Jagged Alliance: Back in Action: Beware rough edges

February 28, 2012

Jagged Alliance: Back in Action has a lot going for it, but it also has enough going against it that I can’t recommend it to fans of the original or newcomers to the genre. It’s too hard for its own good, ideas are half put-together, and some of the design ideas, while fine on their own, are wildly incompatible with one another. I wanted to like Back in Action, and it makes me sad that I just don’t.

What Back in Action does right is channel its forbears in the squad hire and loadout screens. I have to buy mercenaries from a menu and outfit them before it makes any sense to undertake a mission. Equipping mercenaries is a great little version of dress-up, and I love it for it. I can change weapons, armor, and clothing for everybody on the team, and if I screw up that’s reflected (like it should be) in that one of my guys is attempting this mission barefoot. At the end of the day everybody looks about the same (there is no hot-pink Kevlar), but the voice acting, which is often hilarious in a bad way, allows each merc a personality where his shirt and trousers do not.

Back in Action features two zoom levels of action, and I can’t help but feel that Kalypso included the high-level view for completeness instead of because they wanted to. All you can really do in the high view is move troops around. If you need to fight, and you will, then you’re drilling down into the close-up view. There’s no territory management after you’ve fought long and hard to take one, there’s no need to explore since there’s no fog of war, and when you unlock the ability to arm militias you can’t parcel out guns to every unarmed citizen in the high view; you have to zoom in and hand them out one by one after playing inventory Tetris to get them there.

As I mentioned Back in Action has no fog of war. In theory this makes the game easier since your snipers aren’t bogged down by human eyesight, and you know whether or not sending one rookie to bust down that door is a good idea. In practice Back in Action is one of the hardest games I have ever played. To make up for the enemy being unable to surprise you they grossly outnumber you. By the end of the game it won’t be uncommon to face 10 : 1 odds. And those enemies aren’t pushovers. If one catches you out in the open don’t be surprised when that squaddie goes down and doesn’t get back up.

Ordinarily, I like the idea of permanent death in games. It makes things feel more tense and like my strategy and tactics matter. Here, however, the cost of losing a squad member is so high (because new mercs aren’t cheap and if you lose your medic without being able to replace him then that play through is pretty much done) that you’ll be reloading a prior save to try again. Kalypso knows this, and the auto save fires a lot. I appreciate that I didn’t lose more than five minutes of play whenever I needed to reload. What I would have appreciated more was a game designed well enough that it didn’t have to lean on the auto save to keep me from getting frustrated at how cheap it was.

Back in Action also differs from the originals in its pace. Back in Action happens in real time with the ability to pause and issue orders. I’m not going to sit here and scream from the rooftops that real time with pause is bad and doesn’t belong in my games. Frozen Synapse showed us all just how much fun that type of system can be. What Back in Action is missing is the ability to test out and easily modify orders. As it stands I played Back in Action wrong. I paused a lot and moved people around instead of issuing complex string or orders because as soon as I encountered an enemy those orders were worthless or worse if I mistimed an order my own mercs would collide and fall down instead of figuring out the complex ballet that is “you go, I’ll wait a sec.”

Jagged Alliance: Back in Action feels like a modern Jagged Alliance game – just not a very good one. You’re going to be frustrated, and you’re going to reload your save when a merc goes down, and you’re going to be disappointed as you do it.

Pros: Equipment selection is good, has a lot of good ideas
Cons: Never fully realizes those good ideas, unnecessarily hard

Score: 2/5

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