yoghurt's Jagged Alliance: Back in Action (PC) review

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Buggy, but brings back good memories

Anyone who is old enough to remember, that there were games before Modern Warfare and Halo (read: anyone old enough to purchase games for themselves in the 90's), surely and fondly remembers Jagged Alliance 2. Even if they didn't play it personally, they had a friend, or a friend of a friend, who was probably fanatical about it. I don't know many games with such a devoted fanbase and modding community, which still works on improving nearly 13 year-old game.

Well, I lack any modding skills, but I'm a huge fan. Sorry, A HUGE FAN, with all caps. There are a few games I've completed more than once, and even less which I've played more than twice, fingers of one hand would suffice to count them. And I can safely say, that alongside Fallout 1, Fallout 2, UFO: Enemy Unknown (or, for those measuring with the ridiculous imperial scale, X-COM: UFO Defense) and Deus Ex, JA2, especially with the community patch 1.13, which adds a lot of goodies to the already great game, is one of the masterpieces I always have on my HDD. So it's obvious, that when I heard there's going to be a remake of it, I was both excited and sceptical about it. Did Kalypso and Bit Composer managed to create a product which lives up to the very, and I mean VERY high expectations?

In some cases, surprisingly - YES! Getting rid of pure, turn-based combat was the largest controversy around Back in Action, ad I get it, I was horrified at first, too. But chaning the old... wait, scratch that, too old oncept turned out to be a good move. The new, active pause (with the ability to link soldiers' actions together via easy drag and drop system) gives just the right amount of control over the mercenaries without making the whole tactical aspect of the game chaotic or unmanagable. It does not make the new Jagged Alliance an RTS in any way, the well known, good old mechanics are still there, it's just tailored to suit the needs of the modern market, so fans of the original, don't panic, after a few minutes you won't notice the change anymore.

Lack of Fog of War on the tactical map was the another complaint I've heard, and surely, the game seems easier, when you know the number of enemies you have to face and their exact position. But You still can't shoot the enemy across the map, as the line of sight, the day and night cycle and other minor factors prevent you from owning the whole battleground quickly. And the Fog of War is still present on the world map, so the opposing forces may surprise you sometimes, or you can stumble onto some enemy territory while you control more than one squad at the time. Overally, lack of FoW is not a huge deal, you still have to plan your next moves carefully and choose your targets, or you will be easily overwhelmed.

Another pretty well thought out element of gameplay is the revised strategic map of the Island. I had to get used to it, of course, and it was dumbed down in comparison with the original JA (lack of the sector inventory screen, which makes gathering of the equipement after the battle tedious, is one of the major faults of the programmers), but it's clear, makes travelling around the game world easy, and two modes of travel (in a straight line to the chosen target, or the faster one, using roads) give you another thing to think about while planning your actions. Travel is generally faster than in the original, so even without the chopper, which you could use in JA2, you don't feel you're wasting time on getting from one place to another. Also, the road blocks set up by the enemy can hamper your advance to the given target, but after you populate them with your own militia, you can succesfully slow down or even completely stop the opponent from taking back the sectors you have conquered. That's another thing you have to manage, but spending some time on reinforcing militia with your mercenaries in crucial spots on the map makes your life easier later on, when you don't have to intervene every time one of your towns or mines is attacked.

Speaking of militia - unlike the original, there is no training involved. You just have to give some guys your spare weapons and pray they will live through the next encounter or help them directly to ensure you don't lose the sector. Resuplying your AI soldiers after enemy attacks becomes boring after a while, but when you start to earn some real money, you just have to buy a couple of rifles from a local weapon's dealer and distribute them (if there is not enough loot to get from the defeated enemy), so it's not hard to keep your sectors secured. It's just unconvenient, because of the aforementioned lack of sector inventory screen - you must go to the tactical map personally and hand them a gun. A clunky idea at best.

Another not so well designed element of Back in Action is handling of your mercs' inventory. Despite the fact you can access any mercenary's equipment at all times (even those, which are not currently in the sector you're fighting in), you can't just drag and drop desired items from one soldier to another, who is reasonably close. You have to choose one guy, click a specific menu button and then right lick on the person you want to exchange with. It's slow and not effecient. I'm still waiting for a patch or a mod which can change it, because it becomes annoying after a while.

But there's is one more infuriaiting thing - you can only repair weapons. In JA2, every piece of equipement, even one which is not used for anything specific, could be repaired by any merc with a decent mechanical skill, the only cost of it was the fact that it was time consuming. In Back in Action, only weapons can be brought back to near mint condition, while the expensive and much rarer armor pieces are gradually destroyed, even if you are playing carefully and don't get hit to much. Programmers probably thought that it was a good idea to make player spend a money on something, because ammo and guns are easy to find after a while, and you earn a ton of cash mid-game if you plan your moves. Well... no. It was not a good idea, money sink is never a valid design.

More on the mercs - I liked the idea of levelling skills in the original better. The more your soldier used a skill, the better he was in using it, which was logical, worked well and even if your merc didn't take part in any major battle, he still could level up repairing items or training militia. Back in Action changes it into "get XP for doing stuff and level up when you get enough of them" mechanic, and you can assign skill points to any ability, which makes it easier to transform even those mercenaries who can't hit a building into decent shots, but I've never been a huge fan of this system and in my opinion, it's a change for the worse.

And another thing, probably the worst of all - the mercs themselves. In JA2, every soldier has it's own portrait, his own quirks, vices and virtues and so on. The portraits in Back in Action are so generic and ugly, you can't distinguish one guy from the other if you don't give them different glasses and hats. I'm serious. And those different attitudes toward other mercs, varying personalities, which were one of the selling points of the original game? Still here, but they don't have much influence on gameplay. If you play well, and it's not hard, as enemy AI is not too bright, the morale of your force is constantly good, and if one merc doesn't like the other, he will comment on it (every time in the same manner, which is annoying as hell), but I didn't see any outcome. Guys who don't like each other still seem to don't mind working in the same team. Maybe it was my luck, but I remember mercs bickering, quarelling, leaving the squad and even, in extreme cases, murdering each other and strangely, I miss it.

But, not counting the ugly merc faces, the graphics and general presentation are pretty good. Nothing fancy of course, but you can see what armor your soldiers and, more importantly, your enemies are wearing, or what mods their weapons have. Overally, the terrain and surroundings are well modelled, although you can clearly see that there were not many tiles used to design buildings. But, although the engine manages to show you the action clearly, it has some problems with clipping, and sometimes your merc's gun will be visible to enemies through wall, which destroys your carefully planned ambush. Mercs problematic pathfinding can also take a seemingly easy victory away from you, as your soldier chooses the wrong path and get's killed on the way to his target if you don't check which way he's chosen.

All in all, the new Jagged Alliance has it's flaws, but I reccomend to check it, as it's less than 30 Euros (and probably less than 30 USD) on Steam. It's a decent strategy game, and there's not a lot of them on the market nowadays, so it's a real catch. Some mechanics need a revision and redesign, but some of the ideas, especially the active pause combat, are easy to grasp and make the game entertaining. But I also strongly reccomend the still exceptional Jagged Alliance 2 with patch 1.13. If you can look past the outdated, isometric 2D graphics, you'll still have a ton of fun with it, if you like such type of games of course.

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