Hands On: Jagged Alliance – Back In Action

By Adam Smith on January 4th, 2012 at 12:49 pm.

Back in tactics, more like

I’ve been playing an early version of Jagged Alliance – Back In Action, the upcoming remake of one of my most beloved games. I keep my copy of Jagged Alliance 2 atop a giant stack of Soldier of Fortune magazines, which stands between an ashtray containing a smouldering over-sized cigar, some satellite surveillance photos of a dictator’s villa, a few scattered dogtags (some with bulletholes through them) and a pile of empty shell casings. I don’t know why I keep a lot of that stuff but I guess it reminds me how much of a man I am. Can Back In Action do the same?

I revisit Jagged Alliance 2 all the time so it was a little disconcerting to play JA:BIA (which I just realised sounds like an unpleasant gynaecological condition) and realise that I was essentially revisiting Jagged Alliance 2 again. The new game is the old game in so many ways that I can only imagine anyone with an intimate knowledge of Arulco is going to find JA:BIA a rather disconcerting experience. Unfortunately, as the changes become more apparent, they are detrimental to more than nostalgia.

Pausable real-time action is the order of the day, replacing the turn-based movement of the original that was a sequel. I’ve been prejudiced about Back In Action ever since I heard it wouldn’t include an option to play turn-based but all the malice in me shrivelled away as soon as I started working my way through the tutorial. That’s nothing to do with calm, controlled objectivity, which I could never have when scrutinising the mutant reincarnation of a loved one, but it should say something about the quality of the tutorial and the effectiveness of the plan-and-go scheme.

Let me make it clear. I bloody love a good tutorial. Arithmetic informs me that 92% of games made in the last four years are tutoring for at least the first 46% of their playtime. It’s not unusual to be taught how to jump and swing from a dangling wire during the final escape from a space station that is crashing into two other space stations, the climactic action pausing as a never-before-used series of commands appears on screen. It’s the only time a wire has ever dangled just so, the only time a gap has ever been just the right size for this to work, so the lesson is taught for a one-time use and victory is yours. That’s terrible tutorification.

Back In Action takes the other route, the one that leads to a tutorial that is almost a suitable replacement for a chunky manual, teaching you how to do everything up front and leaving you to figure out the why and the when.

So that’s good.

The move to simultaneous movement and controlled rather than enforced pauses hasn’t diminished the level of control provided. Stances are selectable, altering movement speed and accuracy, and the ability to synchronise commands is an addition that could make this most significant alteration worthwhile. Having Grunty open fire at the enemies inside a building just as Ivan opens the door, goes prone and unleashes a hail of lead and Buns lobs a grenade through the window is satisfying, no doubt about it. Setting up the mercs like a bickering SWAT team is a pleasure. That is, until the enemies’ reactions come into play.

The first time I played, after the initial shock at the fact that I recognised every line of dialogue, every hole in the fence around Drassen airfield, and the positioning of almost every tree and rock, I decided I’d take the landing strip and then write down some thoughts. It’s the initiation into any Jagged Alliance 2 campaign, the first step toward establishing a force in the country and marching on to a terrible defeat.

I ended up going quite a bit further, mostly because it’s Jagged Alliance and I find it hard to walk away, but also because it was harder to tease out the differences than I’d anticipated. It really is weird. I’ve taken control of that first airfield so many times that I can almost do it through muscle memory. Turn off my monitor, give me the keyboard and mouse, and I reckon I could still take it. Don’t even leave the speakers on. I’ll be fine. Sending the same mercs to hide behind the same cover, to kill guards who have taken up the same positions, but in real-time, feels incredibly odd. Mostly because of how little difference the real-time control makes.

The pace is quicker but the tactics haven’t changed that much. One thing that changed my play style is that either the random number gods were playing a consistent game of silly beggars or bullets hurt a lot more. My team and the bad guys alike were dropping like flies. Maybe that’s because it’s harder to keep track of bleeding when it’s a constant flow rather than a sort of tick-tock effect. Whatever the case, the fact that combat feels more immediate and lethal isn’t a bad thing. It may be a necessary brake, preventing a squad from strolling forward, all guns blazing, killing enemies as soon as they come into sight.

Except they don’t come into sight at all. They’re always in sight. You’re God now, you see, or at least the omniscient part of Him. As soon as your squad enters an area, every enemy is marked on the map. You don’t just see their starting locations either, but all the moves they make. That completely removes the possibility of those daredevil raids that lead to a severely outnumbered squad blundering its way into trouble and back out again. Fog of war, or skirmish perhaps, was essential to creating tension and making exploration dangerous and its removal is absolutely baffling.

Being able to see the enemies also shines the world’s biggest torch on the game’s biggest problem and that is the enemy AI. I suspect the goons in almost every game would look pretty silly if their actions were exposed at all times. They’d either stand around waiting to be activated when a player came within an assigned radius, or wander at random. In JA:BIA it’s a combination of the two but with added sensory deprivation.

What’s that? A grenade just went off four feet away? Unless the man who threw it was directly in sight at the time, it probably isn’t worth investigating. Perhaps it was just a gas leak or marsh gas. These things underfoot? The soft, recently-screaming squishy things that are oozing what looks very much like blood all over the show? Probably not the bullet-ridden corpses of former allies. More likely a common form of Arulcan flora best ignored.

The bad guys are dumber than the lead speaker at a convention of the stupidest bricks in idiottown. Maybe they always were – I’ve never felt the tactical AI in Jagged Alliance 2 is one of its strongest points but because enemies were obscured, when you stumbled on a group unprepared it felt as if they had taken up positions. The storytelling inclinations of my player’s brain are more than capable of inferring devious plots into random placements provided maps are designed well and there is sufficient suspense in other areas.

Turn-based movement and fog of war were two curtains, both of which have been pulled back to reveal an emperor baring his bum to the world. The AI could be identical to the thought-pretends in Jagged Alliance 2 but now it’s exposed to greater scrutiny and far too easy to exploit, a reminder that smoke and mirrors are still beautifully effective in these magic tricks that occupy so much of our time.

There’s a new engine as well, with 3D that isn’t necessary or distracting. Everything looks fairly generic but perfectly effective, which is par for the course for the series. It’s a shame that I found myself wishing for the Silent Storm engine – JA:BIA feels like an older game than that. In fact, it doesn’t really feel any more modern than Jagged Alliance 2 and the changes that have a positive impact don’t make as much difference as I thought they would.

It’s not the travesty my pitchfork-waving inner-mob feared it might be, but I’d be hard-pressed to see why anyone would choose it above the game it’s a remake of, especially considering that game is readily available. There will be changes before release and I’ll revisit it to see what effect they have and to take a proper look at the strategic overgame, which feels less than complete at the moment. For now though, stick to 1.13 safe in the knowledge that JA doesn’t need to come back because it never went away.

, , , , .

49 Comments »

  1. Khemm says:

    No TB combat in JA = no sale. I would be all over this game if the devs didn’t rape it.

    • Eclipse says:

      I think the fog of war removal is a much bigger issue than the turn based or real-time with pauses gameplay actually.

    • bfandreas says:

      I played both the original and JA2 to death and I can tell you:
      JA was TEDIOUS. Managing each Merc on his/her own was absolutely tedious especially since the maps tended to be rather huge and unforgiving.
      JA2 was only turn-based when you entered combat mode. But for some inane reason(if I was feeling malicious I’d call it a bug) a sole agressive ladybug(yes, I actually felt malicious) could keep your whole platoon in combat mode. And you’d turn over every stone to find that ladybug that kept you in combat. Rather foolishly since they don’t live under rocks.

      I can quite imagine JA working quite well with an issue-orders-pause-anytime mechanic. It’s not akin to turning Enemy Unknown into yet another FPS. It might even be a real improvement.

      Don’t knock it till you try it, buster.

    • Khemm says:

      @bfandreas
      Don’t really know what you’re complaining about to be honest. Interface when talking about managing mercs? Moving them around?
      As for TB combat, that “stuck in combat mode” thingy I don’t recall being a problem. Most TB games actually switch to real time when there’s no enemy in sight, what’s so tedious about it? I don’t know why you think throwing gameplay mechanics out through the window and choosing rtwp is suddenly such a good solution because you ran into a problem that for the most part doesn’t exist or can be ironed out.
      I swear, some people think we shoud play nothing but FPS, TPS, RTS and MMOs. Everything else = boring, tedious.
      How about NO.

    • Premium User Badge El_MUERkO says:

      No fog of war and idiot AI = sad face, but with time it may become the game we want it to be, hopefully the dev team will leave the game open to modification

    • Cinnamon says:

      mispost

    • Alam says:

      Can’t say I agree with those optimistic about real-time-with-pause systems. In my experience, they don’t allow me to take the more laid back, methodical turn based approach, nor are they particularly good real time games. I prefer my games to be one or the other. I can think of good real time systems I’ve played and good turn based systems I’ve played but no good RTWP systems. So when I heard Back in Action was going to be RTWP, I wrote it off. Perhaps I’ll play it some day and be surprised by how much I like it but until shown otherwise, I’m gonna have to be a hater.

    • notjasonlee says:

      am i the only one who is actually looking forward to a pause-based combat system? i have literally played about 100 hours of JA2 (with the 1.13 patch, of course), and the turn-based combat can be extremely tedious at times, as bf mentioned.

      i really want to know if the weapon count is anywhere near as impressive as 1.13, though. that’s where the game really shines.

      ps. no fog of war? what the hell?

      pps. rps, your comment system so bad. so bad. so bad me no like.

  2. Dominic White says:

    If they’d just basically copied JA2 1.13, made it 3D/realtime, and added Silent Storm’s terrain deformation, this would have been excellent. Instead, it sounds like they’ve missed out some serious core elements. Sad.

    But at least the original game is still being actively supported, improved and expanded..

    • Premium User Badge Andy_Panthro says:

      Just checked Gamersgate and it’s pre-order price is £26.95, while you can get JA2 from GOG for $9.99(£6.40ish).

      I know which one sounds like a better offer to me!

    • Cinnamon says:

      I don’t see why they can’t just add in a turn based mode and fog of war. Surely the market for this game isn’t so big that they can afford such bad word of mouth. But as for copying mechanics they should obv just have copied the original x-com since it is much more elegant and advanced than JA2.

    • Premium User Badge Kelron says:

      I’m not going to go into the reasons why I actually prefer plan-and-go real time for this kind of game, because I’ve done it before and it doesn’t go anywhere good when the diehard turn based fans respond. But suffice to say I was looking forward to this.

      I agree that they seem to have left out key elements which will ruin it even for people who are fine with real time. Removing fog of war is a strange decision, and it’s going to strip away a lot of tactical depth. Doubly so if it means you can see how stupid the AI is.

    • Nick says:

      You are entitled to like whatever you like better, just don’t claim its because turn based is outdated or something and you’ll be fine.

    • Dominic White says:

      Realtime with pause is better for doing simultaneous, synchronized actions. Turn-based is better for fine-tuned management of each character in turn. Both have their strengths, and I honestly don’t think that Jagged Alliance would have suffered if they’d just kept most of the core elements but switched it to a realtime/pause combat engine. It wouldn’t be exactly the same, but it wouldn’t be worse.

      But yeah, idiotic AI and omnipotent vision combine to make a very weak strategy game.

    • Wizardry says:

      But as for copying mechanics they should obv just have copied the original x-com since it is much more elegant and advanced than JA2.

      What?

    • Cinnamon says:

      You like RPGs Wizardry, so don’t pretend you would recognise an elegant strategy game with evolved design if it bit your leg off. You probably like JA2 more because it has more stats and customised levelling up. And I wasn’t trolling you anyway.

    • SiplNico says:

      @Cinnamon

      In Wizardry’s defense…
      Ahhhh Hell no! My RPS account might be new, but I’ve been a reader long enough to know what happens when you defend Wizardry!

      But in all seriousness, just because RPG’s are Wizardry’s favorite games doesn’t mean he doesn’t play other games. There’s nothing wrong in considering JA2 superior to X-COM, and the opposite is also true.

  3. Matt says:

    Shame about the fog of war, I always preferred that in tactical games.

    • Wilson says:

      No fog of war is beyond baffling. I’d say if you want to make a game to be very similar to Jagged Alliance, if you can’t do fog of war then you might as well not bother.

      I’m sure there’s scope for a top down tactics game without fog of war, but I reckon you’d have to change the gameplay quite a bit for it to be satisfying.

    • Chris D says:

      Miniatures games like Necromunda do the top down tactical thing with no fog of war ok. It’s the combination of that with the bad AI which sounds crippling.

    • Vorrin says:

      @Chris

      Well, they might do the tactical game without fog of war quite fine cause you love miniatures, and setting up a whole real-life table with props and such.
      Having played Necromunda, I was very underwhelmed by it, it felt to me like playing a handicapped videogame, which could not afford fog of war, and had to bother me with all sorts of calculations and measurements which I’ve come to expect to be fully automated. All that whilst being really quite base, and simple (ie. in fact, no fog of war) and a touch too raw.
      So, not sure that is a great example, Necromunda with its normal RL rules, would make for a pretty lousy videogame.

      A better example, imo, of a videogame that did the ‘no fog of war’ quite well, is Frozen Synapse, which, on account of its chess-likeness (and of having an option to play with fog of war, instead) works really quite bloody well, even without the fog.

    • PoLLeNSKi says:

      @ Chris The key is AI – playing without fog of war ideally requires an opponent who can fully comprehend your actions (and possible future actions) before taking their own.

      @ Vorrin I don’t like the ‘handicapped’ videogame comment… surely TBS videogames are augmented versions of the original miniature games? Agree with your points though, trying to peer through models of a building to see line of sight then having to measure it and calculate the damage etc is a pain… but… rolling dice is more fun than clicking :)

    • Chris D says:

      @Vorrin, Pollenski

      I entirely understand why you’d want to play a video game that takes care of the mechanics for you, I prefer it myself sometimes as well. My point was more that you can still have a tactically engaging game without fog of war, although it does require a decent opponent or AI to make it work.

      For what it’s worth I don’t think Necromunda is the best of the genre either but is the best know which is why I went with it.

      Anyway, back to fog of war. I guess it does make more sense for single player games where it’s a small elite team against a larger force, the exploration is a part of the experience in that case. I’m still not sure I’d say it’s best in all cases though. It seems it adds a need to scout out the area first, which I’m not sure is all that interesting in itself. Once you’ve got the information you have interesting decisions to make about how to approach any threats, until then you’re forced into being cautious if you don’t want to walk into a trap which I think probably just slows the game down without adding very much in return.

      For a more symmetrical game it’s probably more a matter of personal preference. More hidden information increases the element of prediction needed as opposed to raw strategy. It probably comes down to whether you find chess or poker more enjoyable.

      So far I think the most interesting alternative to fog of war has been RUSE, where you can see everything but you never know what’s real or not. I’d like to see more developers play around with this kind of idea.

  4. Premium User Badge Andy_Panthro says:

    To be fair, not many games of this genre can compete with Jagged Alliance 2, let alone with the likes of the 1.13 mod.

    Now I want to re-install JA2, despite having a bunch of new games to play!

    • Khemm says:

      Not many games try to compete. The last game of this type was… Silent Storm, made 8 years ago?

    • Premium User Badge Andy_Panthro says:

      There have been a couple of games that have tried to be jagged alliance, although I’ve yet to try them.

      Brigade E5: New Jagged Union (2005)- http://www.gamersgate.co.uk/DD-BE5NJU/brigade-e5-new-jagged-union

      7.62 High Calibre (2007) – http://www.gamersgate.co.uk/DD-762/762-high-calibre

      Both from the same company, and neither game got good review scores.

    • Khemm says:

      Neither of them is TB, unfortunately, which is my point. :( I want my JAs, X-Coms, Silent Storms and games like it back!
      But 7.62 is actually pretty good in its own right, give it a try.

    • Nim says:

      Try Hired Guns – The Jagged Edge. It’s essentially the almost exact same game as Jagged Alliance 2 (IMA instead of AIM) but in 3D. Some say its level of polish is not up to par while others say it’s enjoyable. I had not heard about it until yesterday and I have not tried it.

  5. Jim9137 says:

    You mean, they are actually releasing this thing? Blasphemy! Back to the development hell with you!

  6. mondomau says:

    You miserable bastards.

  7. NathanH says:

    Real time with pause plus no fog of war sounds perfect to me. I hate fog of war. I hate it even more than I hate hidden maps, and I hate hidden maps quite a lot.

    • Khemm says:

      Come on, it’s fun not to know where your enemies are unless they’re in your field of view or you’re close enough to hear them behind a wall etc. – Silent Storm did this brilliantly.

      The only game where it totally made sense for all enemies to be visible was Commandos and its clones, because the gameplay mechanics resembled a puzzle.

    • Eclipse says:

      so you basically hate good strategy games

    • NathanH says:

      Khemm: most games like this are quite puzzly in nature, not so much as Commandos admittedly (where fog of war wouldn’t just have made me like it less, it’d have broken the game), but still somewhat. I prefer to be able to make big plans in such games and not be surprised by random occurrences that I couldn’t predict. Also hidden maps and fogs of war tend to mean that I have to proceed slowly and carefully, but this is fairly boring in my opinion. It’s one of those instances when I don’t have to work to hard to work out the correct way to play, but actually implementing the play is annoying, and I don’t like that. My solution is just to run forwards, detect the enemy, and reload, which achieves my aims more quickly.

      In less puzzly games like RTS games where you start on similar footing and play by similar rules to your opponents, I prefer revealed map and no fog of war because it’s fun to watch what’s going on everywhere, and it’s not much fun to be surprised.

      Eclipse: Most good strategy games don’t enforce fog of war and hidden maps if you don’t want them to. 4X games usually do, but although that’s annoying I suppose knowing where everything is would break those games more than most other strategy games. And anyway it’s quite possible to like a game while really disliking a particular element and wishing it would go away and leave me alone.

    • FunkyBadger3 says:

      I prefer to be able to make big plans in such games and not be surprised by random occurrences that I couldn’t predict. Also hidden maps and fogs of war tend to mean that I have to proceed slowly and carefully, but this is fairly boring in my opinion. It’s one of those instances when I don’t have to work to hard to work out the correct way to play, but actually implementing the play is annoying, and I don’t like that. My solution is just to run forwards, detect the enemy, and reload, which achieves my aims more quickly.

      Sounds like you don’t actually strategy or tactics much – which is fine, clearly, but a bit odd to complain about in strategy and tactical games…

    • NathanH says:

      So it seems my long reply got eaten, so I’ll make a short one:

      The “hurr hurr, you just don’t like strategy” reply is typical and puzzling. Fog of war is a non-obligatory mechanic that plenty of games have done without and plenty of games have made optional. I would say that disliking it has little to do with not liking strategy and more to do with finding scouting and exploration to be tedious busywork. Particularly in squad based games, dealing with fog of war usually involves implementing techniques that are simple to work out but time-consuming to put into practice, which I think is often a bit boring.

  8. Nameless1 says:

    Seriously, can you stop writing on (reads advertising) this game? It doesn’t deserve it, whatever the judgment.
    The only thing It deserves is to vanish from our memory and to be stripped off that damn name.

  9. Phinor says:

    Someone needs to pick Silent Storm up and put it on Steam. It might not sell millions but word-of-mouth should bring in some sales over time. Heck, the game was voted as the game of the year on PC by readers of the Finnish gaming magazine Pelit back in 2003. It was highly appreciated but PC gaming wasn’t doing too well back then.

    • Gundato says:

      Silent Storm was indeed amazing and, at least for me, provides the best turn-based tactical combat of the entire genre (the strategic is lacking though).

      But I wouldn’t get it on Steam. Silent Storm doesn’t play well with modern systems (there are fixes, but they involve having to reboot every time you play S2 and then every time you are done…).

      What we should hope for is that GoG gets it and implements a fix.

    • Khemm says:

      @Gundato
      I vote for GOG too, but there are already fixes for both Hammer&Sickle, SS and SS:Sentinels which come down to replacing exe files – the 4GB of memory issue is fixed, you no longer have to go to msconfig and limit your RAM.

      Check here:
      http://www.strategycore.co.uk/forums/Silent-Storm-Sentinals-Issue-t6619.html&st=20&start=20

    • Gundato says:

      I want to have your babies…

  10. noobnob says:

    I am willing to give the game a shot now, but what about the voice acting? Are they using the same old voices or did they hire new actors?

  11. Turin Turambar says:

    I don’t mind the pausable real time thing. I even like it.
    But another thing is the lack of fov and the bad AI. Ugh.

    I think Brigade E5, and 7.62mm had decent enemy AI, with flanking and suppressing maneuvers, the AI following your last known positions, it would always try to attack by 2 sides, etc. Not bad for your typical small russian game.

  12. Frosty840 says:

    BUNS!

    I picked up Deus Ex:HR in the Steam Sale Encore day and had a right old nostalgiagasm when I heard her voice-actress turn up as Cassandra Reed.

  13. robinbloke says:

    Part of the whole joy of JA2 was the sneaking, the careful tactical movement; if you know where everyone is you may as well shoot the game in the head and kick it’s dead arse into a bin
    I mean at least put a frikkin’ option in for it
    Call it, let’s see, “Normal mode.”

    That said, one of the things I really liked about UFO Apocalypse (or whatever the bish set in the city was) was the stop/start/pause based combat, it was excellent, so if that’s in that’s a thumbs up if it works.

    • grey_area says:

      Agreed. I think its true to say JA2 never went away, enough came after in terms of mods and lackluster sequels but if one really wants to play JA2 one heads back to the original. That said the community cried out for a *worthy* sequel, on that captured the original personality of the game.

      Lets face it the greatest challenge was not the battles but the micro and macro-management, and even in that the struggle was to do it to your own satisfaction as the game wasn’t going to tell you if you’d managed to arse it up completely.

      But the challenge wasn’t the joy. The joy was getting the teams together, working around personality clashes, making l33t teaching ninja’s out of Ira and Biff, chuckling every time Gontarski said “grooving”.

      It does seem half-hearted to just remake the game down to the gap in the fence at Drassen, but unless you wanted to gamble on hitting *exactly* that tone that made JA2 magical thats probably the best bet. I’ve said in the past I would pay Real Money to play through a UI and GFX updated but otherwise untouched JA2, this looks like it might be the baby.

      But without the FOW or the option to go turn-based there is the real risk that the (possibly accidental?) balance between grind and air punching moments or fiddly management and laughing out loud at another Bobby-ism will be lost.

  14. wcanyon says:

    So this is different than JA Online? Bizarre. I’ve played JA Online and it’s pretty good. Exactly what you’d think you’d have with an upgraded JA2 — better graphics, deformable terrain (a bit anyway) and still turnbased with crouch, interrupt etc. Also all of the same voice files: your dude will say “Trash!” when he sees a dude in an interrupt and I have no idea why he says that.

    • grey_area says:

      When he makes contact he says “TIme to take out the trash”. I think he means he’s just spotted some :)