There sure are a lot of classic game sequels coming out these days. With the recent release of the Syndicate remake, the upcoming release of two XCOM games, and many others, it seems like old school game franchises are a hot commodity. Jagged Alliance: Back in Action is the latest in this revival trend, bringing a remake of the classic, turn-based Jagged Alliance 2 to modern gamers. For those unfamiliar, Jagged Alliance is a series that positions you as the manager of a mercenary company with the goal of hiring, training, and equipping mercenaries for battle. The battles all play out tactically; you lead your men and women from a satellite view and use cover, stealth, and firepower to overcome the odds against you. The remake by Coreplay is simultaneously extremely faithful and extraordinarily different. Confused? Read on.
Like many other reboots, Jagged Alliance has gone through a genre shift in the twelve or so years since Jagged Alliance 2. However, instead of remaking the game as a shooter, like most remakes, the team at Coreplay has instead opted to move from turn-based strategy with RPG elements to a squad-based real-time-strategy/RPG mix. Unlike the XCOM and Syndicate FPS revivals, you can’t really accuse Coreplay of trying to appeal to a wider demographic. Tactical squad-based-action strategy games are a relatively underused genre these days, so I have to respect them for trying something new and unique, even though it may have alienated a lot of Jagged Alliance fans.
The thing about Jagged Alliance: Back in Action is that, while the gameplay is totally different, everything else is ripped almost directly from Jagged Alliance 2. The mercenaries you can hire are all the same favorites from Jagged Alliance 2, and the plot is a straight remake. Like before, you are hired to overthrow the corrupt queen of Arulco by fighting for territory and resources across the nation and doing quests and objectives for pay. It feels like a bizarre, alternate-reality version of Jagged Alliance 2, and I’m not sure why they decided to go this route. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with the plot of Jagged Alliance 2, it’s a bit odd that the remake sticks so close to the original game, but throws in a completely different style of gameplay. But hey, the story was a decent enough excuse for violence in Jagged Alliance 2, and it’s decent enough to do the same here.
Still, this new gameplay is a neat way of delivering the Jagged Alliance 2 experience. As mentioned before, everything works in real-time; however, unlike most real-time strategy games, you don’t need ridiculous reflexes and clicks-per-minute. Pressing the space bar pauses the game, allowing you to set up complex movement routes, aim and coordinate shots, and set up your mercenaries in the perfect ambush position using a timeline of commands. Better yet, you can link commands to make sure your mercenaries will execute them simultaneously. This allows for simultaneous takedowns, coordinated room breaching, distraction tactics, and many other strategies. Unlike the early Jagged Alliance games, there is no fog of war, making the positions of all enemies instantly visible, even through ceilings. This may make the game a little easier, but it also makes the game into a sort of puzzle experience. There’s a lot of fun in coming up with a solution for a difficult situation. For example, I had four enemies with shotguns in an underground bunker with two entries. I had four mercenaries, two at each doors. I fired a shot with one of the mercenaries, and then had one on the other side rush in, melee the closest guy and then dive behind some crates. The other three baddies turned and fired, allowing my two men to rush into the room with fully automatic assault rifles and take out all three quickly. This was all set up ahead of time with the planning mode, and didn’t even require a single bit of intervention from me after the game was un-paused. This kind of stuff happens all the time in the game, with each new map presenting new challenges to solve with your tool kit of mercenaries.
The mercenaries themselves are varied, and each mercenary has a distinct style, personality, and voice actor, but they are largely defined by their role as a tool. You don’t end up thinking of the character as an individual, but more as the soldier guy, or the medic girl, or the demo guy. However, you can outfit each mercenary with dozens of weapons, tools, armor, and even clothing. Nothing says awesome like giving all of your mercenaries cool aviators to wear all the time, even at night. Managing inventories, on the other hand, is nightmarish. Inventory management is bad enough, but Jagged Alliance: Back in Action sticks you with both a weight limit and a limited number of slots. Find a good weapon that’s light enough to fit under your max? Too bad, you can only carry three weapons. Stocking up on tool boxes in empty slots? Too bad, improve your strength score. To compound things, moving items between mercenaries must be done with one-on-one trading sessions. While it isn’t game-breaking, it does force you to leave behind a lot of loot, and makes managing your mercenaries and their load-outs tedious and time consuming, with about fifteen minutes of inventory juggling and selling for every hour and a half of gun play.
There are a few other concerns to point out. The game doesn’t quite seem updated to modern standards. The game world is oddly rigid, with absolutely no destructible terrain. Even the C4 you get can only be placed on marked walls in certain levels, something that makes sense for balance, but seems ridiculous in terms of realism. Your mercenaries are also not athletic; they can’t climb small ledges, scale fences, hop over barricades, or even hug corners and shoot blindly. It seems like a real missed opportunity to introduce some interactivity into the environment, which makes the game feel a bit dated. The same goes for the graphics, which look pretty good, but nowhere near the graphical fidelity one expects from current games. However, I think it shows just how much I really loved the gameplay that I’m more than willing to overlook these kinds of flaws. Sure, these improvements would have made the game even better, but that doesn’t prevent Jagged Alliance from being a lot of fun.
The only really bad gameplay design decision was the roaming militia squads that attack your conquered locations. On the world map, each area you liberate can be attacked again by the Arulco army. You can leave weapons with rebel members in each location, but they’re fairly incompetent and can’t repel attacks unless they outnumber the invaders two to one. Therefore, a lot of your time is spent revisiting locations to fend off new enemies. Having to go back and essentially replay a level is a momentum killer, especially since most of the fun comes from seeking out enemy landmarks and figuring out the solution to each new area. The levels themselves are generally expansive and varied, and there are a ton of them. Why Coreplay felt the need to encourage backtracking is beyond me.
Since it came out, Jagged Alliance: Back in Action has been updated six times with bug fixes. These bug fixes include fixing stealth mechanics, so enemies can’t spot you from miles away, fixing guns to fire at the proper range, and many other issues. While I can only imagine the nightmare scenarios for those playing at launch, the post release support has been generally good, and the most egregious bugs have been removed. In my playtime, I only noticed a couple of shaking, standing corpses on a save reload.
Like I said, there are a few poor design decisions, but the core gameplay is solid, challenging, and rewarding. Even better is the promise of mod support akin to the great mods developed for Jagged Alliance 2, which will hopefully resolve some of these issues and make the game even better.
Verdict: A flawed gem. A lot of great qualities that make the gameplay solid and fun, but here are also quite a few annoying design decisions that slow down the pace. Definitely worth a look if you really like tactical action strategies, a genre that doesn’t see much love these days.
[xrr rating=7.5/10, max_stars=10]
This review is based on a review copy of the Steam version of Jagged Alliance provided by Kalypso Media.