Hollywood has a thing for re-inventing old movies, and the trend seems to be progressing to games too – the original Jagged Alliance and Jagged Alliance 2 are classics that well and truly have earned their place in the Greatest Games Evar hall of fame, although if you played them today you'd likely barf up last night's burger at the graphics.
Which is where JA:BIA comes in. Re-invented for modern PCs by German developer Coreplay, Back In Action is quite literally the same game – same plot to over throw the dictator, same entertaining voice-acted mercenaries, same exotic third-world country of Arulco – only on a newer engine that gives the JA universe a chance to shine.
But as fans of the original series, we’re in two minds about BIA. On the one hand, its nouveau engine brings us JA like we've never seen it before, with higher resolution graphics combined with physics ragdolls – so you can see your enemies die in spectacular ways that the original games couldn't offer.
But, perhaps because Coreplay isn't a powerhouse development team, some of the gems that made JA so amazing have been left out. A lack of development time? Who knows, but while some recent patches have attempted to redress the issues, it still lacks a certain... personality.
To its credit, BIA adds a new system called Plan-and-Go, which is a fancy way of saying they've managed to mix turn-based and real-time play into one seamless engine. And it does actually do it really well, letting you watch fire-fights play out in real time, pausing only when you need to issue more orders, and then let the action fly again. Big fights are fast and frantic, and are a joy to play.
Also honoured well are the merc's dialogue – hearing them boast skill shots, cry out in pain when wounded, or simply finding shiny items, each has their own unique personality that rarely gets boring.
Which makes the negatives of the game stand out even more, because of its potential.
In the what-were-they-thinking camp there is the omission of I.M.P (Institute for Mercenary Profiling), the system in Jagged Alliance that allowed you to design your own merc, your own avatar in the game, to play alongside your A-Team of mercs.
Then there's the character portraits. In the original games these were brilliant artwork, and while in BIA Coreplay has attempted to modernise them by making them animated 3D models, the effect is appalling. Most of the faces look like plastic mannequins, and are too similar to really show any individuality.
And then there's the little annoying things that all add up – having a merc blocked by basic obstacles like a road barrier that's half their height (mercs can't jump?); explosives that can only be used in set locations; levelling no longer being use-based and instead following the RPG model of allocating points at a level up (which makes little sense); boring dialogue choices that have no bearing on the outcome of a conversation; no fog of war so you always know where enemies are, and finally no auto-looting a map at the end of battle like the original games had – requiring you to visit every container before you leave just to make sure you've haven't missed anything. Sometimes doing this takes longer than the actual fighting! It's exceptionally tedious and boring.
So does JA:BIA live up to its heritage? Unfortunately, no. But on the flipside, it is still a fun game to play and has enough of the core JA experience to keep you going. Modernising with a new engine and Plan-and-Go system are what save this sequel, and at $40 (on Steam, at least) it's priced about right for what you get.