Jagged Alliance: Back in Action hands-on preview

Back in Action thumb

Jagged Alliance: Back in Action simultaneously attempts to recreate and reinvent the king of the tactical RPGs, Jagged Alliance 2. After a few hours with a preview build, I'm surprised at how well developer Coreplay has manged to square those contradictory objectives. Back in Action looks a great deal more fun and elegant than I ever expected, and I quickly got over my skepticism about its attempts to fix what was not broken. However, I also saw signs that it is hamstrung by its faithfulness to its predecessor, and has also cast aside some features that seem crucial to a good a tactical game.

Jagged Alliance: Back in Action (BiA) uses the same setting and campaign mechanics as JA2. The exiled ruler of Arulco hires your band of mercenaries to liberate his country from Queen Deidranna, his treacherous wife who usurped his throne and inaugurated an era of devastating oppression and exploitation. You hire a team of oddball mercenaries, then begin retaking Arulco piece by piece. The campaign plays out on a grid map of the who country, and when a clash occurs in one sector, you go to a tactical battle. Over the course of the campaign, you hire more mercenaries, capture strategic towns and mines, carry out quests for NPCs, and buy new equipment with the funds you raise.

The big new idea is Back in Action's "pause-and-go" system. BiA plays out in continuous-time, and a tap on the spacebar freezes the action so you can issue orders and plot out what your mercenaries will be doing when the action resumes. It's a lot like Frozen Synapse, though the controls do not allow for quite so much fine-tuning of your soldiers' actions and timing. In fairness, BiA does not seem like it requires the same level of finesse in angles and timing as Frozen Synapse.

You can also script your team's movements so that certain members will not execute their orders until after another merc has fulfilled another. For example, the first mission is a night assault on an airfield. I wanted to avoid a huge gun battle. However, only one of my mercs, Dr. Q, had a suppressed weapon, and he was not the best shot. So I would sneak my team into range of a guard, then tell Dr. Q to shoot him once in the head and, just to be sure, twice in the chest. Since he was an iffy shot, I would give my markswoman, Buns, orders to headshot the target after Dr. Q finished his shots. Unpausing, he would shoot three times in quick succession. If he missed, Buns would instantly fire her hand-cannon and kill the guard before he could shoot back. If he hit, Buns would not fire because her target was already dead. It was good system, and allowed my team to massacre half the airport's defenders without taking any damage.

When something unexpected happened, I could instantly pause, clear the orders, and issue new ones. It made for exciting and very natural combat. Some things that were excruciatingly difficult and tedious in Jagged Alliance 2, like room-to-room combat, now felt like a Rainbow 6 mission as my mercs worked in tandem to clear buildings. Pause-and-go works far better than I expected, and it's a great new way to play Jagged Alliance.

However, I also saw some worrying things in this preview build. First, enemies seemed about as reactive as fence posts, to the point that sentries would step over corpses without reacting. This is hopefully just an issue with an early build, but I am not so sure. Highlighted cones showed guards' field of view, revealing that they can barely see their hands in front of their faces and making BiA look more like a stealth puzzle game rather than a tactical RPG. This worry is not remotely allayed by my second major concern: Back in Action does not feature fog of war. You can see every enemy soldier on every map, so you don't need to worry about blundering into ambushes or getting outmaneuvered. Night combat, one of the deadliest and most intense parts of JA2, now seems more like a cosmetic difference than a tactical one.

This is the kind of change that strikes at the heart of Jagged Alliance, and I'm not clear what Back in Action puts in its place. Dynamism and unpredictability were seminal features in Jagged Alliance, but Back in Action seems to have eliminated a lot of the mechanics that enabled them. The pause-and-go system is an exciting innovation, but the underlying game seems badly weakened.

Curiously enough, the clunkiest aspects of JA2 seem to have made their way into Back in Action without a hitch. Inventory management and resupply remain the aggravating clickfests they were in JA2, and might even be worse. The dubious RPG elements, wandering around maps talking to quest dispensers, are also present and accounted for. All of it seems like a drag on the streamlined combat, a clunky holdover that takes time away from the best part of the game: waging a guerilla campaign.