Jagged Alliance: Back In Action – E3 Preview

As a former devout PC gamer, just now making her way back to the system, I never thought I would discover a title to spark my interest as much as one of my all-time favourite games, Commandos.  Jagged Alliance, however, looks to be sailing closer than most have and we were lucky enough to get a demo of it at this year’s E3, courtesy of Kalypso Games.  Jagged Alliance: Back In Action is a remake of the 1999 tactical RTS title, which became a much loved cult classic with a dedicated and, understandably, protective fan-base.  Of course, as with any tinkering with a venerable franchise, there comes a risk of alienating the game’s natural, core audience, and a deferential eye is always best kept on such matters.

Many months ago, the development team, Coreplay, working with German publisher bitComposer, released a video showing a version, which was allegedly fairly ropey, of the game’s new ‘Play & Go’ mechanic.  Fans who had, until then, been suspicious were not impressed.  The game went dark for six months while the devs worked on it, polishing everything before Jagged Alliance re-emerged to be shown for the first time at E3 2011 and, to be honest, it looked impressive.

The game is set on the island of Arulco, which is languishing beneath the heel of a ruthless dictator.  With the A Team presumably off washing their hair, you are tasked with leading a small band of rebels and mercenaries in an attempt to other throw him in a story which, given the game’s notorious hardcore difficulty, will be easier said than done.  Jagged Alliance is a tactical RTS, blending combat, RPG, and strategy elements to create an intense experience and is not for the faint of heart.  You have control of a group of mercenaries (which can eventually be vast), all of whom have complex stats and their own unique personalities and abilities – abilities that can be upgraded and developed – along with likes/ dislikes, and various strengths and weaknesses.  Each can be assigned weapons and other gubbins, such as med kits and grenades in the style of the Sapper from Commandos, and the items can be swapped around to various body parts, in a style reminiscent of X-Com: UFO Enemy Unknown.

Jagged Alliance is presented in 3D isometric style, with detailed graphics and textures packing an impressive punch and  the HUD, as expected with this type of game, is busy but effective.  Aside from a very detailed mini-map, your team is presented down the left hand side, while on the right are icons for actions pertaining to your currently selected team member, such as crawl, prone, etc.  Not all abilities are upgraded in the usual fashion, however, and the more a team member performs certain actions, such as using med packs to heal others, the more proficient they will become, allowing them to naturally evolve a certain way depending on how you use them.

The idea has been to bring the brand into the modern day arena while retaining the core values and essence of what made the franchise so successful.  One of the more controversial moves was to ditch the traditional turn-based style and introduce the ‘Play and Go’ system along with the regular dynamic RTS action, depending on how the gamer wants to play.  In the standard mode, the game plays like any RTS action title, in a very similar vein to Eidos’ classic Commandos, with similar movement as you direct your team/individuals around the environment by clicking where you want them to go.  However, this swiftly changes when you encounter an enemy, or meet a specific circumstance as specified by you in the settings; the game pauses, switching to tactical mode and allows the ‘play and go’ functionality to kick in.  This mode isn’t all that far off a turn based system in all honesty, and it is here that the hardcore tacticians will hopefully find the real grit of the game, as it allows you to micromanage your team(s) to your heart’s content.

During this breather from the real time gameplay, you’ll have the chance to set up a series of actions for your team members.  In the demo I saw, we watched a lone mercenary attempting to infiltrate an enemy encampment.  Before any actual action would be triggered, his route was planned out by clicking where he was to go and in what mode, dropping from a run into stealth for example, and leaving a series of yellow waypoints to mark where he would go when the action was kicked off.  Once in the safety of some nearby cover, he would take a headshot at an enemy guard, but it was first of all decided that some backup would be required to provide a distraction.  A second team member’s route was similarly marked out to distract the guard and, in what was an intriguing feature, the two team members’ actions could actually be synchronised on the pictorial  timeline at the bottom of the screen where their individual actions and moves were plotted out.  The action of one teammate reaching his position was tied to another opening a door behind the guard and distracting him, whereupon the original mercenary would take his shot.

With no limit to the number of actions that can be performed, the scope to layer a vast array of complex, interlinked actions is vast, and will no doubt offer much to the armchair generals who spend a great deal of time refining their tactics and strategising to the nth degree.  The timeline offers the potential to build and plan a seemingly complex array of team manoeuvres for those who enjoy nothing more than juggling multiple balls rather than running, gunning, and reacting in the real time mode.

Of course, once you click to start your members off on their way, things won’t always unfold as you expect and you’ll likely have to refine your strategy on the fly as stumbling blocks appear.  As your men move and the map un-fogs, more guards may be revealed, but thankfully, the action will once again pause for you to take a breather and work out how to work around these new problems.  For those who like their action uninterrupted and without the stop/start feeling, the tactical mode settings can be refined by tweaking what will cause the action to pause, whether it is getting shot, one of your team moving in sight of a foe, or even needing to reload.  If you decide you’d rather not have it on at all then you can set it to only be triggered manually.  Again, it is up to the player, and allows you to make the game more or less complex, depending on your own play style.

What was interesting was that the player need not bother with the intricacies of the tactical state if they wish, and can just remain in the RTS mode, running in and taking out whomsoever they wish, however they want, without any of the careful planning and route plotting. The potential the game has to satisfy the more reckless or dynamic players while offering a vast opportunity for strategic planning is impressive, and the similarity of certain elements to Commandos was a real draw for me, personally.  For those who still mourn the pure turn-based nature of the original, we were told that a hardcore mode may well make it into the finished release, which could see a tough-as-nails version of the tactical play mode made available.  Whereas normally, actions are unlimited, in hardcore mode, they may be more restricted, forcing players to think very carefully about every move, especially when directing multiple teams in different areas of the maps, or when interweaving and layering actions of multiple team members.

From the all too brief time we had with the game, it looks set to be a satisfying entry into the RTS genre.  While the tweaks and changes won’t please all diehard fans, the team have worked to retain Jagged Alliance’s unique feel and core gameplay while introducing some interesting features and tweaks.  The visuals were impressive (the water effects and lighting were especially beautiful), as was the level of detail in the environments; the 3D isometric view more than brought back happy memories of action and strategy games past and appeared to work well.

The real time stealth and exploration, combined with team management were reminiscent of both X-Com and Commandos, and the game’s heady blend of RTS, management, RPG, and action was a lot to absorb.  Jagged Alliance can work on a variety of levels, allowing for more dynamic, fast-paced play, or heavy, in-depth tactical strategising that allows players to truly plunge in and get their hands dirty.  While the turn-based play of the original has been dumped, it is here in spirit – albeit in different form – in what is simply a more organic version of a turn-based system, offering much the same gameplay.  Certainly not one for the disc twitching masses, or those whose idea of strategy is working out how to get the remaining tenacious Pringles out of the tube, Jagged Alliance is a hefty slice of complex RTS action.  On course for a late 2011 release, Jagged Alliance has the potential to offer armchair generals the ideal theatre of war.  Coming right over, sir.

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  1. Edward Edward says:

    This actually sounds more than a bit epic; there’s the ability to play in all the different modes, and the rekindling of my secret love for the RTS genre too. It shows how much they’re willing to appease the fans if they go all that length to hide the game away until it’s in a state that they’ll approve of more.
    Great job Lorna!

  2. Richie richie says:

    Yeah I could tap this up feasibly.

    It certainly looks nice and your write up makes it sound pretty groovy.

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