(PC Review) Jagged Alliance: Back in Action

Developer: bitComposer Games
Publisher: Kalypso Media
Genre: Strategy
Players: 1
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: Philip Smith

Overall: 6 = Fair

Minimum Requirements:
Core 2 Duo 1.8 GHz or AMD equiv., 2GB RAM, GeForce 8800/Radeon HD2600 with 512 MB RAM

During the process of reviewing Jagged Alliance: Back in Action, I kept a list of various items that stuck out during my time on the violence-stricken island of Arulco. The list starts off innocently enough, with a mention here about weapon mods and a mention there about the strangely similar mercenary portraits—nothing too serious. As the hours passed and the list expanded, the tone began to take a negative turn, with comments exuding the type of exasperation felt only when something promising goes awry. By the end, the “kind of cool” mentions are all but gone, replaced with a lot of “why …” and “makes no sense.” Despite all the repetition and frustration, however, there are still some fist-pumping moments of victory that can be had by the (very) patient.

Back in Action is a remake of Sir-Tech’s 1999 turn-based strategy game Jagged Alliance 2. Longtime fans would be forgiven for not seeing the connection once past some superficial similarities of story, characters, and locations—these aren’t totally in synch in all cases, either. Mercenaries have biographies and squadmate preferences, but they largely lack the eccentric personalities from before; also gone is the danger and fear of them packing their gear and hitting the road, as their contracts are now for the duration of the mission. Fog of War is gone as well, replaced with clear skies and replacing the series’ methodical pacing with an emphasis on setup and ambush. Even the core of the game is different, with the traditional turn-based system supplanted by a real-time setup that features a turn-based-styled subsytem dubbed “Play & Go.”

With the play-and-go system, orders can be given to any number of mercenaries while the game is paused, as well as synchronized between each mercenary’s action timeline; these orders are then carried out once the game is resumed. There are also some helpful visual aids, including a visible line of sight and highlighted targeting radius, which indicate whether a move might end up being a bust before it’s even engaged—even an elaborate six-step order can be erased with the click of a button. In theory, this is a great workaround to streamline the menu system while keeping the action fast and furious. In reality, as with much else Back in Action brings to the table, it’s a series of small victories and major headaches.

The problem with the play-and-go system is that it relies on an erratic AI that indulges in its mischievous nature at random. That perfect two-team insertion and two-team flanking maneuver that took so long to tweak just so, canceling moves and re-issuing them to ensure that the mercs hit just the right spots and cover just the right angles, can quickly go down the tubes as one team gets stuck trying to enter a doorway—or one taking a turn before the other, causing their squadmate to jerk back and forth as they try to walk around their partner. Other times, it’s a non-playable character, like the time when a child ran and cowered directly in front of my mercenary as she was trying to cross a makeshift bridge to support her squad. Sometimes the furious jerking will cause them to shift enough to where they can get around the impediment, but there are also times when they will just give up. And sometimes they don’t even bother moving. Seeing as how I racked up a nice pile of henchmen and cut a trail of sweet liberty across Arulco, pathfinding problems won’t prevent the job from getting done, but they are common enough to be a major annoyance.

Then there are the curious design decisions that make life just that much more difficult. There tend to be workarounds for most of the more common issues, such as setting squadmates on Guard so that they can cover a merc who was given an order to fire on an enemy while the game was paused and will stop after one shot (unless given numerous attack orders), but they are far from optimal. Another instance is that the function keys are assigned to various stances, with each stance modifying movement speed and accuracy. The sequences goes Prone (slowest but most accurate), Crouch, Run (fastest but least accurate), and Ready Weapon. Notice something odd? It’s as natural to accidentally order someone to Run, thinking they’re being ordered to Ready Weapon due to the flip-flop in numerical sequence, as it is to forget to assign multiple attack orders during a turn in the heat of battle.

Speaking of awkward, the inventory system is in dire need of some tweaking, as is the militia system. In many instances, it seems as though what shouldn’t have been streamlined was and what should have been wasn’t. Let me go through the process of both to help illustrate how their deficiencies are compounded by their intertwined nature, and how the combination does a number on the game’s newfound focus on fast-paced action.

Each mercenary’s main inventory menu shows a paper doll of the character with several slots (head, chest, feet, hands, weapon mod slots, and eyes) as well as two grids, one for three backup weapons and another for everything else. Weight is also a factor, with weaker mercenaries quickly degraded to hobbling status once they become weighed down when carrying too many items. As the game progresses, and the standard tactical situations become known and the mercenaries’ abilities take form, it becomes necessary for each character to carry a backup weapon as well as the mods and ammo required for it. For instance, a mercenary with a high degree of marksmanship would do well to have a long-range rifle for closing in and a medium-range assault rifle for urban combat; that’s one backup weapon slot already taken up. Weapons also degrade over time, so it becomes important to have some squadmates with mechanical chops as well as the requisite cleaning and repair kits. Also, because there are varying degrees of every situation, it’s never enough to have one type of repair kit or one type of gauze: each specialist will need to have multiple item types to meet each situation. Now then, with everyone kitted out, let’s get some locals armed and ready to hold down the fort while the squad moves out.

As with the original, Arulco is open for exploration. Each area has a number of guards holding it, and once they are defeated, that sector’s revenue and manpower are shifted to you. Revenue is earned at the end of each day, as is the militia count, swelled by those willing to take up arms against the island’s despotic ruler Deidranna Reitman, the so-called Queen. Unlike before, militia are now recruited simply by giving them a weapon; the better the weapon they’re given, the better the chance they have of stopping one of the many enemy raids that are launched against the player-controlled sectors. Again, stripping out one level of micromanagement sounds like an interesting way to streamline a carryover from the original, but it falls flat.

Now it’s time for the laborious process of grabbing items and equipping the militia. Say a gun is found on an enemy’s corpse. If you have a backup weapon slot free, then no problem; however, if you don’t, you’ll be juggling items. Since the inventory portion of the pick-up item screen lacks the mercenary’s paper doll, everything has to be done before interacting with the item. This is a much bigger problem with smaller items, such as a medic not being able to equip bandages in their empty left hand but instead having to swap out something else for a desired item (which then has to be picked back up), but there will be times when weapons have been shifted about for repair purposes. Oh, and if you want to swap items between mercenaries, it can’t be done from the item screen but through a separate command, even if they’re standing right by each other.

Great; with the items ready, it’s time to haul it to the militia. If it’s within the same town, even better. If not, then be prepared to hoof it. Once at the location, every single militia has to be tracked down and handed an item. Nothing can be done from the world map. Since each mercenary has at the most three backup weapons they can give, often much less, and areas can have a dozen-plus militia, that’s running either back to a nearby shop to purchase items (expensive) or to another area where loot is still on the ground (time consuming), and then all the way back to the location, loading it, and then tracking down the militia one by one again to hand them a weapon. It also doesn’t help that the militia is awful and constantly needs more weapons.

Rarely did the militia perform above the level of simply existing, often running right into the enemy’s line of fire. What this means is that the process of purchasing or looting weapons and distributing them happens over and over and over—and across a sprawling map that, for a while, will only house one or two squads. That’s a lot of running around and menu wading. Cutting off a raid seems like a sound strategy, but traveling the world map depletes each mercenary’s overall stamina, often leaving them too tired to stop the invaders in time before they rip the militia apart (or limping along to very slowly hand out the gear). Overall stamina and health, which can be lowered due to severe damage, can be replenished by having the squad sit on the world map with the time accelerated, but extended breaks are rare. This is a lot of busy work for very little pay off, and the disparity between the militia and the quick-drawing, Kevlar-vested commandos Deidranna utilizes is both striking and infuriating.

This protracted process completely drains any momentum that gets built up during forward thrusts. When there is a lull so that things can finally be accomplished, such as running the hours or days away to pick up airlifted supplies purchased from an online arms store, it feels like a vacation. Most of the time, though, it’s rushing from one hot spot to the next and hoping that the militia can hold out long enough for the squad to reach the area in time to hold it. A lot of the strategy involved in maintaining proper levels of weight, health, and stamina is lost in the senselessness of so much of the design.

As I mentioned before, there are some moments of pure glory. The system of kitting out a fighter and tailoring their progression by allocating points to their various attributes and skills is as captivating as ever. The process of taking a medic and pumping points into Dexterity, Stealth, and Marksmanship to turn them into a fearsome and treasured combat medic that is as adept at resuscitating teammates as they are at scoring headshots remains satisfying. Similarly, seeing a mercenary’s proficiency increase in everything from forcing doors open with crowbars to picking locks as they slowly become experts through point allocation is also rewarding; though, I do feel bad for explosives experts, who can only gain so much experience due to there being only have a handful of designated spots to plant charges on walls. Sidequests will help in winning over the populace and gaining some cash to pick up some swanky new gear for the squads, as well as offer the rare chance to pit the mercenaries against cannibals, search for exotic porn for bored townsfolk, and drive off harsh taskmasters from a prized mine.

Mercenaries also have traits, which can mark them as a wimp (whose morale plummets when injured—looking at you, Barry), or as an expert in a certain field. They can also affect the squad makeup, as some prefer going solo while others might have a problem with or trust someone already hired. This interplay makes creating the perfect squad an elusive and addictive pursuit, and I found myself to be a fearsome guardian over their wellbeing; no shame in abusing the loading feature here, especially when the designers were thoughtful enough to create an autosave when entering an area and when combat is initiated. That only serves to intensify the sense of elation whenever a squad makes it out of a hairy situation deep in enemy territory unscathed.

The mercenaries can make you work for it, though. It’s not uncommon for an axe-wielding maniac to chop their way through a squad’s perimeter and maul all of them to pieces. The seconds-long stun that takes place whenever someone is injured or switches to melee means it’s incredibly easy for someone to switch to attack with the butt of their rifle only to be cut, stunned, cut, stunned, and repeat—for the entire squad. Or how they can all be highlighted and ordered to move to a location but can’t be told to all face in the same direction, which has to be done one at a time. Or why they can repair weapons but not armor, which is chewed up with alarming frequency. Or how items in the inventory transform into non-pictured nothings. Okay, so maybe not all of this is their fault. Still, while they might be professionals, and my own prized little army, they aren’t very bright.

Jagged Alliance: Back in Action is a game whose potent post-patch potential buoys its otherwise limp arrival. The framework for an exceptional tactical strategy game is in place, but it’s hampered by so many time-consuming chores and head-scratching implementations that it will be too rough around the edges for many. There are some exciting running gunfights and near things to be had, but there are also a lot of bugs (weapons vanishing, spotty pathfinding, inventory items disappearing) and onerous design decisions (erratic militia, inventory juggling, menu wading) that need to be addressed before it can come close to Sir-Tech’s original.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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