games / Previews

Jagged Alliance Online Preview

July 6, 2013 | Posted by Vince Osorio

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Jagged Alliance Online is such a nutty game to write about because it’s a “freemium” game within a genre that had been more or less abandoned in the past few years. We see plenty of runners, jumpers, climbers, shooters, tower defense, MOBAs, MMOs, action-RPGs but a revival of a turn-based strategy franchise? Stranger things have happened in the free-to-play realm (like that browser-based Universal Monsters MOBA that’s been in open beta for a while now), so I booted up the title with a relatively open mind.

Before I forget, I should mention that I’m not actually playing the “free” version of JAO; instead, I was supplied with an unlock for the paid single-player component which unlocks a full suite of missions, about $150k in the game’s currency, a bonus mercenary and other useful items for what looks like a measly $30. Yes, the single-player is optional, paid downloadable content, though the PVP multiplayer seems to be the main focus here. Totally reasonable, considering the bulk of the players downloading the game will most likely stick to the free tier. Except when you think about how screwy the game’s economy becomes where paid upgrades are not only available but encouraged.

I’ll get back to that in a second, let’s chat about the game itself first. You are tasked to recruit a group of mercenaries- often two to three- per mission, equip them with the finest weapons and armor money can buy, and send them off to complete an objective. Objectives normally revolve around shooting a guy, shooting a thing, stealing a thing, turning on/off a thing, saving a guy/girl/thing or trashing some thing as to lure a guy out be shot at. The game itself, as I mentioned earlier, is turn-based; each mercenary has a meter which will limit whatever actions the character can take. Shooting a merc’s primary weapon could have as many as 4 different action costs, depending on whether the mercenary is aiming at a body or the head, or what fire mode the user has set for that specific weapon. It might be in your best interest to set a largely inaccurate machine gun to burst fire, in an attempt to land more shots on an enemy. You’ll spot enemies on the playfield (some characters will spot them sooner than others, more on that later) which will pause the action currently at play, giving you a second chance to reassess the situation and encounter accordingly. On that note, picking up items on the field, healing, and movement all use up specific amounts of energy from the action meter.

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As movement is grid-based, the player can choose to send their mercenary to a specific spot on the map as to better survey the obstacles ahead. The game provides cover, as well as a noise-suffocating crouching mechanic, as to provide a stealth aspect to the game, though crouching while walking will double the amount of meter spent while moving. A ten-step walk could take up your entire meter while crouching, for instance, though it might be worth it to crouch up behind an enemy unnoticed.

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Now each mercenary has their own strengths and weaknesses, often listed upfront during the somewhat clunky recruitment process. Most characters (actually, all the ones I encountered) fit neatly into tried-and-true roles: the sniper, the machine gunner, the rifleman, the stealth assassin, etc. Each one works best with a specific gun (luckily the game automatically recommends, sometimes even equips said gun for you), each one has their own movement speed and action costs, each one has a somewhat-undefined window/field-of-view when it comes to enemy encounters, so it’s up to the player to decide who would be best to bring on a mission.

If this sounds like I’m throwing a lot at you, it’s because Jagged Alliance Online makes a pretty poor effort into making the turn-based mechanics accessible for the layman. Outside of a rinky-dink tutorial featuring some sparse, somewhat poor voice acting, you’re more or less thrown into the main menu, tasked with tackling the cumbersome menus in order to hire mercenaries and set off on a mission. The game itself doesn’t explain mechanics all that well, nor does it ease newbies into the extremely punishing genre. Why would a character want to use stealth when the inconsistent AI enemies spot and attack with ease regardless? Why would a user opt to spend more action meter on a headshot when it happens to be just as inconsistent as a body shot? What are the advantages of switching firemodes on a rifle? Why is the game locked to a cruddy isometric view that fails to make objects in the environment opaque when your character runs nearby? These are questions that will go unanswered throughout your playthrough of Jagged Alliance Online You will die and die often, repeating missions over and over again until you somehow luck out after purchasing enough bullets and medkits to barely survive, which is not a way to learn how to play this type of game.

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I wish I could actually talk about how the multiplayer works in Jagged Alliance Online, but the handful of times I attempted to connect (after unlocking the feature when getting to a specific level, of course) led to multiple dropped connections after lengthy periods of waiting, one incredibly laggy game (which, for what it’s worth, was relatively fun and mind-bending while it lasted) and a player who opted to run away for the entire match. For a recently released free-to-play game on Steam, I feel like maybe more folk would’ve been testing out the game online, but what do I know? However, I feel like the game might be entirely broken, considering players can purchase a hefty amount of in-game currency with real money, in order to purchase more items/weapons/mercenaries, in order to upgrade said items/weapons/mercenaries, in order to dominate online. Can’t say that I’m a fan of that, not in the slightest. Perhaps the actual multiplayer limits the armor or items a user can bring into a battle, but I’m not holding my breath.

I feel like it’s not right to give a full, in-depth review of Jagged Alliance Online, as a game of this scope is never really “finished”, just iterated on. But if there’s any game that needs improvements, Jagged Alliance Online is it. The game’s economy feels scummy, the menus are archaic, the game does a pretty awful job of holding the player’s hand through a steep learning curve, the graphics are underwhelming (though I got a kick out of the highest video settings being labeled “Fantastic!”), the camera issues can break the game and it just doesn’t feel particularly satisfying to play. It’s an underwhelming, overpriced single-player experience with what appears to be an unbalanced multiplayer mode. I’m not so sure who this title is for and I’m not particularly interested to revisit the game in an attempt to find out, but down the line, if issues are significantly addressed, I’d be willing to see Jagged Alliance Online through once more.

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Vince Osorio
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