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There are few jobs more thankless than remaking cult classics. You’re either damned for changing the original too much (while failing to improve on it) or for changing it too little (while failing to improve on it). And you can rest assured that the original work’s hardcore, deeply insular fanbase will take you to task, repeatedly and at length, for every single perceived misstep or shortcoming. Such is the scenario faced by BitComposer and Coreplay (“BC&C”), creators of the new Jagged Alliance: Back in Action, a remake of the 1999 turn-based strategy classic Jagged Alliance 2. As is often the case in these situations, the results are deeply mixed.
While Jagged Alliance 2 is a fantastic game to this day, BC&C were not shy in attempting improvements - naturally enough, considering the eons that’ve passed since the original. The most obvious is the fully 3D engine, which allows for more complex, multilevel battlefields and height-based attack strategies. Further, Back in Action replaces the turn-based combat of the original with a hybrid real-time system, called Plan & Go. It lets you pause at any time, issue orders to your teams of mercs, and then resume to see them carried out.
Your goal remains the same: Assemble an elite squad of paid-for-hire mercenaries to win back the small island nation of Arulco from a vicious dictator. You’ll need to take it back sector by sector, inspiring the beleaguered civilians you meet along the way to take up your cause (as AI-driven militia) and help guard your ever-expanding territories. Taking back an island with your slowly growing cadre of elite corps is an enjoyable premise, and Back in Action succeeds in delivering the basics of strategic, pseudo real-time combat, NPC-given quests, and most of the other requisite checkboxes. It’s often pretty fun, and we enjoyed much of our time spent learning the ropes and getting started.
The problems come in the details. For example, your mercenaries’ contracts no longer expire, which drains a significant part of the tension from the metagame management challenge. The stat growth system is also neutered; with a level cap of 10 and only 7 skill points to allocate per level (skills max at 100, and there are 10 skills), there isn’t much room to grow and shape your mercs. Alas, more expensive mercs that start with higher stats are out-and-out superior to their early-game colleagues. In effect, Back in Action is giving you fewer viable strategic choices, which is odd for a remake of a game that’s famously open-ended.
Plan & Go is another muddle: It works but it’s limited. While it’s neat to be able to queue up actions in advance, in practice you’ll be jumping back in to cancel and tweak every five seconds to accommodate the enemies’ latest actions. (The interface for this is annoyingly fiddly.) Similarly, it’s neat that you can synchronize the actions of two characters, but why limit it to two, when your squads can hold up to six? Good ideas, but in practice they feel half-baked.
The same goes for the new graphics engine. The 3D buildings are interesting to storm and explore, and the textures look sharp for a low-budget game. But again, niggling details confound. The anonymous, rendered character portraits are devoid of the considerable charm of their pixel-drawn forebears, and the 3D scenery often ends up blocking your view of what you need to see, especially around windows and roofs. The engine also suffers from fairly severe slowdown in busy areas like towns. Another wash.
A few changes are just bad. The embarrassing writing is devoid of the series’s trademark wit, perhaps due to a poor English translation. The enemy AI enjoys super-acute hearing (confounding stealthy approaches) but often resorts to suicidal rushing. Worst, the interface for moving items between characters is slow and clunky, so you’ll spend inordinate amounts of time swapping items for repair, running around to hand them out to militia, and ferrying them to and from your frontlines. It’s logistical busywork, and should’ve been tremendously streamlined. (It’s even more irritating when you factor in how often the enemies steamroll your AI militia, necessitating yet more item runs if you want to re-arm them.)
Jagged Alliance 2 was a well-oiled machine of a game, with pieces expertly crafted to fit together and reinforce each other. Back in Action is less so, to its obvious detriment. While the new graphics engine and generally streamlined gameplay give it a suitably modern feel, too many of the changes seem like steps backward instead of improvements. Yet a core kernel of JA2 is still here, and the game’s enjoyable when it shines through. The developers are releasing patches and making encouraging noises on forums, and the famous Jagged Alliance mod community has already started poking at Back in Action’s dangly bits. Over time, Back in Action may yet grow into the game it could have been: the game that succeeds in bringing all the fun and strategic nuance of its forebear to a modern audience.
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