Every since playing Strike Commander back in the old DOS days, I've always had a soft spot in my heart for games that allow you to run a mercenary organization. Whether it be a flight sim (Strike Commander still needs a remake, damn it!), action, strategy or tactics, recruiting, supplying and deploying mercs is always good fun. I never played the previous Jagged Alliance games, but when I saw some previews for this new iteration, and since Silent Storm was the last tactics game I played (all the way back in '05), I was instantly intrigued. On a quick side note, it was only after I started writing this review that I discovered that Jagged Alliance: Back in Action is actually a remake of Jagged Alliance 2. I'm simply going to approach this as a new game, since from my perspective, it is.
Your task in JA:BIA is a simple one: kill the wife of your client, a tyrannical dictator of the island nation Arulco. The first thing I love about this game is that you are simply given $40,000 and then set loose on the island. How you spend that seed money is entirely up to you; you could hire three low level mercs or blow your whole wad on one expensive super soldier. Developer bitComposer leaves the decisions entirely up to you, for good or ill and with no hand-holding. While this may result in an insanely steep learning curve, I would gladly climb that mountain than trudge through ten tutorial levels. Kudos to bitComposer for going old school, right from the beginning.
In a departure from most tactics games, JA:BIA uses a real-time-with-pausing approach. Instead of each character moving and shooting, turn by turn, everyone acts all at once. At first this may seem like a mess, but I found that as long as I was patient and hit my space bar frequently, it ends up being a more rewarding and enjoyable experience than consecutive turns. It's also very easy to plan ambushes, using the built-in syncing feature to have people fire all at once (as soon as everyone is in place). And for the newcomer, toggling "guard mode" ensures that you don't always need to micromanage your mercs' attacks because they will auto-fire on anyone straying into their line of sight.
As a tactics game, I really can't fault much of the combat gameplay. From what I could tell, when you played smart, setting up ambushes and coordinating your fire teams, victory is usually possible, even against overwhelming odds. Likewise when I rushed, running full sprint instead of in a crouch, my team was usually wiped out without mercy. This bi-polar success/failure formula is pretty striking in today's gaming milieu because the bromide of the day seems to be "failure kills fun". It does, but only when failure is a result of random chance or bad programming. Here, success makes you feel smart and accomplished while failure simply urges you to reload because, "Oh, I totally know what I should have done there!"
The design of combat may be spot on, but some of it falls down in the balance and execution departments. The most grievous offender is path-finding. Whereas in most games, you get the sense that even if the programming isn't dealing well with bumping units, it was at least trying to manage. In JA:BIA, you get the sense that the game is mocking you for even trying to criss-cross your mercs' paths. They will run in place, jerk back and forth and only occasionally squeeeeeze by, and even then, that minor victory is for naught because for some reason everyone in a 5-foot radius will inexplicably move around as well, throwing off any sort of organized formation you were trying for. On the design side, since most of the fighting takes place outside over flat pieces of land, snipers are usually the only hired guns you need. While sniping people is fun, especially since you can manually target heads and legs, it does get repetitive after a while. I suppose there is a silver lining when you finally do use your shotgun and SMG-wielding grunts to clear out buildings, as it ends up feeling that much more badass.
Once you take over the small airfield on the north-eastern edge of the island, Arulco becomes your giant sandbox. Whereas in-mission action freezes the game clock, movement and decisions made on the strategic map are carried out against the normal twenty-four hour cycle. What this means is that you have to coordinate what time of day to attack your objectives, judge how long it will take you to get from point A to point B, and always be mindful of guarding the locations you've captured from counter-attack. On the surface, this is actually a very fun duality of game modes. What's so striking about Back in Action, however, is that while the combat is so refreshing and well-executed, the strategic map is pretty much broken. And the sad thing is, the giant fatal flaw has but one name: logistics.
Let me describe a typical pattern: I bring my main team of six mercs in to secure an enemy outpost. I crawl, snipe, blast and occasionally bum-rush my way through every baddie on the map. When there are only piles of bodies left, I begin scavenging. Of course, in a typical level, there is more than twice the amount of useful items to pick up as I have inventory space on my team. So, the first step is collecting everything into a common container, then exit the area and bring in a special "mule team" to cart the sellable items back to a merchant and useable items back to a storage depot. The mules also have to make stops along the way to various previously captured locations to give guns ("give" meaning physically hand them) to potential militia members (friendly automated guards that basically only act as cannon fodder). Each time any team enters an area, that's another load screen to sit through. Now, multiply this by about twenty times during your standard play secession, and you begin to get an idea of how monotonous this busy work can get.
The problem is that almost nothing inventory- or item-related is accessible through the strategic map. Whenever you want to do anything, from emptying or filling storage containers to exchanging gear between team members, you have to go through a loading screen and actually personally run your guys around swapping guns and ammo. Even ordering supplies from the "online store" means physically trekking all the way back to the starting airport for pick up, and then turning right back around for the return trek to the front lines. I'm not exaggerating when I say that approximately 80% of gameplay is simple logistics and re-supply. To add insult to injury, militia is near useless and body armor is paper-thin, so re-supplying those quickly becomes pointless. My guys had to make due running around in pajamas for most of the game.
Finally, if you are looking for whiz-bang presentation, look elsewhere. The graphics in combat are adequate, but the menus and interface are archaic. What little voice work to be had comes in the form of staccato-animated talking heads. And even then, the only times you do any talking is briefly when hiring new mercs and from the occasional side quest (don't get your hopes up about those, either, as they all boil down "go here, kill everyone, loot").
Jagged Alliance: Back in Action is one of those games that I enjoy despite itself. It has an almost unlimited number of flaws, and yet, I can't help booting it back up over and over. It's fun to gradually capture town after town and steadily grow your army. Unfortunately, it's hard to play in anything other than small doses because before long, it once again starts feeling like a job. Similar to how the old Sim Tower really should have been named Sim Elevators, Jagged Alliance should have been named U-Haul Alliance.
This review is based on a digital copy of Jagged Alliance: Back in Action for the PC provided by Kalypso Media.