Review

Jagged Alliance: Back in Action Review (PC)

Oh, hello again Jagged Alliance: Back In Action. It seems only a couple of months ago (it was) that I was giving the game a thorough preview, now I’m coming back to see if the game’s hot and the ironing’s been done. Considering the pedigree of the Jagged Alliance series I’m not the only one who’d really hate it if developer BitComposer had ballsed this up.

Firstly a summing-up for those unfamiliar with the game. JA:BIA is a strategy game where you control a small group of mercenaries and set them out against the forces of Queen Deidranna, the ruthless dictator of the small country of Arulco. Since just a few well-placed bullets will end your guys you have to think tactically to outwit enemies, luring soldiers away from groups and slowly picking them off one by one.

What could be better than a nice game of Theme Hospital?

Over the course of the game you have to slowly liberate Arulco one area at a time, take on missions given to you by the residents for cash rewards, recruit new mercenaries to your cause (you’ll probably only start with two) and finally take on Deidranna herself in a giant armoured robot-suit. Okay, maybe not that last one as this is a “realistic” game. There’s a lot of content here and while there’s a lot of saving/reloading action it remains addictive until the end.

The much-publicised shift that Back In Action brings to the series is that the game is no longer turn-based, it’s real-time. This decision has had fans up in arms, worried that this will completely change the game. While many will still complain, having played it I honestly don’t think the shift is that big a deal. I covered it a lot in the preview but I want to reassure players again that this isn’t a massive genre upheaval like the remakes of XCOM or Syndicate. Play JA:BIA like Command & Conquer and you probably won’t take out a single enemy. Moving your mercs should be the main focus of real-time, but for combat you should be automatically pausing the game and going into the Command Mode.

Command Mode is the replacement for the turn-based “do whatever mad stuff you like with no time limit” scenario of the original games. With a simple tap of the Spacebar you can plan every detail of an elaborate strategy against your enemies, before tapping again and see it enacted. Synchronising your mercs, getting them into the exact position and stance, which part of the body to aim at (helpfully given a worded rating of the likelihood to hit), even how many shots to fire. It works beautifully, although I still don’t like that there’s no “keep shooting until they’re a bloody mess on the wall” option. A lot of people would disagree with me, but hey, options for everyone would be nice.

Speaking of options, that brings me on to a big complaint. Since the first previews fans have been requesting that some sort of Fog Of War be added to the game. At the moment the player can instantly see when starting where every enemy is on the map, even if they’re in a building. While I personally don’t mind this (the game’s hard enough as it is) it does remove a lot of the tension and means that the player doesn’t have to be anywhere near as careful.

Yes, that’s a child begging at my armed doctor’s feet. He is legend

I can see why BitComposer chose to do this, mainly to up the game’s pace and bring new players in, but why couldn’t there be an option for a simple Fog Of War for Jagged Alliance fans and players that prefer a slower-paced game? Or the option to not be able to see every enemy at once until one of your men sees them? Surely pleasing the fans and catering to an ever wider range of gamers makes good business sense? It must be a simple bit of programming after all, they’ve already coded in line-of-sight and mercs reacting to an enemy’s presence so just have them pop into existence when that happens.

While this criticism hasn’t be addressed, I’m relieved to report that the AI has been improved. In the preview code both allies and enemies would frequently shoot at walls, run in circles, get stuck in doors and have supernaturally good eyesight and hearing. All that’s gone. Enemies will wait you out, investigate, change to a more defensible position, call for assistance, take cover, and generally be pains in the arse to take out.

Even more importantly though, they’re fallible. They won’t know where you are all the time, sometimes they’ll fall for your traps (and sometimes they won’t), and they’ll allow themselves to get distracted. I had one of my guys run past a window noisily to keep the attention of two soldiers in a room while my other merc snuck in quietly behind them, gunning both down without either losing health. My personal favourite moment, that.

Unfortunately for Back In Action, while the AI has been improved it’s still not perfect. BitComposer have stopped short of making the soldiers believable, with all the actions feeling mechanical and consequently you’re always reminded that it’s a game. “Immersion-breaking” is the term. Enemies will gladly sit in the same spot forever. They’ll always be able to see you a fraction more than your guys can see them, and will always be more accurate. They’ll never converse with other soldiers, go for a fag or a comfort break, be caught with anything but a gun in their hand pointed in your direction… they just don’t feel like real people, and consequently are less fun to kill (and yes I realise I sound like a psychopath, but trust me on this).

As for your own guys, I am personally uncomfortable with having to micro-manage every single thing they do. I won’t knock the score down for it as I know a great deal of players won’t feel the same way as me, but I want to call attention to it for those that might. While I love the vocal personalities that each mercenary has (with the weird German Grunty being my favourite) none of their personalities come out during play. Do I really need to change Grunty to a ‘Run’ stance on the sidebar when I’ve ordered him to retreat from four enemies with AK-47s who have already nearly killed him? And as mentioned above, why do I have to order every single bullet they fire in Command Mode, and if not enough they’ll happily stare at the soldier they were shooting at until he kills them? These things may not be a problem for some, but having your mercs dance around a ladder, a doorway or just getting stuck passing each other is when keyboards start flying into monitors.

Um, guys, we can see you hiding behind those barrels you know

The underlying fact though is that Jagged Alliance: Back In Action is a hugely addictive and time-gobbling strategy game, if not currently a completely polished one. When things go right the adrenaline rush is incredible, but when things go wrong several times in a row you’ll want to rage-uninstall immediately. Constant checkpoint reloading and team micro-management is what Back In Action’s all about, and some strategy fans won’t get on with that. Conversely, Jagged Alliance fans will hate the move to real-time (despite the friendly Command Mode) and more especially the lack of tension and slow pace that characterized previous games. I also can’t imagine anyone being satisfied with constantly taking down enemies so devoid of personality or believability.

A score was really hard to come up with since it wavered back and forth for me on many occasions, and will undoubtedly do the same for others. Once I got into a mission I found it hard to stop until all my plans worked out, and even defeat often had me immediately coming back to try again. That’s the mark of an addictive, fun game, which Jagged Alliance: Back In Action definitely is, but it just doesn’t do quite enough to earn the really high marks. Nevertheless, if you’re after a tough strategy game that has team micro-management but is still quite accessible give it a try. Will Jagged Alliance fans take to it though? Ooh, that’s the question.

Top Game Moment: You’ll undoubtedly make your own, but carefully planning an assault, enacting the plan and it being successful is a high few games truly match.

Videos

Comments

By SirRoderick (SI Elite) on Feb 11, 2012
SirRoderick
With some luck they'll put out a patch or two to adress some of the points you raise. I was also very annoyed, in the demo, with the mentioned lack of a "shoot until dead" function. And I'd love fog of war, it would keep the tension in more.
By yamo (SI Newbie) on Feb 12, 2012
yamo
Instead of real time a WEGO system would have been soooo much better.
By herodotus (SI Herodotus) on Feb 13, 2012
herodotus
I had a feeling this game would come out with this rating grade. I've never enjoyed games like "Commandos", "Soldiers: Ho WWII"" or even "Men at War" for that matter. Too much, in fact way too much micromanagement for this action junkie.
From what I've read in the review, and an excellent one at that, combined with the screenshots I am very much reminded of the missions in "Joint Task Force". That was not an enjoyable game at all either, and very bug-ridden (never fixed).
By the_fourth_horseman (SI Veteran Member) on Feb 13, 2012
the_fourth_horseman
I totally agree that this is a hard game to rate. The action is magnificent, save a few minor bugs. The plan and go system is well thought-out, and seeing your plans get to fruition just never gets old. If you do it well, the thrill you receive in return is virtually unparalleled. What some call "too much micro-management" is just what comes with the territory.
Now that was the tactical part. The strategic part however is gear-grindingly annoying at most points : no sector inventories, no easy switching between inventories, character development is unbalanced, too few Mercs to choose from, no catchy storyline, few NPC interaction, lotso typos ('Druganoff' rifle??), very dreary system of equipping militia, etc. etc. etc.

In many ways "underbaked", but the result to me is still very addictive. If the flaws get patched well enough it should be able to reach a 80/85 rating equivalent.
By The_Tingler (SI Core) on Feb 13, 2012
The_Tingler
@Herodotus: Don't be put off too much, despite a lot of micro-management it never manages to be quite as insanely tough as Commandos. The tutorial will get you where you need to go... if it doesn't glitch so you can't select your units, like it did with me first time.
By Kuroneko87 (I just got here) on Feb 13, 2012
Kuroneko87
actually there IS and auto-shoot option.. if you press 'G' you enter 'guard mode' your merc shoots anything in their view cone
By herodotus (SI Herodotus) on Feb 13, 2012
herodotus
Interesting. Might be worth checking out after all, as anything like "Commandos" and I'm just hopeless:)
It does still sound like far too much micromanagement for me. That's why I prefer Relic's style as seen in "CoH - Tales of Valor" and "DoW II".
By SirRoderick (SI Elite) on Feb 13, 2012
SirRoderick
Guard mode doesn't let you choose a target in command mode with the order to shoot until dead. That's what I need here, I can't be seriously expected to know how many shots this is going to take.
By The_Tingler (SI Core) on Feb 13, 2012
The_Tingler
Yep, I'm with SirRoderick here. You can tell your mercs to continuously attack in the normal game, but you can't do it while paused (command mode). If you do it without pausing your guys will die.

It's not TOO big a deal, but it is annoying having to tell your guys to shoot 20 times and if that fails watch them stare at the enemy until they shoot back (and get killed).
By SirRoderick (SI Elite) on Feb 13, 2012
SirRoderick
In the demo, I had one guy that matrix-dodged about 50 rounds from several mercs. Bloody hell was I happy when they finally got one between the eyes.

The annoyance was that I had to keep my mercs organised and moving to counter OTHER threats as well, so I had to use the pause mode. So I was just stacking up obscene amount of gunshots on everything.
By reggimann (I just got here) on Feb 14, 2012
reggimann
About the "shoot until dead" option: Guard Mode is what you are looking for. Just enable it and your grunt will murder all he sees.
By SirRoderick (SI Elite) on Feb 14, 2012
SirRoderick
I already told you that guard mode is exactly what I'm not looking for...read mah post sah!
By Sir_Recon (SI Veteran Newbie) on Feb 18, 2012
Sir_Recon
Now thats a good honest review I can relate to, helps me out alot on purchasing.
By SirRoderick (SI Elite) on Feb 18, 2012
SirRoderick
This site tends to give out reviews like that more often then other ones :)

It's why this is my homepage.
By herodotus (SI Herodotus) on Feb 19, 2012
herodotus
Absolutely agree, Roderick. Fair and unbiased reviews are are to find, and this is one of the rare ones (if not the rarest).