The Jagged Alliance series has been dormant for some time, with over a decade having passed since the last major release. Jagged Alliance: Back in Action is largely a remake of that release, Jagged Alliance 2, which puts you in charge of a team of mercenaries tasked with taking down a ruthless island dictator. The tactical gameplay has a lot of strengths, but there are many areas where Back in Action really isn't as strong as it should be.
The objective is to complete your contract and take down Queen Deidranna, starting first by establishing a foothold and taking over an airport in the northeast corner of the island. Before you reclaim the island, you must first hire mercenaries, each with certain attributes, skills and specialties. With your paltry starting squad, you have to fight and scavenge what you can from your enemy to fuel your war effort. Your first order of business is to claim local territories, such as mines and cities, which will net you a daily income. The Queen's forces won't let you rest, however, and once or twice a day, they'll attack your holdings and try to take them back.
Moving squads on the main map is a simple matter of picking a squad based on its symbol and then picking a destination. How far it can see or travel can be dictated by the stamina level and some skills, and the path it takes can either be a straight line or the fastest path, which uses roads to trim travel time. Time passes as you are in this mode, but you can pause the game to properly assess the map, and you can also choose to wait and set an ambush for an advancing enemy squad or attack an enemy territory during the day or night. While the choice exists, there is no point to attacking during the day because at night, the enemy's ability to detect your mercs is considerably reduced, but your mercs have no similar drawbacks.
Assuming you don't overextend yourself by taking too many territories at once, it is relatively easy to hold your ground. It turns the near-constant nuisance of the Queen's attempts into a source of modest experience points and potential ammo, guns and supplies. Almost as soon as you've started the game, you have access to a conventional shop as well as a guy selling stolen goods out of the airport. You have to allow for a couple of days delivery time from the former and work with the meager selection from the latter. You can scrape together some decent starting gear from your enemies and sell what you don't or can't use to generate some funds, and once you've secured more territory, generating funding becomes less of a concern.
When mercs level up, you get an allotment of points to spend on their attributes and skills. Attributes include agility, dexterity, intelligence, perception and strength — all of which have a direct impact on a merc's fighting capability and one of the skill categories. The five skills can affect multiple gameplay elements: explosives, marksmanship, mechanical, medical and stealth. Many items in the game have a minimum skill requirement to use, such as the large med kit needing 80 medical or a gun field cleaning kit needing 30 mechanical. There are other combined uses of skill and attribute points; for instance, using a crowbar to pry open a locked door takes into account the merc's sum of strength and mechanical. While no gun has a marksmanship requirement, the skill greatly enhances a merc's accuracy with firearms.
To properly expand into the game requires multiple squads, and that opens up the gameplay with some new elements — and a few flaws. A squad can consist of up to six mercs, and a proper squad needs at least one person with medical training to revive downed squad members. As a merc takes damage, s/he can become wounded and start bleeding, and there are severe repercussions if that's left unchecked. If a merc's health runs out completely, s/he is downed and dies if a medic does not arrive in time to apply aid. Death in the game is permanent, so it is important that you have someone with basic medical training to lend aid. Beyond that, the squad composition is entirely up to you, allowing you to select squad members based on what you need. For example, having a sniper is a massive help in open combat scenarios, and having a guy who is good with a shotgun is amazing in close quarters. Beyond their fighting prowess, you also must take into account their attribute levels; people who have high mechanical are able to pick locks or repair guns while others, who have high stealth skill, can infiltrate an area to set up a firing position undetected or plant some mines in the path of a patrol.
Hiring a merc involves a one-time fee but no recurring cost, and after being hired, it takes a day or so for them to arrive on the island via the airport. Once you've hired a mercenary, you usually want to outfit them with better gear and pair them with a complementary squad. There are a few instances where individual squad members find that they work well together, and likewise, others may hate each other with a passion, and that has the appropriate affect on morale. However, the game rarely mentions this before you hire them, so it is entirely possible to find that the merc you just hired and stocked up will have a significant morale hit once he joins the squad. With morale affecting many aspects of a merc's operations, this goofy affinity system is sometimes a pain.
Additionally, you can order new items from the online store, which has a fantastic selection and delivers the goods to the airport. Once you have a few squads operating in the further reaches of the map, you need to hire a mercenary to run supplies to the other squads in the field. It amounts to a lot of busywork and a level of logistics that quickly becomes tiresome and wastes a lot of in-game time. Since there are a limited amount of slots in the inventory — and a limit to the weight capacity of a merc — it is possible to get all of the necessary supplies in multiple trips, and that takes up even more time.
Back in Action is a remake of a much older game, and the lineage manifests in a variety of ways. The gameplay allows for a significant amount of player choice, giving you just enough information to proceed but enough slack to make your own mistakes. While there is a tutorial to get you acclimated, it only makes sure that you know how to use the mechanics; it is up to you to use them properly. The gameplay rewards tactical thinking and emphasizes positioning and stance, and many firefights are resolved more by who had the upper hand in the fighting position versus the caliber of their gun.
Once you've engaged in a fight for control of a territory, the 3-D engine gives you a lot of control over how the combat unfolds, but it's dogged by a camera that never allows you to position it where you really want it. The game seems pixel-perfect when it comes to accounting for obstructions, both to use as cover as well as ones that you must take into effect in your merc's fields of fire. The game has also eschewed the series standard of turn-based gameplay and opted for a real-time experience. However, at any time, you can pause the game to bring up the command interface. This allows you to queue up a series of actions and sync them between members in a manner that feels a lot like the original Rainbow Six in its tactical applications, such as having one person breach a door while another stands outside a window to fire into the room. You often wish you could pan the camera down just a few feet closer to the ground or angle it up to see if your merc really can see out that window.
While there are few glaring flaws, there are a ton of nagging ones that constantly chip away at your enjoyment of the game. It's the little things, such as how your mercs apparently refuse to keep a weapon loaded while it's in their inventory, so it's impossible to make a quick weapon change. Other things, such as the lack of a fog of war in the battle mode, make the fights overly easy; since you always know where everyone is and where everyone is facing, you can set up a sniper to pick off the fringe elements and then riflemen to clean up. Pause events can be selected to force the game to pause when certain things occur, such as a merc killing an enemy or the merc getting downed, but these events also focus the camera on the merc; it can be annoying if you want to keep focus on the enemy. Though mercs can sync up actions with another merc, a single merc can only do so with one other merc in any particular timeline. Finally, any time a merc or enemy takes damage, it completely resets their time to aim, so even though your mercenary is prone and ready to fire, s/he may be effectively pinned down and unable to return fire even when only taking modest damage.
Back in Action is still playable despite these issues, since many areas are still quite fun. They just result in an overall feeling that the game has a significant amount of unrealized potential. You learn to work around the issues just to accommodate the rule set, but it often feels like you have to take a tactical idea and then put it through the filter of how many goofy little issues you must overcome to put that idea into action. The UI is easy to use, and barring a lack of sorting or filtering option in many inventory and store screens, it is surprisingly easy to manage all of the tactical information and not become overwhelmed by it.
As you manage your squads and try to take down the Queen's men in Jagged Alliance: Back in Action, you can't help but feel that the game could have been a lot more. The open premise really works and allows for you to tackle nearly any obstacle in the game as you see fit. The game is fun, but it has a lot of baggage and head-scratchingly rough edges that dull the enjoyment. The title does a passable job of bringing the Jagged Alliance series back to life, but it's not as good as it could've been, and it doesn't live up to the legacy of its predecessors.
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