Jagged Alliance: Back in Action
Back in the ‘90s the Jagged Alliance franchise incorporated some of the most popular turn-based combat simulations available, reaching its peak of popularity with Jagged Alliance 2 which was released in 1999. The franchise primarily appealed to those gamers who enjoyed the tactical elements of gaming rather than the ‘click-fest’ that was an RTS, a game style including other popular titles such as the X-Com series. There were subsequent releases such as Jagged Alliance 2: Unfinished Business (2001), Jagged Alliance: Wildfire (2004), and Jagged Alliance for the Nintendo DS (2009) but none of them really caught the audience's imagination as much as Jagged Alliance 2.
To the delight of the legion of Jagged Alliance fans, Kalypso Media and bitComposer games have now released a new updated game for the franchise in Jagged Alliance: Back in Action. Jagged Alliance: Back in Action returns the action to the fictitious country of Arulco, where the player commands rebel and mercenary forces attempting to free the island from the grip of a ruthless dictator. Players need to use tactical, diplomatic and economic tools to keep troops supplied and ready for action, as well as commanding them in nail-biting battles. Unlike the previous Jagged Alliance games Jagged Alliance: Back in Action is not a pure turn-based system. Instead it uses an innovative Plan & Go combat system that combines elements of real-time and turn-based strategy games. As well as mastering the tactical elements of the game the player must also learn to maximise their team’s capabilities through an RPG-like character advancement system.
The tutorial is definitely worth playing because it really helps to familiarise the player with controlling their troops during tactical situations. There are a few little issues though as it can be a little tricky initially to move your troops to the location that the tutorial requires before it will move on to the next step. Positioning troops in the correct positions on the firing range is one example.The tutorial demonstrates tactical aspects of the game such as stances, detailing how running, crouching, crawling affect the level of noise troops make and their visibility. However as there are no real enemies in the tutorial what it doesn’t demonstrate is how easily the troops actually seem to get spotted during the real game, or how the enemy seems to be able to hear, or sense, characters through walls. So be warned, trying to sneak a merc near enough to throw a grenade into a group of enemies is very difficult and sometimes a distraction is needed. The one disappointing aspect of the tutorial is that it doesn’t teach anything about the overall management aspects of the game such as how to recruit troops, how to buy gear, how to make squads and send them to different locations, do alternative quests or arm local militia. These things have to simply be learnt as the game progresses and can lead to some frustration, such as trying to work out where all the new kit you’ve ordered actually ends up when it is delivered.
The storyline for Jagged Alliance: Back in Action is pretty much a rehash of the Jagged Alliance 2 storyline where the player is hired to free Arulco by eliminating the ruthless dictator. It even starts with the player having to establish a foothold on the island by taking control of an airfield, which appears very similar in layout to the that which had to be captured at the start of Jagged Alliance 2, but then don’t all small airfields on militarised islands all look the same anyway?
Before embarking on this first vital mission the player has to recruit some mercenaries and this isn’t as simple as it seems. The player starts with a very limited budget and is offered a wide array of expensive mercs to choose from. The initial budget will only stretch to two or three mercs for the first mission and even then these will have to be the cheaper less experienced ones. This can cause a few issues, such as not having high enough skills to use explosive charges or defuse mines for the first few missions. There even appears to be a building on one of the early maps that cannot be entered unless explosive charges are used and the cheaper mercs don’t seem to have enough skill to do this early in the game, so it may require a return visit later in the hope that it holds some interesting goodies.
The quests system in the game is a little disappointing, even in the fact that they’re called ‘quests’, surely they should be ‘missions’ in a modern combat game. The main issue though is that they are a little vague. After some limited dialogue with a character in the game the player can agree to do something for them and then a new entry appears in your quest log. However, the entries are very limited and don’t include any of the details of the conversation, such as the precise location where the quest is supposed to take place, and the quests locations aren’t displayed on the map either. A quick trip to the internet as a reminder might be required to work out where to go if the quests aren't attempted immediately.
The main difference in gameplay between Jagged Alliance: Back in Action and its predecessors is the Plan & Go combat system. This system is not turn-based in the traditional sense but instead allows the player to pause the action and plan their character’s moves before resuming the action, in a style similar to Baldur’s Gate or Dragon Age. In addition to this simple pause, plan, go approach it has the ability to link the actions of characters together so that they are synchronised. For example it is possible to move different characters to opposing doors of a building and link the ‘open door’ action so that they wait until everybody is ready before kicking the doors open and ambushing any enemies within. One problem with this system is that it is not possible to instruct a merc to shoot at an enemy until it is dead. Instead the merc has to be given multiple shoot orders and in the heat of the action this can to lead to troops standing around not doing anything unless a careful eye is kept on all the queued actions.
The game does have a few niggling aspects that players may find annoying, the first of which is the poor AI of the enemies. On many occasions the guards and other enemies don’t respond to nearby gunshots and even a nearby colleague falling to the ground. Patrolling guards will walk past the dead body of a fellow guard without batting an eyelid or raising the alarm. Added to this is the suicidal behaviour of many of the guards who once they have detected the player’s troops, run directly at them through a hail of bullets rather than seeking cover or attempting to out-manoeuvre them.
Another odd choice in the design of the game is the lack of a Fog of War type element to the combat missions. When a player enters a combat area the entire map is revealed immediately including the locations of all the enemy troops, even those out of site within the building. Apparently this decision was made during the initial testing of the game when it was found to be too difficult without a Fog of War in place. Additionally the game includes the ability for characters to repair their weapons but it does not allow them to repair the body armour so the player is forced to constantly buy new armour to protect their valuable mercs, which is both frustrating and costly.
Something missing from the game, that has become common in modern games, is the ability to destroy the environment in which the action takes place, such as that seen in games like Commandos. In Jagged Alliance: Back in Action it is possible to destroy certain walls using explosives but this is limited and cannot be done with grenades, or rocket launchers. Some players will also find the lack of character generation frustrating, being limited to hiring pre-generated mercs, who have their own characters, strengths and weaknesses rather than being able to build a customised team to suit personal requirements. There are also some elements where the game lacks a little depth, such as not having any kind of technology development tree, as present in the X-Com series of games for example, or even the ability for mercs to make or customise weapons beyond adding a silencer or scope.
On the positive side it does appear that the developers are continuing to work on the game, making improvements and enhancements. For example a patch released a couple of days after the initial game adds an Arc of Fire to the player’s mercs showing exactly what the characters will be able to hit and the effective range of their weapon. This is a good addition as it reduced the chance of placing a character behind a tree and not realising that they can’t actually shoot at any of the enemy guards they were hoping to ambush.
Overall Jagged Alliance: Back in Action is good game that will entertain those people that enjoy the tactical elements of turn-based strategy games, even though it isn’t truly turn-based, and it is easy to become attached to the individual mercs treating them as valuable team members rather than charging them in to combat in a ramboesque all guns blazing style. There are also many different ways to approach each combat situation so this will lead to a good level of replayability for those players who want to do the best job possible for each scenario, and the later missions are difficult enough to challenge the more experienced tactical game players.