Don’t be fooled by the developer’s remake rhetoric. Though the scenario and overall structure may be identical to Jagged Alliance 2 – you’re still liberating the country of Arulco with a hired squad of mercenaries – Jagged Alliance: Back in Action plays so differently to its progenitor that it has become its own game entirely.
Back in Action still operates upon a dichotomy of tactics and strategy. The former has you micromanaging your mercenaries from an isometric 3D perspective, telling them who to shoot, where to shoot them and how many bullets to shoot them with. The latter has you moving those mercenaries between hot-zones on a 2D map of the country, as well as managing funds, hiring more muscle and ordering guns and equipment. So far, so Jagged Alliance.
Where Back in Action deviates is in its transition from the turn-based tactics of its predecessor to pause-based, real-time combat. The developers call this “Plan & Go”; you can pause the action at any time, queue up orders for each mercenary, and even synchronise individual actions by dragging and dropping order icons over each other. Mechanically, core tactics translate well; orders that used to cost Action Points under the turn-based system now take valuable seconds to complete. In the thick of battle, you’ll be rapidly pausing and performing a near identical amount of micromanagement as if this were a turn-based game. Whilst this transition to real-time might seem like the biggest change, it’s far less drastic in action.
What does change everything is the removal of fog of war. In Jagged Alliance 2, mercenaries needed to acquire line-of-sight on enemies. Threats that could be heard, but not seen, appeared as vague probable locations based on the perception of the mercenary whose ear had been caught. Back in Action makes every enemy on the map immediately visible. Pausing the game even highlights enemies inside buildings.
This fundamentally changes the tactical focus, more so than the shift to real-time. Jagged Alliance 2 was a reactionary game; mercenaries would exercise extreme caution, check their corners and guard their flanks because they simply did not know where the enemy would be. Back in Action puts you in a position of power. The fun comes not from merely surviving, but from using this superior information to queue up complex chains of orders and cackle with glee as you unpause the game and watch your mercenaries clear a room with the precision of a crack strike team.
Well, most of the time. With this shift in the tactical focus has also come an inexplicable reduction in the actual tactical options available. Where Jagged Alliance 2 allowed mercenaries to scale almost any wall, and blow a hole in almost any part of a building, Back in Action restricts vertical movement to rather rare ladders, and explosive options to pre-determined weak points on walls. Despite your position of power, you’ll feel hamstrung by this reduction in tactical variety.
The simplicity of enemy AI doesn’t help this. They’ll never flank or retreat, and are content to charge into your kill range like Kevlar-laden lemmings. Their response conditions to detection variables are frustratingly unclear; sometimes our mercenary with a maxed-out stealth skill would be heard and fired upon as she was crawling prone behind a wall, despite zero noise showing up on her audio meter. Hell, sometimes we’d get spotted, shot at and killed through solid brick walls entirely. All these factors combine to discourage tactical creativity and encourage you to cheese the AI, reducing engagements to gun-on-gun battles with the occasional lobbed grenade.
The strategic side on the overworld map has also been gutted. Financial management isn’t half as important, as mercenary contracts never need to be renewed. The NPC militia who defend areas in your absence no longer cost money to train; instead, you simply hand set characters on the map a weapon. Enemy patrols are far less regular. Mercenaries cannot train one another, and leveling up has changed from a “get better at a skill the more you use it” model to a “get general XP for every kill and level up whatever abilities you like” one. The rogue’s gallery is limited, and you can’t create your own mercenary anymore. In fact, there is little to actually do on the strategic map, so actual strategy is almost non-existent, as is the connection between it and the tactical side. Inventory management is also a nightmare; with no Area Inventory screen, bodies must be manually searched and items manually traded between mercenaries in the tactical view. For a game to be clunkier than its thirteen-year-old predecessor is ludicrous.
Occasionally the tactical side of combat comes together, stimulating parts of the brain that have long since gone dark. But Back in Action is nothing more than a gateway drug for those unfamiliar with Jagged Alliance 2, a game which – along with its stellar 1.13 mod – remains the pinnacle synthesis of strategy and tactics on PC. With Back in Action, the developer has little to offer Jagged Alliance veterans, as it has taken the framework of Jagged Alliance 2, ripped out its strategic heart and stripped down its tactical soul in order to craft a “modern gaming experience”. It’s quite a mercenary way to go about it.