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Posted on Feb 10, 2012 in Electronic Games

Jagged Alliance: Back in Action – PC Game Preview

By Charlie Hall

Jagged Alliance: Back in Action. PC Game Preview. Publisher: Kalypso Media. Developer: Coreplay GmbH.  

I always thought that the magazine Soldier of Fortune was literally a joke. “I read about it in Soldier of Fortune” was something you said before you glued M-80s to a model airplane or jumped from the second story of a parking garage. It was a tired punch line for over-the-top, super-macho bravado mixed with stupidity. The first time I even considered that it could be a real magazine was when a friend described to me the plot for Jagged Alliance 2.

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In JA2 you take control of an elite group of international mercenaries brought into a small South American island nation in order to defend its people against an evil dictator. You gather cash, guns, and allies with which to defend your hard-won territory. Eventually, you become powerful enough to advance upon the island’s evil dictator in a quest to retake the country for its people. How had I never played this game? The game took me months to beat and remains in my yearly rotation alongside X-Com and Fallout: Tactics.

Since JA2 came out in 1999 real-life private military contractors (PMCs) have been growing in favor the world over. P.W. Singer’s seminal work, Corporate Warriors (2003) tells the tale of the rise of the warrior for hire, the legitimization of the lifestyle that Soldier of Fortune magazine first glamorized. Today the US State Department relies on PMCs exclusively for site security and personal protection services. Companies like Blackwater (Blackwater Worldwide renamed itself Xe Services in 2009 and changed that to Academi last December—Ed.) represent a network of highly skilled ex-soldiers, able to fill rolls in simple personal protection, combat first-aid, and even aerial transport. But they also highlight the unease democratic citizens have with the confluence of big business and foreign policy. PMCs keep the cost of a country’s international presence low, but at what price?

The tutorial included in my build helped me get over the learning curve of the new real-time system. I didn’t need to crack the manual to get started. The game still has a crunchy, RPG-like quality and blissfully shows you the percentages playing on the dice rolls.

You can imagine then how interested I was to learn that Jagged Alliance 2 was being revived. What an interesting way to explore the role of PMCs in today’s world, through the lens of a storyline old-school gamers could quickly relate to. How had the island nation of Arulco changed? How had these hard-bitten mercs, ripped from the pages of Soldier of Fortune, evolved into their newer, more structured career paths as PMCs?

The description published on Steam left me wanting, however. The developer, Coreplay GmbH, states that Jagged Alliance: Back in Action is “a contemporary remake of the latest title in the much-loved Jagged Alliance series of turn-based mercenary-themed strategy games.” So they’re reprinting JA2 in a new skin? I could settle for seeing a turn-based tactical game, a genre which has fallen from the mainstream, get lifted up once again into the spotlight with a new graphics engine and modern computing technology. And after spending several hours with it I can tell you that JA:BiA looks pretty good.

“We’re getting the band back together!”

The preview build publisher which Kalypso Media gave me access to looks polished, with final voice work for every character already in place. The game actually feels much like the original in presentation, from the laptop interface where you recruit your team to the world map that provides the strategic overlay to your conquest of the island.

There are big changes in store for Jagged Alliance veterans, the biggest of which is the decision to dump turn-based play in favor of plausable real-time action. Instead of positioning troops and issuing them commands from a fixed set of time units, you are free to move your mercs at will, speeding the game up considerably. Hit the spacebar and the action stops, allowing you to issue orders, synchronize them between mercs, and restart the clock. In this way you can simulate modern MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain) tactics like stacking up and clearing a building room by room and then watch your orders dramatically carried out in real time. But the change makes the game play less like X-Com and more like Commandos, the WWII puzzler that was part Dirty Dozen and part Hogan’s Heroes.

The redesigned inventory system, complete with pithy item descriptions.

So, if this is a remake why have they removed the one element that so clearly embodied the original? In my opinion this design decision detracts from the overall effect, the direct result of which is to leave the poor artificial intelligence visible for all to exploit. Your enemies seem less like the dangerous, savage guerillas they were in turn-based form; they now amble across the map freely like Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde.

If the designers are taking away this major element, what are they giving back to the player in return? Improved menus and inventory management, maybe? This build has that in spades. Looking for higher resolution graphics? You will find lush examples of it on every jungle map. But what about the game’s camera?

The original JA2, like many isometric game before and since, locked you in at a certain angle, looking down at perhaps a 45-degree angle from a certain altitude. JA:BiA allows you to spin the camera around to any cardinal orientation, which is a great enhancement, and as you zoom in the angle varies by a few degrees, showing off the depth of the fully 3D environment. Promotional screenshots show you zoomed in right behind your merc’s shoulders, the angle of your view tilting up so that you are very nearly looking down the barrel of his gun and sharing his line of sight. The build I was given gave me no such freedom. I was always having to zoom back from the action to get a wide enough view of the map, and I never felt like I had a clear concept of what was and was not in my merc’s line of sight. Even worse, at this distant zoom level the higher resolution on display made my mercs seem slimmer and less distinguishable from one another, which is exactly the opposite effect you would have hoped for in a modern interpretation. Hopefully, this will not be the case in the final version. (The game releases in Europe today and is scheduled for U.S release on Feb. 14; patch v1.03 reportedly addresses the problem of "texture popping" while zooming.—Ed.)

Tree cover conspires against the game’s camera, often obscuring the action. You’re never quite able to get as close to the action as you want to.

Then comes the strange decision to remove fog of war. In the original JA2 you had no idea what lay behind the next corner. Would your merc find an open alley or a full squad of the queen’s militia ready to gun him down? Now the moment you enter combat you have full and complete omniscience as to the location of every enemy. I asked the PR contact given me at publisher Kalypso Media, and his response was the following:

“I double checked with the dev, and the reasoning behind the fog of war is that basically, since the game is set in modern times, in an era of UAV’s, satellites and sometimes more intel than we know what to do with, the idea of a fog of war seems a little dated.”

Frankly, I don’t buy it. If we’re remaking JA2 then I would expect all the core features that made JA2 to appear in the game, namely turn-based play and fog of war. But, if instead we are reinterpreting the game for “modern” times I would expect many more alterations and modernizations to game mechanics as well as game content, neither of which are on display in this build.

In the end I’m left with the feeling that JA:BiA is something of a hollow tribute to the original. The new design, in this reviewer’s opinion, does not adequately comprehend the limitations of isometric tactical wargaming. In fairness, this opinion is based on a preview version, not the final release or the inevitable patches that will follow.

About the Author
By night Charlie Hall is a writer for Gamers With Jobs (www.GamersWithJobs.com). His relevant interests range from pen-and-paper role playing games, to board games and electronic games of all types. By day he is a writer for CDW Government LLC. Follow him on Twitter @TheWanderer14, or send him hate mail at charlie@gamerswithjobs.com. He, his wife, and daughter make their home in far northern Illinois.

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