Sparky's Update - JA: Back in Action

Sparky here, with your usual weekly update of all things inane. I'm going to be filling you in on my thoughts on Jagged Alliance: Back in Action, and since I still haven't gotten around to doing any significant reading of any sort, I've decided to use that section as a random catch-all. I'll also be talking a little bit more about my progress in Divinity II. Grab some Tylenol for that Valentine's Day hangover, because this word magic is about to get you drunk all over again.

Mercs with Mouths

Guys. Guys. GUYS! Guess what?

Jagged Alliance: Back in Action doesn't suck!

You have no freakin' idea how relieved I am as a long-time fan of the series to say those words and truly mean it. It's not great. It's frankly busted in spots. There are bizarre problems everywhere. But overall, it's good ol' Jagged Alliance goodness at its core. After a substantial number of years without a great title in the squad-based tactical genre, this is more than a breath of fresh air. This is a full-on revival of a niche genre I thought long dead. And that alone has warranted the game's purchase, in my eyes.

That being said, unless you're an old school Jagged Alliance fan, don't buy this game - yet. Give it at least a year, maybe more. Give the developers time to iron out all the problems (and there are a TON - we'll get to that in a minute), and more importantly, give the rabid modding geniuses of Jagged Alliance 2 time to get their hands on it. This can go from being a middlingly decent game to a genuinely great one with time. It's obvious this was released way too early. The game is rife with spelling errors that a simple sweep by a couple of American testers could have found. There's a distinct and jarring framerate problem (at least with my laptop, though my rig should be well equipped to run it). And most importantly, it's missing key features of Jagged Alliance 2 such as the create-a-merc that seemingly will be implemented at a later date, either by the game's developers or by fan modders.

I do have some issues with the game's fundamentals that will probably not be addressed by updates, but thankfully, this list is fairly short. The real-time gameplay just doesn't do it for me as much as the turn-based did. Part of that problem is that it's a bit half-assed. Unless specifically ordered to enter into a stance, mercs won't return fire or even look in an enemy's direction until told to. Returning fire seems to be a crapshoot, depending on the way the merc is facing. The inventory management (especially between mercs) is clunky at best. There's no difficulty settings (that I've found, anyways - I could be wrong on this one), meaning you're stuck throughout the game on one difficulty. And believe me, that difficulty is fucking brutal. There are ways around it, of course - saving after every successful firefight, no matter how small, is crucial. Pausing the game to micromanage is your best option, but this can be little counterintuitive if you try to play the game like an RTS.

In short, it's a game with a terrible identity crisis. It seems to me that this game is almost a warm-up, a way to justify a future sequel that will hopefully define whether this game wants to be a proper Jagged Alliance turn-based game or move towards a real-time squad combat game. I'm fine either way - I recognize that the turn-based format of the older games feels archaic and unwieldy. But if they make another Jagged Alliance, and I hope to God they do, it needs to find a better balance between real-time and turn-based.

As it stands, this is the sort of game I will probably play for years to come in small chunks - half an hour here, five minutes there. It's the sort of game I've been missing on the PC, and I'm damn glad it's here.

A Big Ol' Pot of Random Stew

-Divinity II takes a sharp nosedive right after the point where I left off last week, specifically right after you obtain the "Battle Tower." There's a laundry list of problems after that point. The game's sense of exploration is suddenly and severely cramped. Entire areas of the world I've just explored and come to enjoy have become completely inaccessible (to be fair, they give you ample warning). Worst of all, I've suddenly been left with incredibly little guidance other than vague, brief quest notes. Instead of opening the game up with the ability to turn into a dragon, they actually made it much more narrow and boring. The few civilized areas I've encountered are dull, lifeless affairs, lacking that charming little spark of vitality from the game's first half. It's a disjointed experience, as the beginning offers promises of a poor man's Gothic II, while the latter half is an ugly, scattershot affair with absolutely nothing new to offer besides repetitive moments when you need to turn into a dragon and topple the enemy's defenses. Frankly, it's a shame and I'm not entirely sure why I keep plodding on, except that I've already come this far. I'll give it as much as I can, and I'll dip into the expansion pack once I've hit the wall. I cannot recommend this game to anyone, not even die-hard RPG fanatics like me.

-With the release of both the Vita and a new console Twisted Metal this week, I feel like I should be far more excited than I am. I can't believe I'm saying this, since I've waited forever for a follow-up to Twisted Metal Black (one of my favorite games), but I have zero interest in Twisted Metal except when its price has been slashed. I don't want Twisted Metal to be about helicopters or giant transforming robots. I want classic Twisted Metal recreated for a new console, and this doesn't feel like it. It's got a case of the "me-too's," cashing in on the multiplayer premises of other games while trying to find a halfassed way to fit in with the newer generation of games. It's not that it looks like a terrible game. It just doesn't seem like a real Twisted Metal, and therefore, I can't get excited about it.

As for the Vita, Sony just hasn't put out any games that really have caught my eye. I'm still sorta pissed at them for their PSN fiasco. It really doesn't help that I think the Vita is far overpriced and has way too many gizmos that gamers don't need and developers won't implement. Listen, all I really want from a new consoles and handhelds is better graphics technology and further improvement on technology that we use consistently in games. I don't need or want eight different ways to touch the screen, or a rotorootertransmogrifier to spin the screen as I twist around. I just fuckin' want it to have great games and be reasonably priced. We've already got great controllers and ways to play the games, so concentrate instead on refinement and durability. That's all.

-Steam and GOG.com games for $2-5 surely don't count when it comes to my rule about buying new games, do they? Sigh. Picked up Plants vs. Zombies this week, and I damn near bought a few games from GOG over the last couple of weekends that I really don't need. But when you throw a hand-animated adventure game in my face that I've never heard of (Jack Orlando), it's almost a moral imperative! Seriously, it was everything I could do to click the "remove from cart" buttons.

-On to TV and movies - I thought Alcatraz started strong, but it's floundering. Seriously, producer and showrunner people, we need to move beyond "case of the week" TV blues. Speaking of case of the week, I finally saw the first three episodes of Sherlock, which was as good as advertised. But seriously - three episodes a YEAR, Britain? Grrr. I almost wish I'd watched it after the show has finished and all the DVDs were released here in the States. Oh well.

And that's it. Long entry today, I guess. I'm bushed, so I think I'd better go cuddle my dog, nurse my V-Day hangover, and chow down on leftover pizza. Hope you all had a great Valentine's Day.

I usually don't like to post my blogs to the forums, but I do it every now and again to try to get a larger readership. If you like what you've read, feel free to follow me. I put these out roughly each Wednesday.

13 Comments
14 Comments
Edited by Sparky_Buzzsaw

Sparky here, with your usual weekly update of all things inane. I'm going to be filling you in on my thoughts on Jagged Alliance: Back in Action, and since I still haven't gotten around to doing any significant reading of any sort, I've decided to use that section as a random catch-all. I'll also be talking a little bit more about my progress in Divinity II. Grab some Tylenol for that Valentine's Day hangover, because this word magic is about to get you drunk all over again.

Mercs with Mouths

Guys. Guys. GUYS! Guess what?

Jagged Alliance: Back in Action doesn't suck!

You have no freakin' idea how relieved I am as a long-time fan of the series to say those words and truly mean it. It's not great. It's frankly busted in spots. There are bizarre problems everywhere. But overall, it's good ol' Jagged Alliance goodness at its core. After a substantial number of years without a great title in the squad-based tactical genre, this is more than a breath of fresh air. This is a full-on revival of a niche genre I thought long dead. And that alone has warranted the game's purchase, in my eyes.

That being said, unless you're an old school Jagged Alliance fan, don't buy this game - yet. Give it at least a year, maybe more. Give the developers time to iron out all the problems (and there are a TON - we'll get to that in a minute), and more importantly, give the rabid modding geniuses of Jagged Alliance 2 time to get their hands on it. This can go from being a middlingly decent game to a genuinely great one with time. It's obvious this was released way too early. The game is rife with spelling errors that a simple sweep by a couple of American testers could have found. There's a distinct and jarring framerate problem (at least with my laptop, though my rig should be well equipped to run it). And most importantly, it's missing key features of Jagged Alliance 2 such as the create-a-merc that seemingly will be implemented at a later date, either by the game's developers or by fan modders.

I do have some issues with the game's fundamentals that will probably not be addressed by updates, but thankfully, this list is fairly short. The real-time gameplay just doesn't do it for me as much as the turn-based did. Part of that problem is that it's a bit half-assed. Unless specifically ordered to enter into a stance, mercs won't return fire or even look in an enemy's direction until told to. Returning fire seems to be a crapshoot, depending on the way the merc is facing. The inventory management (especially between mercs) is clunky at best. There's no difficulty settings (that I've found, anyways - I could be wrong on this one), meaning you're stuck throughout the game on one difficulty. And believe me, that difficulty is fucking brutal. There are ways around it, of course - saving after every successful firefight, no matter how small, is crucial. Pausing the game to micromanage is your best option, but this can be little counterintuitive if you try to play the game like an RTS.

In short, it's a game with a terrible identity crisis. It seems to me that this game is almost a warm-up, a way to justify a future sequel that will hopefully define whether this game wants to be a proper Jagged Alliance turn-based game or move towards a real-time squad combat game. I'm fine either way - I recognize that the turn-based format of the older games feels archaic and unwieldy. But if they make another Jagged Alliance, and I hope to God they do, it needs to find a better balance between real-time and turn-based.

As it stands, this is the sort of game I will probably play for years to come in small chunks - half an hour here, five minutes there. It's the sort of game I've been missing on the PC, and I'm damn glad it's here.

A Big Ol' Pot of Random Stew

-Divinity II takes a sharp nosedive right after the point where I left off last week, specifically right after you obtain the "Battle Tower." There's a laundry list of problems after that point. The game's sense of exploration is suddenly and severely cramped. Entire areas of the world I've just explored and come to enjoy have become completely inaccessible (to be fair, they give you ample warning). Worst of all, I've suddenly been left with incredibly little guidance other than vague, brief quest notes. Instead of opening the game up with the ability to turn into a dragon, they actually made it much more narrow and boring. The few civilized areas I've encountered are dull, lifeless affairs, lacking that charming little spark of vitality from the game's first half. It's a disjointed experience, as the beginning offers promises of a poor man's Gothic II, while the latter half is an ugly, scattershot affair with absolutely nothing new to offer besides repetitive moments when you need to turn into a dragon and topple the enemy's defenses. Frankly, it's a shame and I'm not entirely sure why I keep plodding on, except that I've already come this far. I'll give it as much as I can, and I'll dip into the expansion pack once I've hit the wall. I cannot recommend this game to anyone, not even die-hard RPG fanatics like me.

-With the release of both the Vita and a new console Twisted Metal this week, I feel like I should be far more excited than I am. I can't believe I'm saying this, since I've waited forever for a follow-up to Twisted Metal Black (one of my favorite games), but I have zero interest in Twisted Metal except when its price has been slashed. I don't want Twisted Metal to be about helicopters or giant transforming robots. I want classic Twisted Metal recreated for a new console, and this doesn't feel like it. It's got a case of the "me-too's," cashing in on the multiplayer premises of other games while trying to find a halfassed way to fit in with the newer generation of games. It's not that it looks like a terrible game. It just doesn't seem like a real Twisted Metal, and therefore, I can't get excited about it.

As for the Vita, Sony just hasn't put out any games that really have caught my eye. I'm still sorta pissed at them for their PSN fiasco. It really doesn't help that I think the Vita is far overpriced and has way too many gizmos that gamers don't need and developers won't implement. Listen, all I really want from a new consoles and handhelds is better graphics technology and further improvement on technology that we use consistently in games. I don't need or want eight different ways to touch the screen, or a rotorootertransmogrifier to spin the screen as I twist around. I just fuckin' want it to have great games and be reasonably priced. We've already got great controllers and ways to play the games, so concentrate instead on refinement and durability. That's all.

-Steam and GOG.com games for $2-5 surely don't count when it comes to my rule about buying new games, do they? Sigh. Picked up Plants vs. Zombies this week, and I damn near bought a few games from GOG over the last couple of weekends that I really don't need. But when you throw a hand-animated adventure game in my face that I've never heard of (Jack Orlando), it's almost a moral imperative! Seriously, it was everything I could do to click the "remove from cart" buttons.

-On to TV and movies - I thought Alcatraz started strong, but it's floundering. Seriously, producer and showrunner people, we need to move beyond "case of the week" TV blues. Speaking of case of the week, I finally saw the first three episodes of Sherlock, which was as good as advertised. But seriously - three episodes a YEAR, Britain? Grrr. I almost wish I'd watched it after the show has finished and all the DVDs were released here in the States. Oh well.

And that's it. Long entry today, I guess. I'm bushed, so I think I'd better go cuddle my dog, nurse my V-Day hangover, and chow down on leftover pizza. Hope you all had a great Valentine's Day.

I usually don't like to post my blogs to the forums, but I do it every now and again to try to get a larger readership. If you like what you've read, feel free to follow me. I put these out roughly each Wednesday.

Moderator Online
Posted by Claude

I love the beginning of your blogs. They make my toes curl with excitement. Don't have much to add other than I have yet to use GOG, but that might change. Thief 2 looks pretty damn tempting.

Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

@Claude: Hah! Thanks, man. I get the same toe-curling experience every time I look in the mirror. It's hard being this devilishly handsome.

As for GOG, I like them. I wish they had a client like Steam's, but honestly, that's being super nitpicky. I'm a fan of older games, so I usually greatly look forward to their weekend sales.

Moderator Online
Posted by ArbitraryWater

@Claude said:

I love the beginning of your blogs. They make my toes curl with excitement. Don't have much to add other than I have yet to use GOG, but that might change. Thief 2 looks pretty damn tempting.

Can't speak for most of Thief 2, but let me tell you: Thief 1 is a pretty badass stealth game. Considering that Thief 2 supposedly is the same game but with better designed levels, I'd imagine it'd be pretty great.

Divinity II is not a good game? SURPRISE. I knew I should have gotten Two Worlds 2 to get my crappy open world game on. Also, it's nice to see that Jagged Alliance is good. The quick look actually intrigued me, although I think I've made my position on the other games in the franchise fairly clear. Maybe the pseudo real-time combat makes it different enough for me to stomach.

Posted by Claude
@ArbitraryWater: I probably should play both. I had a taste of the first one, demo, so I thought two would be a pretty cool game to play. I have played Deadly Shadows, it's not a bad game, but from what I've read, not as good as the first two.
Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

@ArbitraryWater: Haha, I know, I know. But that first half was promising, if incredibly rough. This second half is just... man, it's awful. There's no other word for it. And believe it or not, as much as I know I'm gonna hate myself for it, if I see Two Worlds II for a stupidly cheap price, I'm going to pick it up. You may proceed to verbally berate and/or beat me about the head.

Moderator Online
Posted by ArbitraryWater

@Sparky_Buzzsaw said:

@ArbitraryWater: Haha, I know, I know. But that first half was promising, if incredibly rough. This second half is just... man, it's awful. There's no other word for it. And believe it or not, as much as I know I'm gonna hate myself for it, if I see Two Worlds II for a stupidly cheap price, I'm going to pick it up. You may proceed to verbally berate and/or beat me about the head.

Honestly, what I played of TW2 seemed fairly promising... for a super janky open world game obviously made in a non-english speaking country. Can't say much about anything after the first few hours, but the protagonist has perhaps one of my favorite (bad) voice acting traits: The grumbly monotone. Not since J.C. Denton have you seen such gravel.

Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

@ArbitraryWater: You had me at "super janky... made in a non-English speaking country." You, sir, know my tastes all too well.

Moderator Online
Posted by djames216

Nice blog. Very informative observations on JA. I was never gonna buy this at release but I might get it when it's on offer. I've never played any of the JA games but I have played other turn-based/real-time games (the original X-Com, the two Freedom Force games, UFO Extraterrestrials, Fire Emblem on GBA and DS, Advance Wars on DS). After watching Dave's QL, I scratched the itch by playing UFO Extraterrestrials. It's kinda average, has very little in the way of story and copies just about everything from the original X-Com game. It offers nothing new and is a bit buggy. Would you recommend any of the previous JA games? I noticed that gog.com is selling them.

Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

@djames216: Thanks for the input! Steam and GOG.com both have Jagged Alliance 2, which I highly recommend (and it's frequently on sale). Start with vanilla JA2, as both sites should offer the most current official update. If you enjoy it, then go back through and play it with the latest mod support patch - it's shockingly good, but it does change the experience. There are also a few different variations on JA2, but I wouldn't play those until you've given the normal game a go. One bit of advice - A.B.S. Always be saving. It can be a tough game, but if you've played X-Com, you shouldn't have any problems.

Moderator Online
Posted by dankempster

Another week, another great blog, Sparky. Permit me to second Claude's observation - you sure do know how to start a blog.

Unfortunately I don't have much to contribute to this Update, as I don't have any personal ties to the Jagged Alliance franchise, or strategy games in general for that matter. I guess all I can say is that I look forward to you eventually sharing your thoughts on Plants vs Zombies in blog form. That there's a game I really wanted to write something about, but couldn't really bring myself to at the time given the events that surrounded my playing it, and now I think it's safe to say the window of opportunity has passed me by. I'll just say that I really liked it, and hope you do too.

Happy gaming, man. Already looking forward to next week's Update.

Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

@dankempster said:

Another week, another great blog, Sparky. Permit me to second Claude's observation - you sure do know how to start a blog.

Unfortunately I don't have much to contribute to this Update, as I don't have any personal ties to the Jagged Alliance franchise, or strategy games in general for that matter. I guess all I can say is that I look forward to you eventually sharing your thoughts on Plants vs Zombies in blog form. That there's a game I really wanted to write something about, but couldn't really bring myself to at the time given the events that surrounded my playing it, and now I think it's safe to say the window of opportunity has passed me by. I'll just say that I really liked it, and hope you do too.

Happy gaming, man. Already looking forward to next week's Update.

I had an elegant response to this typed up - and then my Internet crapped out when I tried to post it. Ugh. Anyways, here's a stab at trying to rewrite it.

I hope to be moving on to less super niche titles soon after I finish Divinity II. I'm either going to do the PS3 modern Tomb Raider collection or possibly Gears 3, both of which should be much more interesting to read and respond to. As for Plants vs. Zombies, I'm not sure when I'll get around to it, as I've got a ton of PC games sitting around half-finished that I'd like to get to first, but when I do, I'll understand completely if you skip that particular entry. I can't watch Cameron Crowe's movies for much the same reason.

Anyways, thanks as always for reading.

Moderator Online
Posted by Sin4profit

So are you looking forward to Jagged Alliance Online then? Seems to be made by the same people that made JA:BIA but it goes back to the turn based gameplay.

Really if JA:BIA had the command precision of something like Frozen Synapse i think the real time gameplay would have worked fine.

Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

@Sin4profit: No, for the simple fact that I don't see the game holding up well with the trappings of MMO stuff. As for the gameplay itself, it looks solid enough. But I more or less want a full-blow Jagged Alliance 3 at this point. Whether or not that should be turn-based would depend on how much the developers learn from BIA's mistakes.

Moderator Online