I didn't play any of the original Jagged Alliance games, so I came to Back in Action with a completely open mind. Well, that's not entirely true; having seen a trailer and read a bit of spiel, I was really looking forward to playing it.
The original PC classics were turn-based strategy games, and over the years they developed a strong cult following. There will be fans of the originals who are deeply suspicious of the shift to real-time, but they needn't worry too much. A new ‘plan and go' tactical system has been implemented, allowing gamers to pause action at any time and queue their orders. It means that the game retains some of what endeared it to so many in the past, but at the same time it's not a massive departure from the type of experience the modern gamer is now used to.
The premise is very exciting. You control a squad of up to four mercenaries and move around a selection of maps taking out targets and securing various locations along the way. The overall aim of the game is to liberate the island Arulco from the cruel dictator Queen Deidranna.
The tutorial was where the first alarm bells started ringing for me. Whilst it was helpful in showing me the controls, it did nothing to explain the game to me. There was no explanation of basic tactics, just a quick guide on how to move, shoot and sync your attacks.
Eventually, after pushing through the tutorial, I was thrown into the game proper (nothing unusual there). It was a tough start; having to learn the game's basic systems meant I was playing catch up all the time, and dying a lot. I was subjected to the kind of frustrating experience that could have been avoided altogether with a more comprehensive tutorial. After dying repeatedly on the first mission, I was left wishing that Jagged Alliance had taken the time to show me some combat.
The first positive thing to strike me was the amount of choice on offer. There are hundreds of customisation options, allowing for several different gameplay styles to be explored. With a wide selection of mercs to recruit, each with special skills; so much choice can make it seem daunting, when in fact it isn't.
The game dictates your first moves in the recruitment game. Lack of funds mean you can only hire three mercs from the off. This crew is your first charge, and getting to grips with them quickly is your primary task. The options presented in this first phase of the game felt a little limiting. Jagged Alliance wants you to earn your stripes, and it absolutely refuses to make it easy for you as you learn the ropes.
Back in Action is a pleasant game to behold. There is plenty of detail on the maps, and the scenery is well designed. Walking into buildings reveals further environments; Coreplay has crammed in a lot. Overall, it might not have the sharpest graphics, but there is much to admire. That said, some of the animations are a little on the clunky side; all of your troops have an eerily similar gait.
Moving your team around is tricky. The ‘plan and go' tactical option is ok if your mercenaries actually ‘go' where you say and do what you ‘plan' them to. Sometimes you'll send the whole team to do something and only one of them goes. It forces you to go back and reorder your troops, and the whole ‘plan and go' tactical system can start off as a frustrating and finicky addition. This became less of an issue as Jagged Alliance progressed, and as you master this element of the game you can start to put complex series of events into motion. Whether or not they work is entirely different matter.
Perhaps the worst part of Back in Action is the voice-acting. Much of the scripting leaves a lot to be desired too. Within fifteen minutes of starting the game you'll become annoyed with the hammy vocal work and the repetitive catch-phrases blurted out by your team of mercenaries.
At first I though it amusing when one of my mercs quipped that his latest victim was now "a dead pile of puss." But this initial amusement quickly led to despair as all of my troops started complaining: "At this pace I vill lose consciousness", "I can't keep running like that" and "I gotta stop; chest pain". The only problem was that my soldiers were actually crawling along the floor at a very underwhelming speed, and not running at all. This inappropriate dialogue persisted throughout my time with the game, and I didn't appreciate it one little bit.
There is another problem with Jagged Alliance, and it's a big one. The AI can be very frustrating at times. The enemies that you encounter are, despite fairly consistent patrol patterns, wildly unpredictable. Sometimes, no matter how stealthy you think you're being, an armed sentry will suddenly develop some kind of sixth sense and turn around and attack you.
I'll give you an example: I had one of my mercs crawling along on the floor, sneaking up on his quarry, shotgun in hand. The blissfully unaware guard was facing the other way and stood behind a van so I was feeling confident that he was about to be taken down. Then, inexplicably, the guard's arse-eyes opened, he turned, ran around the vehicle and promptly shot my soldier in the head, repeatedly.
This unpredictability works the other way too: Despite being right next to his mate (now a corpse after I'd shot him in the head), the evil goon dismissed the gun fight, his buddy's death and the resulting splatter of blood as nothing to worry about. I was preparing for another exchange of fire, but in the end all I needed to do was crawl off in the other direction as the second target resumed his predetermined patrol, satisfied that he was in no immediate danger.
I like being stealthy and I like springing traps on unassuming enemy patrols, but at no point did I feel like I was outsmarting my opponent. The under-developed AI meant I was merely exploiting the game's systems to obtain a result. It was far from satisfying. In the end I was just moving around each map, looking for isolated patrols and picking them off one at a time, as head on battles nearly always ended up with my troops getting killed.
I found myself saving my game all the time. Sometimes the reaction times of my mercs meant that they were dying in frustrating circumstances. It was clearly something the developers were aware of, as the game autosaves before all combat. The only problem with this is there is very little sense of risk. No matter how epic the fail, you can always go back and try it again (and again and again, until you've done it).
Deciding when to strike can be tricky. As patrols move around the map they constantly raise and lower their weapons. They're not raising their weapons to engage in combat, it's just the animations aren't as smooth as they could be, so when a guard changes direction even slightly, the gun comes up as if to fire. It can be a little distracting, because you're constantly expecting them to burst into action and come chasing after you. It's a slight flaw that, unfortunately, detracts from the atmosphere.
Later on, when you've got to grips with the game, it definitely improves. Although it can still feel like taking candy from a baby as you pick off one stupid, erratic foot-soldier at a time. Planning and executing a swift offensive manouevre is enjoyable, perhaps more so as getting to the stage where you have that kind of control over your troops takes some serious effort. At least there is some reward for your hard work.
The real challenge comes in taking on large groups of soldiers that are clustered together. Nearly every time I tried to take down more than one enemy at a time I came out of the encounter worse off. Despite pausing the action and picking out targets, bullets always seem to run out at an inopportune moment, or guns jam, line-of-sight gets lost or extra combatants turn up out of nowhere. Shotguns and machine guns help, that much is obvious, but the large scale exchanges are very difficult to execute to perfection; often leading to a restart.
Next time I boot up my PC in search of some strategy action, Jagged Alliance is going to have some tough competition. It's not a terrible game, it's just got so many flaws that it is difficult to ignore them all. Having said that, there are going to be people who like this game much more than I did. If you played the original back in the day, and remember it as a happy place, then there's a good chance that this remake will appeal to you. It's not an irredeemable mess; if you're prepared to look past its problems, underneath the clunky facade lies an engaging game. It's just a shame that Coreplay didn't make it easier to get at, because if they had, Jagged Alliance might have been able to step out from the shadow of its illustrious forebears and start attracting a cult following all of its own.