Jagged Alliance 2 was not an easy game. It was hard as heck. The remake, Jagged Alliance: Back in Action, promises to be every bit as difficult, if not more so, due in part to the change in game mode from turn-based strategy to pseduo-real-time. That means you’re going to be tempted to play this game like an RTS. Games today are by an large of the fast & furious variety; we save our slow, carefully planned scenarios for building cities or overseeing the rise and fall of civilizations over millennia, not for squad-based tactical shootouts . JA: HD (the upgrade in graphics has given it this secondary moniker) is going to tempt to you to go all nuts and run in guns blazing. That is a big mistake – but if you avoid it, you should have a rewarding, challenging, and only occasionally hair-pullingly frustrating experience on your hands.
The frustration comes not from the mechanics (if it did, that’d be a deal-breaker for such a severe modification of an existing series’ method of play), but from the fact that the JA series is totally unforgiving about permadeaths. You lose a character, they are gone for the duration, never to return. As you spend a large amount of time carefully choosing, equipping, and upgrading your fighters, getting one killed off – which can be the result of one false move or rushed shot in an otherwise flawlessly orchestrated mission – means the perishing not only of the character, but of all the effort that went into making them a potent and integral part of your team. In JA: HD, dead is dead, and nuts to ya.
The new “Plan & Go” system does require a bit of adjustment. Your scenarios now take place in real time – say what? Yes, this is till the same JA series you remember, where the action stopped during combat so the progress and outcome of a firefight could be decided by the use of action points. Most of us have grown comfortable with what I think of as the Interplay-RPG style of gameplay (Fallout, anyone?), but in JA:HD you can actually switch to a true RTS mode at any point during a scenario. However, don’t let this fool you! You’ve got to go slow, think, and plan plan plan. That’s what it’s not called “Go & Plan.” Go and plan gets you killed in a hurry.
Similar to the previous titles in the series, you control a small squad of mercenaries, this time helping to free a small tropical nation from the grip of a nasty dictator. The game can actually be set to pause on pretty much any event, and you can queue almost any action your mercs are capable of , controlling their position, weapons, stance, and so on in minute detail. The upcoming actions for each character are shown at the bottom of the screen like a storyboard, which makes it very possible to orchestrate delicate, coordinated maneuvers like feints, ambushes, and stealthy evasions. This is good, because while the enemies are often predictable, they outnumber you about a bazillion to one. Another word of advice, though: don’t overthink things. (There’s also a reason it’s not called “Plan & Plan.”) Once you get the hang of the setup, it’ll be tempting to script entire encounters from beginning to end in intricate detail – a decision that can quickly lead to ruin, and the aforementioned hair-pulling, as you watch your flawless plan run off the rails because somebody missed a shot, you didn’t see an enemy recon element alerting all the bad dudes to your scheme, or you just didn’t check to be sure all your guys had enough bullets.
Truth be told, you’ll spend a lot of time picking and outfitting your team, only to find yourself avoiding fights whenever possible unless you’re absolutely sure you can take an objective without alerting the horde to your presence. Mercenary selection remains its own very involved process, requiring you to choose balanced teams of 3 – which had better include a medic, as character deaths from wounds are quick and, as mentioned, permanent. You’ll do it all with limited funds, and will need to select your team carefully, hedging the skills of one merc against deficiencies in the others. Even their personalities have to be accounted for; some ruthless killers apparently play well together, and some just hate each other like rats. The merc graphics and voice acting give JA:HD that familiar scent of cheese, but crew selection is actually one of the more pleasing aspects of the game.
Just remember: go slow, and think. Plan your actions carefully, but don’t think you can predict the future. I’m not going to take the blame if Jagged Alliance makes you bald.