Jagged Alliance: Back in Action Preview
The last time I saw the new Jagged Alliance: Back in Action game was back in March, the wet time of GDC here in San Francisco. The game I was presented with then is pretty much the same game I saw last week, a veritable HD remake of the original Jagged Alliance 2.
That’s not to say this is a bad thing. The Jagged Alliance franchise has a long-lasting fanbase, and while RTS contemporaries like Fallout, X-com, and Syndicate have moved on to new genre styles, the fact that publisher and developer Kalypso have decided to stay the course with this franchise is appealing.
That said, many if not most of the levels in Jagged Alliance: Back in Action are pulled from JA2. Thankfully, the whole game has been rebuilt with a new 3D engine that uses pixels instead of sprites. It makes the game quite smooth, and while it’s not an outright looker of a game, there is a nice balance between the retro charm of the game and modern allowances in play styles.
The original duo of Jagged Alliance games presented players with the task of leading a squad of 40 mercenaries through taking over an island called Amulco where a despot has held the nation in his hand. As a matter of fact, it’s somewhat the opposite of the Tropico franchise, which is also owned by Kalypso. Ironically, the two games were actually planned to have some crossover DLC, with Jagged Alliance characters sneaking into the island of Tropico, but IP holders meant this was unable to happen. Boo.
So where we come into the game, we are a leader of this mercenary group hell-bent on reclaiming control of this island. Outside of the actual missions, the UI for the game outside of missions is very much like a business office suite, with spreadsheets and databases for mercenaries, with screens showing how money was spent, a database of hirable mercenaries, mission options, and more. It’s actually quite charming, evoking the turn of the century with dial modem sounds when hires are made.
Merc hires are very important, as players only have a certain amount of mercs they can take on specific missions, and each perk has skills and personalities that make them work better or worse with other mercenaries, so players need to pay attention to the price and skills of each one. It’s not that complicated, but it does offer another layer of strategy to the whole thing.
As far as the actual missions go, the game plays very much like the original titles except for one area: the actual control. Like many strategy games, players lead their small squad through various locales, completing missions, sneaking through buildings, shooting, sniping, healing, and more. There’s a lot going on, and if you’ve played it, or the original Syndicate’s, you’ll have a good idea of what’s going on. That said, the game has gotten rid of the Tactical Points system, where players are given a certain amount of points to move around the map and perform actions.
Instead, players have two control options. The game is entirely playable as an RTS, letting players drag and drop, click and shoot. It’s less tactical than the other control mode, so most players will roll RTS-mode when they are crossing large portions of the map.
The other mode is a potentially revolutionary way of controlling turn-based tactical strategy games. Called “Plan and Go,” the player selects each character and drags a line around the map, oddly much like Billy from Family Circus does in occasional comics. The player can do this with each character and points will drop on the line, showcasing where that merc will be at that given moment. At the bottom of the screen is a timeline, much like in video or photo editing software. By moving and editing the timeline, the mercs will move to the points at the exact appropriate moment.
It’s both simple and complex, and I can’t tell if it’s genius or not, but it’s most definitely unique. I suspect some people will love it, and some might have to get around to thinking about it, but it’s an awesome way to fuse real-time and turn-based strategy games. I’m honestly impressed and hope other games steal this idea.
All in all, I think as long as the developers of Jagged Alliance: Back in Action recognize the place this game stands in the industry and the gaming population, I can see it being a popular, little game for PC gamers looking for a throwback title with a new twist. Keep and eye out for it next February.