everywhere. I liked the limping animation for injured mercs, for example. All the gear your people wear is shown on the character portraits, which is a nice touch. Unfortunately the portraits themselves are ugly.
The interface, apart from Plan&Go, seems a bit clunky - especially the lack of a squad inventory hurts.
Balancing looks like a serious problem for a squad based game with so much freedom. I wonder if it's really a good idea to offer only one difficulty level? Yes, I think the demo was pretty hard, but would a hardcore JA2 player say the same? The AI is critical, too. As it is now I would consider it better than average. It uses flanking and throws grenades, for example. A lot of Command & Conquer players would love to have such an AI – but is it enough for a Jagged Alliance? Reportedly Coreplay is still optimizing the AI, so we'll have to wait and see how much more they can squeeze out until release.
Jagged Alliance: Back in Action has good chances to become an enjoyable and challenging squad tactics game. Newbies will understand the Plan&Go system within a few minutes and experts will have a lot of freedom to work out cunning tactics.
Information aboutJagged Alliance: Back in Action
Combat: Pausable Real-time
Regions & platforms
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2012-02-10
· Publisher: bitComposer