Staring at a blank screen, wondering “Where the heck do I start?” is not an uncommon feeling, I suspect. Usually, though, it’s because there are a massive slew of things to talk about. In this case, it’s simply this: do I start this as a review of a remake - for people who’ve played the original game - or as a review of a game, probably quite rightly assuming that the readers have never played this now-fifteen-year-old title?
I suppose, being a fan of the original game, I have to start by getting the “ways in which this is not Jagged Alliance 2” stuff out of the way, and then move on to what the game actually is - because for most people, that’s all that matters.
Jagged Alliance: Back in Action is a remake of a classic game in which you hire a bunch of mercenaries and guide them through the act of taking over a country from an unruly despot. The original was a turn-based strategy game, where you micro-managed “action points” to defeat your enemies in individual combat encounters while between-missions you were managing the economics of a country-wide takeover.
You dealt with income, paid salaries to your mercenaries, trained militia to defend the civilians, and even concerned yourself with ensuring that your airspace remained clear around friendly airstrips, so that supplies and more mercenaries could be flown in.
The majority of this remains the same. Heck, even the introductory video is almost a shot-for-shot remake of the original.
Except, of course, that the turn-based strategy is now real-time strategy in which you pause the game to micro-manage commands... and that the strategy mode in which you train militias, manage funds and organise defences against the armies intend on re-taking the towns and strategic locations dotted around the map... well, they’re a bit watered-down. It’s not bad, by any stretch, but it’s more like Jagged Alliance Lite.
Every fan of the series seemed horrified by the idea of the move to real-time from turn-based, and yet, after a few hours, you find this matters less than all the other changes. Real-time with pausing actually feels quite natural, and I found I was quite enjoying the combat aspects of the game - but also found myself constantly frustrated by the weak ‘strategic’ mode.
In Back In Action, you do not control a customized mercenary character as the leader of your team. You do not micro-manage the training of militias in recently-seized townships. You don’t rent characters on a weekly basis. You don’t even really have to deal with the personalities of the mercs as they began to clash and grate over the weeks and months you’d hire them for.
You simply pay a once-off fee, and don’t really think too much of the finances after that, simply moving mercs around and shooting a lot of dumb small-island army mooks to (sometimes temporarily) take control of some random town, mine or other strategic location... and then spend half an hour carrying everything off their corpses to sell to the seemingly-prosperous merchants who operate in this war-zone.
This sounds like I’m being hugely negative, and I suppose I am - but it’s one of those games which is more than the sum of its parts, fortunately. I could list off a hundred things it does poorly, and two hundred ways in which I’d rather simply boot up the original title instead of this weak ‘remake’... but the simple fact is that each individual session, for me, was quite addictive.
Sure, the graphics are rather weak, the total lack of ‘fog of war’ makes any seasoned strategy gamer groan and sigh, characters often slide and slip about the place like they’re on ice, the AI seems to think that almost everything except a nuclear bomb makes less noise than a cockroach crawling over thick carpet, and the interface could use a re-tuning by someone who knows how actual humans think... but I kept playing.
There’s little sense of the world being ‘real’, either. Militia appear when you take a town as a simple number, such as ‘4’ or ‘3’ or ‘5’. Then, when a town is taken back, the colour changes. ‘4’ or ‘3’ or ‘5’ people have just died defending their homes because you weren’t there to help, but you get no sense of it... but I kept playing.
I think part of the reason for that is that it has no competition. I had played no game even vaguely similar to this since... well, since Jagged Alliance 2. I suppose in a sense something like Far Cry 2 or the much more arcade-like Just Cause 2 (Hey! So many sequels!) does let you stage a coup/revolution/one-man-war, but a strategy game which allows this and operates on multiple levels? Extremely rare indeed.
So, we’re left with a middling game which smacks of ‘low budget’ and ‘un-polished’ but also of ‘good idea or two’ and ‘just one more [figurative] turn’.
It jettisons the role-playing elements of its predecessors, streamlines (or, depending on your perspective, dumbs down) the strategy elements and turns the turn-based tactical combat into real-time tactical combat (with some dubious artificial intelligence). But it’s still, I suppose, Jagged Alliance - and for a lot of people who have never played the originals, or for old fans who have played so much of the originals that they can’t stand the sight of them any more... that may be enough.
But it’s still a little distressing that a game with all the potential in the world to be one of the most spectacular gaming experiences of the decade is instead... a middle-of-the-road title. It may not crash, and it may not really bore you, but it isn’t polished, and doesn’t fully engross you.