Publisher: Strategy First
Release Date: Q4 2005
Real time strategy and turn-based strategy have long been regarded as mutually exclusive formats. As with any genre of PC gaming, attempts have been made to blend the two into some kind of strategic smoothie, with varying degrees of success. An impressively ambitious Russian development crew known as 1C Company decided it was their turn, and the result is Brigade E5: New Jagged Union. For fans of squad-based tactics in a modern warfare setting, this might be a title worth looking at.
New Jagged Union takes place in a fabricated country called Palinero, a location that feels very much like South America. It has an architectural design scheme quite similar to Cuba or Mexico (low-rise adobe structures), only the flora is lush and green, evoking images of the corrupt semi-tropical outback that Hollywood tells us all Columbian drug lords live in – steaming forests slashed and burnt into living space acreage, purchased and maintained with the diabolical currency of cocaine. Do such places truly exist? Why ask why? Palinero needs your help regardless.
This tiny third-world country is on the brink of a disastrous civil war, and it is up to you to assemble a squad of crack mercenaries to stabilize the situation. Think of yourself as a latter-day Hannibal scraping together a whole new A-Team. Ostensibly, the ultimate goal is to bring peace through lead-pipe cruelty, like a really slow grassroots coup that just builds and builds until the old order is gone. What I have to work with is barely a beta build that only hints at the overall story and events that will take place in the full version, a small sampling of the 3D, three-quarters isometric point of view with some time playing with combat. That said, the A-Team analogy might not work in the least. For the moment, it’s amusing however, so let’s run with it. Break out a stogie, and repeat after me: "I love it when a plan comes together."
The timeline for New Jagged Union is modern, meaning there are many, many, many weapon types available. There are pistols, rifles (bolt action, sniper, or automatic), grenades, knives (Rambo? Is that you?), rocket launchers, and so much more. I only managed to see a tiny handful of different munitions, but what is available is detailed and seemingly accurate (I’m no weapons expert). If there’s one thing gamers crave, it’s fully fleshed out virtual slug-throwers, and New Jagged Union doesn’t skimp out in the least on this front. This is a game about shooting people, and 1C has done everything in their power to facilitate this.
Of course, guns aren’t the only gear you’ll encounter while playing New Jagged Union. Each avatar has slots for equipment in many different forms. You wear cargo pants with spacious leg pockets, great for everything from keys to handguns. Your belt can carry ammunition and grenades, you can shoulder a sidearm as well as your main weapon, and you can equip Kevlar vests, helmets, and night-vision headgear. Brigade E5 includes a system for tracking weight allowances and its effect on movement, so you’ll need to balance your bulk with how much it slows you down in a fight. 1C didn’t tag these things on as an aesthetic afterthought, although the $10,000 I was given for this build's single mission didn’t go that far, and I didn’t manage to buy enough gear to see how severely movement was affected.
The key mechanic of gameplay that 1C is relying on to establish New Jagged Union as a hybrid is called the "smart pause mode." This essentially allows all events to happen in real-time until combat occurs, and from there, you can simply tap the space bar as often as you’d like to progress the scenario. This allows you to plan your moves as needed, and mete out the action according to your tastes and mood. There are no turn units that limit actions on a round-by-round basis. What your units can do, and how often they can do it, is greatly reliant upon skills that develop over time. The build only covered the tutorial and one level of in-game action, so I can’t really comment on how comprehensive this gradual progress works. I can say, however, that the action is much faster than one usually expects from a strategy title, mostly due to how everything except combat is done in real-time.
What I was most singularly impressed with is the specifics of a firefight, and 1C has some great ideas that simulate many real-life factors. Contrary to the usual fare of "see enemy and shoot" that most games sport, New Jagged Union takes into account variables such as rate of fire, range, weapon type, opponent, terrain, stance, and even how much adrenaline your selected unit is feeling at the moment the trigger is pulled. I liked this last feature the best – the idea that any given unit "feels" a certain amount of combat panic and thusly can’t shoot as straight. The more battles that particular soldier sees, the more hardened she or he becomes, until eventually they can still snap off an accurate headshot even when pinned down in crossfire.
There are many different firing modes open to your fighters as well, and these are somewhat reminiscent of classics such as X-Com: UFO Defense. Depending on the weapon your mercenary is holding and what position they’re in at the time, you have many choices to sort through. First, you need to determine your method of targeting: snap shot for wild fire, rough shot for covering or suppressing fire, and aimed for surgical strikes. Then you need to figure out if the situation calls for ammunition conservation or not. If it does, go for single shot to make every round count. After that, you can squeeze out some "cut off" three-round bursts and if bullets are of no concern at all, try full auto. It’s a crowd pleaser.
There is a robust hit-location system in place too. While aiming, you have varying percentage chances to hit different areas of the body, with appropriately devastating results if you succeed. Of course, things would be all too easy if every kill were as simple as a hollow-point to the temple, and to that end, 1C has included surprisingly detailed and fully customizable difficulty levels. You are handed everything but the kitchen sink on the "easy" setting; your adrenaline stays low, you are shown your accuracy percentages, the enemy AI will quite literally just stand around and let you do horrible things to them, and so on and so forth. Scaling up to medium or hard difficulty, these advantages vanish and situations become increasingly more and more difficult. For those who claim that modern games are streamlined to appeal too much to casual players, this is a nice touch to satisfy all levels of challenge.
Longtime fans of strategy will be pleased to know that a great deal of the story was scripted by Shaun Lyng of Jagged Alliance fame. Expect the full single player experience to be comprehensive and rich, with the same attention to detail that made that franchise such a lasting success. On top of that, 1C promises that there will be robust multiplayer offered straight out of the box, complete with internet and LAN play options and specially designed deathmatch maps tweaked for balance. There is no indication what sort of server-browsing will be available, if it will be a homebrew or if they’re going to use a modified third-party application like GameSpy. Sadly, the build gives no indication of how solid the netcode will be, so if we’re lucky, 1C will offer a multiplayer build soon and we can see how well-rounded the full package will be.
Things look quite promising with Brigade E5: New Jagged Union, but there are a few provisos that need to be addressed. The downside to all of this raw potential is that New Jagged Union is in extremely rough shape right now, and it will take a great deal of work before it can truly shine. The voice acting is entirely in Russian, as is much of the displayed text. Saving your progress results in the dreaded "crash to desktop," a disruption that is all too frequent in the first place. Saving merely accelerates the likelihood of the application imploding. Inventory items seem to vanish at random, and scripted events often just don’t work at all. All of these shortcomings can, and I’m sure will, be corrected prior to the final gold disc pressing. At that point, we can take a more in-depth look to see just how successful 1C has been in fusing the standards of strategy into something new. In the meantime, I say to you tactics fiends out there, "Pay attention, this might yield some high-karat gaming gold in the next few months."
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