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Jagged Alliance: Back in Action v1.13 Review

by Andre "Gorath" Wolf, 2013-07-25

Jagged Alliance: Back in Action's release was accompanied by a lot of emotions. The JA community was stunned by a variation of the standard real-time with pause combat and the game's generally more mainstream direction.
Since then publisher bitComposer and developer Coreplay added some key features requested by the community, most importantly optional fog of war, a sector inventory and a high difficulty level, and polished things up quite a bit with dozens of small improvements. We’ve played the campaign for 80+ hours. Read on to find out where Jagged Alliance: Back in Action’s strengths and weaknesses are.

 

General Overview

Your task in Jagged Alliance: Back in Action (JA:BiA) 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 position 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 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.

 

The Squads

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, 7 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. While the camouflage system sounds nice on paper, I doubt its practical value. I didn’t notice any significant difference, positive or negative, based on camouflage.
A couple of times over the course of the game, often after a successful quest, an NPC asks to join your squad. An offer you’ll usually want to accept, more often than not to assign this NPC to a support squad. Even a weak fighter can still be used for logistic purposes, for example carrying supplies from the airport to your spearhead squad.

 

Plan&Go Combat

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.
Unless you enable the optional Fog of War added with a patch, all enemies can be seen as soon as you enter the sector. Only enemies inside of huge buildings are displayed as bigger clusters representing an unknown number of troops.

Plan&Go works fine 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. Apart from the mop up job at the end of a mission, going into RTS auto-pilot and casually shuffling mercs around will lead to a quick defeat. 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 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.
Each 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.
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. Curing wounds requires a more advanced med-kit and enough medical skill to use it. Full regeneration is automatically done on the strategy map, if you let enough time pass until this merc has to go to work again. 
The limitations to climbing or use of explosives are a bit disappointing: both are reserved for a few specific locations only. Blowing a hole into a wall really would have added interesting tactical options.

 

Interface & Technical Stuff

Graphics and sound are more than okay for a game like JA:BiA. Little details can be found everywhere. I like 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 though, which costs a bit of atmosphere. The same can be said about the weak story and its presentation.

The interface has seen massive improvements since release. JA:BiA's biggest problem was the lack of comfort functions outside of the very comfortable Plan&Go combat system. Looting, sorting, distributing the good stuff and selling the junk took forever. Up to an hour on a big map.
The patches solved this.
Thanks to the new sector inventory you no longer have to explicitly loot all trivial caches. Only hidden boxes have to be accessed once. Even militia can be supplied with gear from the group inventory, plus it can be leveled up directly from the world map.
Other new or improved comfort functions include item drag & drop between mercs, mouse-scrolling when you reach the edge of the screen and easier handling of multiple squads, both in the same sector and on the world map. So the interface issues criticized by a couple of early reviews are gone.

 

Gameplay & Verdict

A typical JA:BiA campaign unfolds like this:
You hire a few mercenaries and build a secure base near Drassen airport in the far north of Arulco. Then you slowly explore the world map. Discovered hostile locations are marked red. You move your squad to a carefully chosen starting point near an enemy camp and enter the location. Superior coordination allows you to conquer the sector, so your daily income will increase. After that you spread out your party members to find hidden treasures, visit merchants, recruit militia and talk to quest-NPCs. When you've prepared your party for the next encounter, you go back to the strategic map, slow down time and decide on the next sector to liberate. Every now and then you buy new gear in the online shop, hire better mercs. The cycle repeats, occasionally interrupted by counter attacks. Of course the number of enemies gets bigger, their equipment more lethal, the settings more tricky. Later on you'll have to deal with heavily armed soldiers supported by tanks.

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. The strategy elements are negligible. Sure, you could carefully work out a defensive strategy to hold the liberated areas. You could recruit militia, equip them with decent gear, level them up and support them with mercenary teams at key locations. But your effort would be wasted. Deidranna’s counter attacks are predictable. All you have to do is maintain a firm grip on a few select areas and she won’t be able to break out.

The thin strategy layer makes JA:BiA a pure squad tactics game with character development. That’s neither good nor bad, it’s just the game’s focus. A tight focus leading to the question whether the tactical combat holds up over a ca. 60 hours campaign. The answer is: Yes. Plan & Go provides enough diversity and allows enough player control to entertain for many hours. The mix of carefully planned actions and selective use of automatics works fine.

Experienced players will find certain limitations though. The AI for example is quite decent, but it’s not aggressive enough and it makes exploitable mistakes. JA:BiA's AI would be okay for a Command & Conquer, but I think a squad tactics game would have benefited from a more challenging AI.

 

As it is, JA:BiA is sitting between the chairs. It has too way much tactical depth to be played casually, but it’s probably too simple for a hardcore TB strategy player. Plan&Go combat is fun, while the story is not much more than an excuse to liberate Arulco. The gameplay flow is nice, thanks to the usability improvements through the patches.
Jagged Alliance: Back in Action isn’t the debacle the shit storm accompanying the release would make you believe. Not even close. It’s a good game, leagues ahead of the gazillion Jagged Alliance clones which came out over the years. The game mechanics work, it's fun to play - although the atmosphere is a bit sterile - and it's technically stable. If you can live with the Plan&Go system, JA:BiA is certainly worth a try.

 

Box Art

Information about

Jagged Alliance: Back in Action

Developer: Coreplay

SP/MP: Single-player
Setting: Modern
Genre: Strategy-RPG
Combat: Pausable Real-time
Play-time: Unknown
Voice-acting: Unknown

Regions & platforms
World
· Homepage
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2012-02-10
· Publisher: bitComposer

More information


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Summary

Pros

  • good, reasonably deep combat mechanics
  • comfortable combat interface
  • long campaign
  • attractive graphics

Cons

  • not turn-based
  • weak story
  • ugly character portraits
  • mercenaries lack personality

Rating

Review version

1.13g

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