The Jagged Alliance series has always been about small squad tactics with a dash of resource management thrown in for spice. “Jagged Alliance: Back in Action” (JABIA) knew a good thing when it saw it and has not discarded these basic building blocks. There must be something in the air – between JABAI and the X-COM remake coming out later this year it looks to be a banner year for small squad tactics.
Whereas X-COM is sticking with turn-based tactical combat, JABAI has decided to go with pausable real-time combat. This was an interesting choice in that, while it brought the game into a more modern style of play, it was also responsible for a lot of the issues that hamper enjoyment.
You run a mercenary outfit. At present it is still a very small outfit, as no mercenaries actually work for you. You've gotten your big break, however, as a mysterious man wants you to overthrow a dictatorship on a small tropical island. He apparently has some legitimate claim to the throne or something, but who cares? Since you're the boss you do not actually get to shoot somebody, but you can take the advance you have been handed and hire other people who will shoot people for you.
Mercenary recruitment is one of the more fun aspects of the game. Each mercenary has a picture, a personality and all sorts of quirks. Part of the challenge (and fun) is putting together a group that has the skills that will be needed for a mission and can work well together. Despite the fun of mixing and matching character types, the first sign of future problems creeps into this process. Simply put, the mercs are too detailed. Each merc has 5 character traits (health, stamina, morale, level and experience), 5 attributes (agility, dexterity, marksmanship, intelligence and perception) and 5 skills (medical, handgun, explosive, etc.). Along with these come some number of traits (macho, death wish, etc.) along with possible personal histories with one or more of the other mercs. It is a major chore just to choose six people who don't want to either kill each other or themselves. And really, what is the practical difference between “medical 31” and “medical 32”?
But once you have your crew set it's off to go shoot some people. Just make sure they all have enough guns, ammo and supplies. As boss of the outfit you will need to balance income (gained from taking objectives and performing various sidequests (er, jobs)) with expenses (guns, ammo, supplies and replacing dead employees). The basic idea is sound – the judicious application of limited resources is the heart of a good game – but useless micromanagement rears its ugly head here, again. At one point I bought some more ammo for my guys, who really needed it after the last fight. It was flown in and showed up in the airport's warehouse at which point I had to walk one of my guys over to grab it off the shelf and hand it to each squad member individually. Really? This is the best they could do? Having a screen where new equipment could be assigned to mercs through their (actually not bad) paper-doll inventory screens would have been too much to ask? As it was, I couldn't figure out how to transfer ammo from merc to merc so I had top throw the ammo on the ground and control them each to pick it up.
It is the tactical combat, however, that is the highlight of the game, the part everybody looks forward to. When the action is not hot one can get a lot of fun out of exploring the various environments. Indoor environments are somewhat spartan but provide a good feeling for the claustrophobia inherent in close-quarters fighting. Every door opening is a choreographed production, storming a room is a mess of gunfire, running, and taking cover. Exploring outside is an adventure, also. There are lots of things to hide behind – planes, sheds, sandbags, trees, and lots more – and you can use various stances (crouched, kneeling) to take advantage of them. Combat outside is more about positioning and range, where the winning squad sets up good kill zones at just the right distance. The time before the bullets fly is when most battles are won or lost, and JABAI does a good job of setting up this portion of the action.
When the fighting first starts it is generally possible to form a coherent plan. To help the attentive squad leader there is an order queue for each merc in the fight. When the game is paused you can queue up a series of orders for each merc, which will then get played out when the game is unpaused. The queue can be reasonably sophisticated, which is nice. For example, one might line up the following: “run over to the corner of that building, crouch, shoot at that guy three times, wait for Bob to get to his position, then throw a grenade into the warehouse and run into it”.
If the plan works this can make your day. Sometimes it actually does. Many times there are only three things wrong with it: the interface, micromanagement, and the AI. The interface makes it difficult to reliably place your guys - how cool is it when your guy gets to his spot and fires three shots into the building because he is two pixels short of being able to see around the corner? And then he cannot throw the grenade he has in his inventory because you forgot to manually put it in his hand before this all started. And finally, your guys' “AI” will be happy to hang out there even while taking fire from an enemy you didn't see when you made the plan.
This is when things start to fall apart. Once the plan fails (all plans fall apart upon contact with the enemy, after all) it is nearly impossible to get back on top of things. Really your only hope is to pause it every second and cycle through every squad member to check for ammo (they cannot reload on their own), health (they will not heal themselves, or call for a medic), target availability (they should shoot at enemies automatically, but it seems like they often won't) and positioning (they won't move over a pixel to get a shot). Unpause for too long and your guys will die, which means its reload time. Flaws in design and implementation that would have been ignorable in a turn-based game are killers in real-time.
As a bonus, the difficulty level is brutal. There are often far more enemies than good guys and many weapons can kill or seriously injure even a heavily-armored unit with one or two shots. Sometimes the best strategy is just to hunker down and wait for the horde outside to make a mistake.
JABAI has some good points: pre-battle setup, order queues; and some bad points: excessive micromanagement, bad AI, brutal difficulty. Hands-on managers will find a lot to like but others may want to wait until some of the kinks have been worked out.