PC Game Review: Jagged Alliance: Back in Action
John Thompson gets 'back in action' with the latest release of the revamped classic that puts players in control of mercenaries to free an island from tyranny. Is it a job worth of the A-Team?
- Coreplay GmbH
- Kalypso Media
- ground combat, turn-based, tactical, role-playing, real-time pausable, 3d, single unit, squad
Viva La Revolucion!
The tiny but mineral-rich Caribbean islet of Arulco sits under the baking sun, blue skies and jackbooted heel of its insidious dictator, the evil queen Deidranna Rietman. Its populace is starving and working in indentured servitude to Reitman, who sucks the island’s mines dry while padding her coffers and, to a lesser extent, those of her minions.
But the true ruler (King Enrico Chivaldori, the former husband of Reitman) of Arulco has contacted you and your band of fellow mercenaries to establish a toehold on the island and proceed, step by step, to terminating Reitman’s command.
With extreme prejudice.
Welcome to Jagged Alliance: Back in Action.
BUT FIRST SOME BACKGROUND
Jagged Alliance: Back in Action (JABA) is Kalypso Media and Coreplay’s first entry into the famed lineage of the Jagged Alliance series, which first appeared in DOS format in 1994 and hit perhaps its highest note in 1999’s Jagged Alliance 2. Taking this series to the next level in the footsteps of the much beloved JA2 is no easy task.
The game play remains largely the same as the initial offerings, just upgraded with new features and of course graphically improved as well. From a zoomable isometric perspective, players move their mercenaries around the map, seeking cover in an attempt to sneak up on the baddies or set ambushes. Clear the map and the area is yours.
BOOT CAMP, OR HOW I LEARNED TO ‘LET SLIP THE DOGS OF WAR’
JA beginners will find solace in the fact that Kalypso provides an extremely thorough, well done and easy to use tutorial that goes over everything from changing equipment to sharing items between your mercs to planting and pulling mines and picking locks – all skills your crew will need to take down Reitman.
And make no mistake – they will need these skills and not a little bit of luck, because this game is not easy. That’s not a knock, just the truth. Most gamers will find themselves hurling epithets at the screen more than once when they have to restart because your crew was overwhelmed by baddies or was taken down by a few lucky shots.
CONSULT THE JOB BOARD
One of the best aspects of JABA is the crew of misfit toys at a player’s fingertips: the stable of mercs. The ones with the most skills cost you the most cash. Those relatively new to their careers as soldiers of fortune cost less, but can do fewer skills well. How you choose to spend your dollars is a matter of strategy; is it better to have a wall of lead fly towards the enemy (albeit poorly aimed) or fewer, more precise shots coming from fewer mercs?
Decisions, decisions – but one thing will quickly become obvious to most gamers as they advance in the campaign – the computer definitely favors the “human wave” approach to a players’ advances. There will be times when a crew is just virtually overrun by the sheer numbers of enemies. The AI is not clever; it will not astound a player with its tactical brilliance – in fact, it will simply throw all it has, at once, at a player’s positions.
Periodic eddies in the waves of humans storming the player’s positions allow mercs to reload or shift positions slightly, or tend to their wounds. There is not much strategy involved in the AI’s approach, but having a blend of mercs with many skills can help. Certainly, throwing the most lead downrange in the shortest time possible is a must-have. Gaining experience in the field allows a merc to level up and add skill points, which gives the game a nice RPG feel.
NICE PLACE TO VISIT, WOULDN’T WANT TO LIVE THERE
A player’s job is to conquer territories one at a time, entering the tactical map to take down the queen’s thugs and liberate that map section. More territories mean more funds for a player’s crew; each territory adds cash. More cash means better weapons and body armor and/or more mercs kickin’ more tail. But the queen won’t just sit idly by while you take her territory; she will send armed bands out to try and recapture them.
This is where the militia comes in. Every map section, once liberated, has a number of members of its populace who will volunteer to fight against the queen if they are given weapons. Often, what can be scrounged from the thugs that were just killed to liberate that section is enough to get them started. The longer a territory is held, the more members of the populace will make themselves available to the militia. Their ability to stave off an attack is related directly to how many of them there are and how well they have been armed, but the militia provide a good first line of defense when the queen inevitably counterattacks.
Loss of control of the airport is a crushing defeat, as it is where a player receives more supplies and hires new mercs. A strong militia presence here goes a long way when a crew is out in the bush.
WHEN THE BULLET HITS THE (VIRTUAL) BONE
Combat, of course, lies at the heart of JABA. As mentioned previously, the AI will not fool you and it is a simple thing to plot out where its main counterattacks will come and plan accordingly. Speaking of planning: the developers have implemented as part of the decision to go from the turn-based system of old to the pausable real-time system in JABA a component called the Plan & Go system.
Plan & Go allows the player to preorder a series of individual actions, potentially calibrating them with their teammates actions if need be. For example, Merc 1 could be asked to crawl to a wall, pop up, and shoot a three-round burst at an enemy; while Merc 2 will stay hidden behind that wall but pop up at the same time as Merc 1 and empty his shotgun at the same target. Meanwhile, Merc 3 is running around the back of a barn to get the drop on the next enemy who will inevitably move to the sound of the gunfire from Mercs 1 and 2.
In theory, this all sounds well and good, but of course the enemy will always wreck many plans, most often by refusing to die when they should. Because the developers have chosen to eliminate fog of war entirely (players can see every enemy on the battlefield from the minute the mercs enter the map – a bad choice in this reviewer’s opinion), a player is rarely surprised by the enemy’s tactics. What can be incredibly annoying is the mercs’ sudden inability to do *anything* when faced with an enemy running at them; they will sit there and stammer as the enemy runs right down their gun barrel and begins to hack at them with a machete. Sometimes the merc can be saved when this happens, other times it’s time for a visit to the autosave.
The developers, as noted above, have made up for a lack of finesse by the AI by seemingly having the population of Brooklyn walking around Arulco with Kalashnikovs … seeing 50 or 60 thugs guarding a map section isn’t uncommon as the game moves along, so capturing a map with even two squads isn’t easy, because while they may not be geniuses, those 60 thugs can throw one heck of a broadside.
Between the lack of fog or war and decision to move away from a turn-based system, many JA fans are more than mildly displeased, and it’s easy to see why – these two decisions alone are vast leaps away from the game’s predecessors, and not necessarily in a good way.
NOT MUCH TO LOOK AT
JABA graphics are adequate. It’s obviously a huge step up in terms of graphics from JA2 and its ilk but there’s nothing about it that will take a player’s breath away. Isometric, zoomable, basic. The closer a player zooms in, the more the camera flattens out towards ground level. The camera controls aren’t the easiest to use but could be much worse.
From the perspective of sound, JABA once again leans towards the Spartan aesthetic. The voice acting by the individual mercs is the highlight; environmental noises range from birds that will make you want to pull your hair out to the basic noises of combat, none of which are particularly immersive but are not poorly done.
LONG LIVE THE KING
JABA is the kind of game typically labeled as “good but not great.” The campaign will take most players anywhere from 40-60 hours to complete before they finally put the queen where she belongs, and almost guaranteed to be included in that will be a number of grumbling reboots or loads because of the game’s difficulty or foibles.
It lacks in the storytelling area and is obviously focused on combat, which it does with mixed results. But the RPG feel to leveling up mercs, the voice acting that makes them feel quirky and unique, and the plentiful loot will keep many players happily emptying clips on Arulco for quite a while. Taking the good with the bad, a trip to Arulco is like quite a few vacations – a mixed bag that you figure out how to enjoy.
Review written by: John Thompson, Staff Writer