Alec and Adam lurked on opposite sides of the supermarket car park, lying on their bellies, waiting, watching. Each knew the other was out there somewhere – but where? Slowly, they crawled forwards, occasionally hiding behind a trolley rack or starting as an orange plastic bag fluttered past in the gentle evening breeze. Suddenly, Alec was caught in the light of a cash machine, and Adam wasted no time in seizing the opportunity. He reached to his side, and brought up his specially-silenced keyboard. ‘Meer!’ he shouted. ‘You can’t run any longer. It’s too late for you now. It’s time. Time to talk about what we each made of Jagged Alliance: Back In Action.‘ Alec froze, hesistated. He thought about making a break for the pool of darkness behind the wheelie bins, but finally he accepted that he could be fugitive no longer. ‘Alright, Smith, you’ve got a deal! But keep those hands where I can see them.’
Alec: Right, let’s see if I can remember anything about Jagged Alliance: Back in Action. I played loads of it, what, three weeks ago? I’ve had at least nine sleeps since then, so I can’t possibly be expected to recall much about it. Have you been back to it since your WIT?
Adam: Not once. Although there are many things fresh in my mind, or at least close to fresh. The first thing is that in so many ways I wish it hadn’t been called Jagged Alliance, even though it had so much of Jagged Alliance about it. I think the name hurt it more than it helped, although the financials may tell a different story.
Alec: Yes, it could have been a relatively well-received strategy game in its own right under its own name. It’s highly peculiar that it slavishly followed so much of JA2 – the characters, the plot – but threw out the stuff that actually made it JA2. Any sense of what you might have made of it if it had turned up out of the blue and called Men With Guns In A Place or something?
Adam: I think I would have appreciated the fact that I was playing a squad-based tactical combat game with a great deal of depth. There are problems but the actual shooty stuff works really well at times. The biggest difference, in terms of quality, isn’t actually in the combat. It does that its own way and the ‘plan & go’ system is pretty clever, but the campaign felt like a requirement based on the heritage rather than something that had the same amount of attention lavished on it as the gunplay. Actually, ‘lavished’ may be too strong a word. But a lot of thought has gone into making the tactical side of things interesting and fairly unique, whereas the campaign seems stripped back to me, an awkward necessity rather than an involved sort of overgame.
Alec: yes, particularly in the overmap, which ended up being little more than, well, a map. To be honest, I’m only passingly familiar with the original JAs so I approached this relatively fresh – which meant the major bugbear was the AI for me. So it felt like a nut I couldn’t quite crack. I’d get close to a delicious kernel of strategy cleverness, then it would all collapse into chaos and men vibrating against each other.
Adam: The AI is horrible. I said it somewhere, I think when playing the beta, but it may well be no worse than in JA2, but that game used smoke and mirrors to hide deficiencies. Silly soldiers don’t seem silly if you can’t see what they’re doing until they are shooting you. Being shot at isn’t silly, it’s dangerous.
Alec: turn-based can forgive a lot. It’s when a load of things happen simultaneously that you risk things turning into a chilling pantomime of stupidity if the AI’s not right.
Adam: I have been back to JA2 again since the WIT and what surprises me is that there is so much that could be done to the game, hopefully to improve it, without losing the core. I would have liked to see better destructible scenery. Silent Storm did it so well whereas JABIA doesn’t do much with it at all.
Alec: yes, just the silly c4 charge points. Speaking, again, as someone not too versed in JA2, I’d have liked to see the friendly militia system fleshed out a whole lot more. You can give some guns and clothes to some random guys in territories you’ve seized, then they’re ineptly defend in the event of enemy invasion, but that’s about it – so you end up ushering your own squad all over the place annoyingly. Diverting funds and resources to help protect areas would have made it a lot less back and forthy, as well as potentially adding more meat to the overmap.
Adam: Yeah, there could be a lot more done with the RPG and strategy aspects on that front. One of the neat things in JA2 was having a trainer character and leaving them to buff up the militia. Not only making them stronger over time but also becoming a kind of leader for that group. I never felt particularly attached to the mercs, in terms of their individual skills and some of that goes back to those c4 spots as well. The maps feel more like puzzles – a merc of this type would be useful for this part, this sort of equipment would help to unlock this room and so forth. Despite all the dialogue, they felt more like tools than people. And the militia felt more like numbers.
Alec: yeah, I didn’t have any sense of my guys’ personalities. Just ‘The One Who’s A Bit Better At Shooting’, ‘The One Who’s A Bit Better At Healing’ and so forth. But then it does have assorted fun customisation like hats and glasses, so you can at least design them to suit your own weird urges. I enjoyed that there was one guy who was crap at any kind of range unless you’d stuck a pair of glasses on him.
Adam: Best part of the new graphics all that customisation. I like the enemies too. Madman with an axe and no shirt is way more entertaining than hundreds of men in the same shirt, which is what the previous games had.
Alec: oh God, the axe guys. There was a mad and terrible desperation when one of them turns up. You’ve got all these carefully positioned mercs sniping from afar, but they can’t stand up and turn around quickly enough to stop a naked madman from sticking an axe into their kidney. they’d make for pretty dramatic fights if it wasn’t for the dimwit AI.
Adam: Yeah, and it turns out an axe is a lot deadlier than a whole clip of pistol rounds. They just keep coming. Maybe they should make a tactical horror game with the same engine. Haunted houses full of maniacs, chainsaws, the works.
Alec: that isn’t a bad idea at all. And scavenging found items to make weapons with…
Adam: Not knowing what each mission contained until you got further into it – run of the mill psychopaths, evil cults and their supernatural minions…lots of fun. But back to JABIA – I think the AI contributes to that puzzle game feeling. It becomes a case of playing to the weaknesses of the enemy, knowing how far you can lure them, knowing how far away to move so that they become idle again.
Alec: yes, that thing where you work out how to game the game, like in a shooter when a boss gets stuck on a rock, so you can just pick him off. Is it cheating? Or is it simply mastering the game?
Adam: To me, it’s mastering the game. Finding ways in which it is ‘broken’ without completely breaking the experience. JABIA encourages it, I think, by showing the entire layout as soon as a mission starts. It’s almost impossible not to look at that map and start planning a route through, using all those tricks to facilitate it. Although the quicksave before combat does feel like cheating. Silly, silly decision. It invites you to erase every mistake.
Alec: Yes, there were certainly parts of the map that I decided to walk around and come back to later because I could see what/who was there. As opposed to blundering into somewhere and dealing with the consequences. And yes also on the autosave. I never lost a merc because of it, but really I should have had to accept a loss and the financial consequences of it.
I suppose the question is whether this means this is it for Jagged Alliance. If this doesn’t sell, will anyone ever take a punt on the license again? Much may depend on how well the XCOM remake does.
Adam: I think so – the feel of the original is much closer to XCOM than it is to JABIA. If that turns out well, maybe there will be a demand for a non-alien version. Jagged Alliance seems the obvious license. I think JABIA will always go down as a strange offshoot rather than a continuation.
Alec: The other thing is that XCOM is apparently very mod friendly. So a JA mod would be an obvious move. Plus nu-XCOM has much more in the way of soldier classes and abilities, which might suit JA in a way.
Adam: And you get to see this mod friendly new XCOM later today? I am definitely not jealous. I am not cursing you silently with every breath I take.
Alec: Yes, off to take a peek tonight. In Greenwich Observatory no less, so I get to play with telescopes too. I hope not to come home with my fondest dreams crushed, however.
Adam: In terms of the way it’s using technology, just going off the screenshots I’ve seen, XCOM seems to understand the desire to BLOW THINGS UP more as well.
Alec: yeah – as they said in the interview, showing off the petrol station in the early shots was very deliberate. Shoot that sucker and…
Adam: Yes, I want an aftermath to my fights, with buildings exploded.
Alec: And so with that, we look to the future, and sadly consign Back in Action to the missed opportunities of the past. What a shame, to coin a phrase.
Adam: Yep, but I do think it’s worth a shot for people hankering after some tactics. Just don’t expect Jagged Alliance, despite the name and setting.
Alec: Sharp Partnership, I call it.
Jagged Alliance: Back In Action is out now.