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Wot I Think: Jagged Alliance: Back In Action

AIMulating greatness?

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We are an army of the persistent, the courageous, the savvy, the devoted. We are the few who have liberated Arulco, we sent flowers to the queen and then we blew the doors off her palace. We never quite worked out why we were being attacked by Bloodcats and we mostly ignored the existence of the Crepitus. Many of us learned that cows make for excellent target practice, even if we felt bad about it afterwards. All of us have seized Drassen airport more times than we care to remember. It is only right that one of us should go Back In Action.

As even your Uncle Kevin knows by now, Back In Action is a remake of Jagged Alliance 2, with the same map and (some of) the same mercs waiting for a benevolent overlord to fill their coffers so they can start filling coffins. As with any remake of a beloved piece of entertainment, there is a temptation to cry foul immediately: “They are just cashing in on the name!” “Why remake something that is already so wonderful?!” “Every change will be for the worse!!!” “I warrant that it’ll come with prohibitive and unrealistic DRM.”

I probably shrieked all four of those things at some point during game’s development and continued to mutter some of them darkly while playing the beta but the truth is that Back In Action has enough about it to be its own game, with moments that could only exist in its pausable bouts of gun-loving liberation.

Let’s look at that word first. ‘Pausable’. This isn’t a turn-based game, it uses a pausable real-time system, with commands either issued on the fly or in a planner while the action is frozen. Combined with the lack of war-fog, these two choices are the biggest contributors to JA:BIA’s individuality, giving progress across Arulco an entirely different feel to the cautious creep of old. It’s certainly not all bad and functions as an alternative rather than a replacement, but I’ll take a shotgun to the combat and dissect it later. First of all, the rest.

Even as I prepare to write this, I feel like pausing and commanding myself to walk to the nearest mirror to take a long look at the scarcely believable parody of a man staring back at me. Is he really petty enough to pick at what to many may amount to one little scab? The slight downturn at the corners of his mouth that creases and diminishes but never vanishes as he sighs tells me that there’s no reasoning with him. Back to the computer and we hit realtime again as a stream of consciousness spews straight into our eyes.

In JA:BIA, mercenaries are not hired, they are purchased. In the old days, an employer would approach a prospective murderserf by videophone and this element remains but now, instead of deciding whether to offer them a short-term or long-term contract, and whether to pay for their equipment as well, the choice is ‘hire’ or ‘hang up’. This time, they are in it for the duration. It’s death or victory for these hardened warriors and foolish med school graduates.

To counter their loyalty once on the books, some of the lower tier characters now seem more dubious about the opportunities for progression in a job whose main prospect is ‘bleed to death in a distant country, with flies already laying their eggs in your wounds’. To earn their commitment, you’ll have to make a success of your first few skirmishes and prove that you won’t equip them with the wrong type of ammo for their gun. The personality clashes from JA2 are in place, as are the more positive relationships, so it is possible to bring people on board when you’re in a tight spot if they respect one of your current crew.

But it nags at me, the fact that I don’t have to worry about them leaving when their contract runs down. It was always a tense moment when a few mercs were due to leave at the same time and the budget wasn’t in place to retain all of them; do you lose your best medic and start training someone else up straight away, or do you ditch the pricey marksman and adjust your tactics accordingly? Then there were the frankly horrible decisions – Grunty has been loyal and so murderous that he really deserves a raise, but he also took a bullet to the face and hasn’t been quite the same since. Cut him loose. There’s no sick pay in this world.

Now there’s no option to fly in Magic, or some other finely tuned head-popping instrument of silent slaughter, just for a day, stretching those few remaining dollars to the limit in order to seize vital resources. The ragtag bunch I had on retainer looked at him in awe because he was a member of the great Pantheon of cash-for-kills masters. Now that those war-faced bastards can essentially be bought outright, their personality and aura is diminished.

It’s one point but it reflects the decisions that run through the entire overgame, which is severely diminished. The silliness is mostly gone, with weapons and equipment for sale but not much else, and there is no option to hire a custom-built mercenary, the player’s avatar born from one of the world’s strangest personality tests. Some people may appreciate not having so many choices to make, many of which were inconsequential, and there is certainly a trimming of micromanagement at this level. The map also functions well, with squads moving across it in real time rather than jumping from sector to sector when a counter runs down.

When that squad meets an enemy, it’s to the fully zoomable, all-angles-go tactical combat map. It’s not unattractive and the variety in enemy types is probably my favourite new graphical feature. Shirtless men with machetes and axes look particularly deranged and it’s to the game’s credit that the forces ranged against the ever-chatty mercs have much more character of their own this time around.

Once I’d settled into the ‘plan and go’ system, I appreciated aspects of it. In some ways, it’s less of a change than anticipated, with the switch to turn-based that automatically occurred with combat in JA2 now replaced by a push of the pause button and a queuing of commands. And it works, although only up to a point.

Soon, it begins to feel like some of the micromanagement that has been sucked out of the other part of the game has been distilled and injected into this part. Let’s take an example. I want Buns, the efficient eliminatress, to run into cover, crouch and then shoot a man in the face. That’s easy enough, so I pause and issue the instructions. But what’s this? She’s missed his face and the rest of him as well, and now she’s just kneeling there.

If I issue the instruction in realtime, she’ll continue shooting ‘til he’s dead or she’s out of ammo. If I issue it while paused, I have to queue up every single shot, not knowing how many will hit, miss or penetrate his armour. It’s strange and makes it much harder to plan and go. It’s more like planning and then holding by the hand until the combat’s over.

Odd misinterpretations of intent aside, the real-time command system provides a decent way to plan and gives a unique feel to this iteration. As for the rest of the tactical component, ammo types are now limited to one per gun, healing is much simpler, explosives have predetermined attachment points, and attachments and crafting aren’t as in depth. The least enjoyable change, to my mind, is that skill improvement is through choice rather than practice. It’s another way in which the mercs feel less like themselves and more like a collection of numbers. But, despite all of that, picking off the enemy provides a type of thrill that is JA:BIA’s own.

I’ve complained about the fog of war before, not only because I believe it diminishes tension but because of its revelation of the enemy’s incompetence at existing. In a state of non-interference they are essentially zombies. I still reckon that concealing enemy movement in a game like this can be one of the most effective smoke-mirrors in gaming but as for the former point, the one about tension, I’ve knuckled down to play the game I’ve got rather than the one I wanted.

The conclusion I’ve come to is that it feels, oddly, much more like a stealth game. Instead of creeping forward, always ending a turn in cover, it’s possible to sweep across maps, choosing the best position of assault on enemies who are blissfully unaware of the approaching doom. It’s the set up before an attack that determines whether or not it is successful, much more so than the movements throughout it. In fact, the most successful battles are the ones in which there is barely any movement from the mercs at all.

It’s a fun game to play, this part, a cat and mouse interplay in which your squad are always the cats. The mice bite back, sure, and some of them have massive guns, but they are definitely the ones being hunted. It’s like being a team of Predators, except much easier to kill and only capable of cloaking when around fifteen feet away, which seems to be the limit of an average soldier’s awareness.

The campaign doesn’t feel particularly arduous, in either a good or a bad way, because there’s no sense of being entrenched in enemy territory, where every wound is potentially fatal, every weapon is only as good as the squad’s mechanic and supplies are ever dwindling. As a squad-based tactical combat game, JA:BIA has its own approach and it’s one that occasionally works well, but enjoying it requires an ability to play along with and around the quirks and clumsy artificial untelligence.

Starting with the name, so much of the game asks to be compared to Jagged Alliance but forget that, or at least forget that if you’re interested in playing JA:BIA rather than tsking at it from afar. Slap it on the wrist, perhaps, for trying to hang out with someone so venerable, but then brush it down and look at what’s actually in front of you. It’s rough around the edges and sometimes a little rough in the middle as well, it’s probably better suited to being a series of missions than a free-form campaign, but it does have its own, reasonably effective approach to modern day tactical combat.

The problem is, when you cut off so much, what remains needs to be lithe and effective. In this case, it’s a shame that the ideas that are JA:BIA’s own aren’t executed more effectively, because at the moment a lot of them are still twitching, leaking and making a bit of a mess of things.

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