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.