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Hands On: Jagged Alliance - Back In Action

Posterior Workout

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.

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