My impression of the new Jagged Alliance can best be summed up thus: "Hey, cool tech demo, guys. When's the alpha? What? What do you mean this is the whole game?"
Jagged Alliance claims to be a remake faithful to the original. In some sense, I guess it is, with the enormous exception of the combat system. You still get to hire mercenaries with a cute little laptop thing, you still wander around the map with your team killing enemy soldiers and trying to liberate the island. It even has a lot of the mercs from the old game, and while I never got around to playing Jagged Alliance 2 much back in the day, from what I can recall the story is pretty much lifted verbatim, too.
I guess I liked that they didn't change even more of the game than they already did. Honestly, if you're as cynical about these newfangled "remakes" as I am, you'll appreciate that they could have gotten rid the world map. They could have given you a set line-up of maybe 8 mercs, with no RPG mechanics and with predefined abilities, and made you do mission after mission in a linear fashion. You think I'm exaggerating? Look at that XCOM FPS. Bewilderingly, there are people out there, in charge of game studios, who actually, seriously think this kind of shit is somehow a good idea! It could have been worse. They could have gotten rid of the create your own mercenary screen! Oh wait, nevermind. That's already gone.
So, like I said, you still get the mercenary roster with plenty of guys (and gals) to choose from. You still call them and have a little conversation, and they may still refuse to work for you on principle, and they have their default equipment they come with and skills and attributes and they can level up and increase these.
You still have a nice item system with all sorts of little weapons and other junk. You can wear things like sunglasses to (supposedly) help your vision during daytime, but hinder it at night (I just wear them because they look cool). You can get a silencer, or a scope. Clothing comes in three different terrain camos, and a fourth camo for night missions. You can just wear a black suit and it counts as night camo, too, which was a nice touch. This kind of thing is nice - I mean, just that they bothered with the camo types was pretty cool, and one of the things that charmed me in this game.
But the problem is, the game is really not... Well... I don't wanna say it's bad. It looks like they had a few right ideas (except for the combat system) and it could have been fun if they had just finished them - maybe another year in development, maybe two. Maybe even an actual QA phase, like a real game? Hmm, bitComposer? Wouldn't that have been nice?
It's like every remake is required by law to suck
But no. They had to do a half-assed hit and run to milk a long-ignored fanbase. Let's start... You know what? Let's start with the combat system. Fuck their combat system. Honestly, when I first heard they were doing a Jagged Alliance remake, but real-time1, I hadn't immediately thought it would suck. Maybe I should have... But I didn't think the combat system in UFO: Aftermath was awful, and more recently Frozen Synapse had a great real-time with pauses thing going on.
"Sure, turn-based would be better, but maybe they know what they're doing!" I thought. "Maybe they'll make a pausable real-time game that's even better! Besides, Commandos was real-time. Nothing wrong with real-time, you can make a good squad tactics game with that, too."
Yeah, right. First off, the game looks like this:
|Hey, where'd the left half of my screen go?|
Lovely, isn't it? And then when you pause, it looks like this:
|Now the bottom is gone! Who's stealing my screen space?|
Yes, that's the actual, real interface, as of 1.03. It takes up half the vertical space. And then when you pause, for some reason sees fit to take up a whole lot more space at the bottom to display command queues. I don't know about the devs, maybe they play it on two enormous 2560x1600 monitors. Me, I have only one, and it displays in glorious 5:4 aspect 1280x1024. I know this is a supported resolution, because the available resolutions are 1024x768 (god help the poor sod who has to use that, the interface really would take up half his screen), 1280x768, 1280x800, 1280x960, and yes, 1280x1024. Compare that to Oil Rush, which had every resolution under the sun, and then let you specify your own anyway. Why couldn't you be like Oil Rush, huh, Back in Action?
Anyway, point is, these clowns didn't invent the "pausable real-time squad tactics" genre. It's been around. For a while. And there's a kind of system that everyone else converged to, because it works fucking great:
|Why couldn't you be like Frozen Synapse, Back in Action?|
You draw the fucking waypoints, connect them with lines, and show other actions as symbols on that path. Then you make each waypoint draggable, and each symbol movable along the path. A bunch of fucking symbol rows in a separate window in the bottom? What the fuck were you thinking, bitComposer? I wouldn't be so annoyed if this was some crazy, unknown genre they were trying to explore - Frozen Synapse has literally been around all of last year2, blogging all about their dev progress! How could you manage to fuck this up, bitComposer? Unbelievable.
Anyway, the interface is ugly and clunky, but I could learn to live with this if it at least fucking worked. But:
- Once you give commands, there's no way to reorder them.
- There's no "kill enemy" command- you have to queue up 10 shots from your 1-hit kill weapon because if you queue only one and it misses, the merc will sit there like an imbecile staring at the enemy while getting shot.
- There's no real way of seeing what areas you will be able to hit after moving to a position. Yes, there's a green view cone, which shows up occasionally when it feels like it, but it's short as balls (half or even less, much less, of your weapon's actual range or the view distance).
- The command keys are very inconveniently placed and their hotkeys (which can't be remapped) are stupid. F1-F4 for prone/stand? Are you brain damaged? No quicksave? What?
And that's just the interface. So-so interfaces aren't a big deal if the task you are attempting to do is simple - but playing Back in Action is anything but simple. Not because it's particularly hard (it's a pushover except for the godawful controls, but I'll get to that) but because the AI is dumb. I mean, it's really fucking dumb. As in, "guys, are you sure you even coded all of the basic AI routines yet" dumb.
Maybe "artificial stupidity" is a real discipline and that's what all the game AI programmers are trained in
Soldiers sit and stare at their enemies, even though told to shoot. They will sit there, aiming their weapons at the exact corner the enemy turns, and do nothing for 3-4 times the supposed duration of their "time to aim"3, while the enemy lazily strolls over to them with his axe and whacks them over the head. Now, I don't know if melee in this game is like this because they were too stupid to balance melee weapons properly, and deliberately rigged ranged vs. melee4, or whether an evil gnome went and deleted a couple hundred TODO comments from their melee code5. It's honestly hard to tell with this game. But the point is: It sucks. Your guys are dumb and the code is broken. They'll run up to mines when told to defuse them, but if you cancel it they'll blow up because moving away without having the "trying to defuse mine" flag triggers the detonation6. They will fail to reload their weapons on the world map, beginning levels with empty clips and not reloading until you manually order them to. They will fail to reload when you give them a new gun. Pretty much the only way they will reload is if they are in the middle of shooting at an enemy.
Then there's the fucking insane pathfinding- your guys constantly get stuck in doorways, they occasionally can't get LoS to shoot enemies which are shooting at them. If two of your mercs meet at a doorway, god help them- they'll never figure out how to end the deadlock, try as they might. Even when one of them tries to step aside for a moment, it fails, because they both decide to step aside at the exact same moment. At least with your guys, you can manually sort it out. Occasionally, the NPC civilians will block the only doorway out of the building. Good luck getting them to move... Why can't I just fucking shoot all the useless beggar children? No, of course you can't shoot civvies. How could you? That would be too reasonable and make too much sense.
Oh but, that's not even the worst of it. The thing is, the only reason this game is even "playable", if you can call it that, is because the enemies are equally awful. They'll walk past corpses without a blink, and you can often kill their friend right in front of their eyes without them batting an eyelash. They have the hearing ability of a lifelong metal fan who has recently retired from being a jackhammer operator, having hit his eighties. Except for running. Take one step standing up, and enemies all across the map will instantly turn towards your location (just turn, mind you). It's also impossible to climb down ladders without alerting half a city (and this makes some missions extremely difficult) because the end of the ladder climbing animation has like 2 frames which are technically in the "standing up" stance.
At least it's sort of fun to kit out Fox in full Night Ops gear and silenced SMG, then pick off enemies one by one while humming the Metal Gear Solid theme to yourself. But then the enemies keep randomly deciding to go into panic mode for a few seconds, running about like headless chickens and ruining your approach7.
In general, the AI in this game is predictable in all the wrong ways, and extremely unpredictable in things where it really shouldn't be. I've started several games, for instance, and the enemy always sends squads on the world map through the exact same paths and captures the exact same areas. Not that I played in wildly different ways, but world-map AI really should not be this deterministic!
Lastly, I'd like to remark about the visuals of the game. I mean, they look pretty and all but that's not the point. First off, there's an enormously stupid decision made that building insides can only be seen if you have soldiers adjacent to windows or doors, at least. Even an arm's length away from a door isn't good enough. For one, this horrible in terms of gameplay when you need to assault enemies in rooms. But also, hilariously, you can just make the camera angle really low and see most of the inside of the building anyway!
Another thing is, if you go back to the screenshots above, have a closer look at the top left corner: The time is 4 AM. That's night. Does it look like night? It doesn't to me. I'd say it looks like an overcast afternoon, except there's pretty clear fucking shadows from everything! I wouldn't normally complain about something as inconsequential as day/night lighting, but for a game where night missions have this much importance, it really detracts from the experience when I can't even tell if it's supposed to be night without looking at the clock.
Malice and ill-intent, not incompetence
Now these were, for the most part, things which I think can be taken as "unintentional shortcomings". There are also things they did which are obvious, deliberate bad decisions. A small one is level-design. There are many failures8, but one was particularly egregious on a conceptual level: In one of the earlier areas, there's a hut, which you can clearly see has items inside it. This hut, built in the middle of nowhere, which looks perfectly lived-in and not at all abandoned, has no doors. Not even boarded up, former doors. The idiot map designers just forgot to put any doors on it and nobody noticed. They did, however, put some pretty decent -and important- loot inside. No, of course you can't climb through the many open windows. The only way in is to have an explosives expert (it's likely you don't), and have a bomb on hand (you could easily not have one because they aren't common up to that point and you may have used up yours elsewhere), and to blow up the wall of the building. This affords no tactical advantage, kills no one, does nothing. You essentially waste a bomb just to get inside a hut with no doors. That moment really exemplifies much of the very frustrating stupidity about this game for me.
But that's just one small thing. The real problem is, while you could debate whether pausable real-time combat is incompatible with Jagged Alliance in principle, what bitComposer did in practice is objectively shit.
The fog of war is gone. You can see everyone and everything on the map all the time... Except for indoors, of course. You know, it's probably why they made it that way- because they were too incompetent to add real fog of war. Needless to say, in a game like this, revealing the map just destroys the gameplay. The only time when it isn't a trivial pushover, is when it's being a pain in the ass because of the bad UI, bad controls, bad merc AI, bad pathfinding, bad LoS detection, broken enemy logic and whatever else. If the map wasn't revealed, it would be unplayable. Revealed, it's not worth playing.
And of course, the lack of turn-based combat. Now, I won't go into the more common arguments- enough people do as it is. But the thing is, in Jagged Alliance you can target areas of the enemy's body, and without using this ability you will probably get your ass kicked. Unfortunately, Back in Action makes this very difficult for you, because you have to click on a 4x5 pixel head and the camera never really zooms properly9. Of course, it's real-time now, so the enemies constantly move about, and if you don't click on the head you'll instead issue a move order10. When it was turn-based, it was fucking turn-based: The enemies didn't move while you were aiming, it wasn't their turn! So one huge, enormous mistake they made was to switch to real-time without properly adapting the control scheme, which was -very competently- designed for a turn-based game in the first place.
You could pause the game, of course. Leaving aside how annoying pausing is in this game (space is the hotkey but it doesn't always pause/unpause), there is the command issue. In real time, clicking on an enemy means "keep shooting him until he's dead". Paused, it means "shoot once, and then lower you weapon and begin contemplating the finer points of modern cosmological theory". The pause mode is very limited and absolutely isn't a substitute for real-time, and real-time is only usable when sneaking up on stationary enemies, thus it is impossible to play this game in any other way.
All of the above, together with the constant typos (a perk that probably half the mercs have is called "Though"), lack of any real configuration options, the placeholder-y interface (strangely enough, the older beta screenshots actually look much better), and a few other things gave me the impression of playing a very, very early development build of a game which would probably be an excellent one, when it is released a few years in the future after much bug-fixing, polishing and many rounds of QC. If Jagged Alliance - Back in Action was a little hobby project that my buddy is making on the weekends, I'd say "that's cool, man! You should fix some of the big bugs and release it as alpha!". Given that they have released it, and priced it at 40 bucks at that, going so far as to provide pre-order options and day-one DLC, the best I can muster is a disappointed frown.
Honestly, I don't know if it's simply a case of "poor small studio with tight budget had big plans but money ran out so they released the alpha as a full game". It seems just as likely that they saw a large group of people who loved the original Jagged Alliance games, churned out a shitty skeleton of a game, and released it after a wave of cheap hype (that everyone lapped up because they -we- wanted a new Jagged Alliance so bad) to cash in on the gullibility and hopefulness of a bunch of people whose only crime was to like a great game with poorly protected IP. I may sound harsh, but these are people who decided to make a Jagged Alliance game without turn-based combat - why expect them to care about the series, or about making a good game?
It's doubtful if this game is worth anyone's time, let alone the $40 they ask. Seriously expecting $40 for this unfinished, ungainly mess is obscene. I felt like they owed me money for playtesting their alpha. And to be frank, if not for the Jagged Alliance name, this "game" would be totally irrelevant, and the only reason it gets a 2 is because it's hard to not get curious about just how a Jagged Alliance remake turned out, even if it turned out horrible.
I mean, I feel bad saying games like these are crap, because I don't want to give the impression that I don't want such games to be made. A Jagged Alliance remake is a great idea, and I'm 100% behind it! These games should be made - but, not like this. This is bullshit, if not an outright scam!
Some parting tips: If you are going to play this, I recommend you to start with Fox, kit her out for night missions (not being naked doesn't matter as much as not having kevlar or camo, plus she looks cool in a suit), buy her that SMG that has a silencer (I was using a USP .45 with silencer attachment because I was looking for a better gun), add a scope, and pump Marksmanship. She's very effective at sneaking up on enemies in crouch mode and putting single death bullets through their skulls, and from what I can tell this is one of the less aggravating play styles. She also has entertaining dialogue11, which is good, as she will be your main and you'll be hearing her yap a lot. Also, in the beginning, you start the airport mission right next to a watchtower. That tower has a silencer on the platform, which is very useful if you use Fox.
You should bring along a doctor with 80 medicine (to use the big kits) in case Fox is incapacitated, MD is nice for this. You also want a mechanic for picking locks and repairing guns (can't repair armor because lol balance), Wolf is pretty much your only decent option starting out (and he likes Fox).
As soon as you can, you should get an explosives guy to deal with situations like the doorless hut thing I mentioned. At the beginning, when money is tight, get the Hungarian guy to the left of Red. I only got Red because I liked his accent more, but the Hungarian guy is slightly better than Red in every way.
Two of the things not to do are getting unfit mercs, and getting high-level mercs with low marksmanship. Hitman is an example of both- he keeps running out of stamina and being a pain (and whining about what a fat ass he is on top of it) and while his SMG perk helps, he levels far too slowly to ever become a decent shot. I handed him a good SMG with the 16x scope, and he was picking off enemies decently at long range, but with that kind of equipment my grandma could do the same.
Also, there's nothing really stopping you from getting some killing machine like Raven with your starting money and going solo. It works quite well and is quite fun, but the problem is that you'll have 2 less mules starting out that way, and loot will be annoying to haul, not to mention the lack of a doctor.
Speaking of doctors, the guys with high medical and marksmanship may sound great, but in practice you want your medic to stay away from combat for obvious reasons, unless you carry healing drugs just for that occasion.
And if you're wondering about all the spiders, vegetables, and other crap you pick up that isn't ammo, expensive weapons or expensive armor- ignore it, it's vendor trash and it sells for pennies (except diamonds and jewellery).
1: It's like there's some fucking law against making too good a game nowadays - whenever someone decides to remake a great old game, they always slap on these annoying bullshit "improvements". See X-Com, and many other remakes: Game devs, why can't you fucking stuff your idiotic ideas and just remake the damn thing exactly, only with higher resolution and maybe some new extra levels? It's called a classic for a reason - stop trying to fix shit that isn't broken! Really, guys. That's all we fucking want from remakes of classics - the same exact game, with slightly better graphics. That's all you have to do. By the way, if they really wanted to change something in Jagged Alliance, instead of fucking with the turn-based system, why couldn't they have just made the island and quests procedurally generated or something?
2: And that's not to mention all the dozens of other games with this exact same squad-based tactics set-up, all the way back to fucking Fallout, the Bioware RPGs, X-Com games, and the motherfucking actual Jagged Alliance!
3: And where's the "shoot without aiming, he's five feet away from you, you dolt" option, anyway? Because, you know, you could quickly shoot without aiming when it was turn-based. Just saying.
4: A guy with a knife, and a chick with an AK-47, prone and aiming at him. They are 50 meters apart, on featureless desert terrain, and the guy has a red flannel shirt and dark green pants, no armor. Who wins? Nope, not in Back in Action she doesn't.
5: Clearly they wouldn't notice in testing because I don't think there was any.
6: I don't know what the fuck kind of proximity biosensor mines these are; last time I checked, mines have to actually be stepped on detonate - moving within 10 feet, with or without pliers in hand, isn't enough. Though, then again, these are mines that the users have strangely left conspicuously sticking out of the sand like sore thumbs - like Christmas presents for desert mercenaries short on cash.
7: It may sound cool and challenging, but all that happens is that you go sit in a corner until they settle down, then crawl out in Prone (aka invisible) mode at an agonizingly slow pace, go around the enemies, and attack again from whatever direction they left unprotected this time. Or just reload a recent save and do the same exact things over, and they'll probably not bolt this time. Yeah, it's definitely a bug, not a feature.
8: Such as putting a troop of shotgun wielding enemies in a basement which can only be reached with a ladder- a ladder whose base sits in clear view for most of them, is placed such that they all end up behind cover when aiming at it, and which, of course, alerts all of them if you try to use it due to the ladder noise issue. Actually, there's a second entrance to that room - but the enemies still end up in cover, some awkwardly placed columns lead to endless LoS bugs where enemies can shoot you but you can't shoot back, and there's no way to stand such that you only have LoS to one of the enemies due to a combination of awkward stair/door placement, the unwieldy camera, and the seeing-indoors issue.
9: It sort of tilts upwards towards the sky while remaining at pretty much the same height, utterly failing to be useful and making for one of the worst 3D strategy cameras I've had the displeasure of associating with. What the fuck is the point of making it 3D if you won't just give me a goddamn free camera, anyway? Assholes.
10: And your merc will run over and get killed, and even if you cancel it you will betray your position because he will still move quite a bit in the time it takes you to reach the tiny stop button in the corner of the fucking screen, or its hotkey H (why the fuck H? Why not Q!?), and even if you manage to remember hitting Space to pause, cancelling orders is still awkward and annoying and it doesn't even always pause.
11: Although some uncommon lines are painfully stupid; the two "landmine discovered" alerts are "That looks more suspicious than lipstick on a man's collar!" and "I wouldn't trust that any more than a man's zipper!". Why is an implied nymphomaniac nurse who poses nude for gun magazines and likes to prance around warzones naked making references to marriage and monogamy, anyhow? What the hell? Her actually frequent lines are just vaguely "voluptuous bimbo" stuff though, and she's not that bad to listen to most of the time.