Ambush likelihood: 98%

It’s a surprisingly hard life being a tyrannical despot, you know. Leading a democracy is pretty simple by comparison. In a democracy you’ve always got until the next election to cheer people up, and if you muck it up really badly you’re likely to have a lucrative after-dinner speaking career to fall back on. Tyrants, though? Everyone’s all smiles and “yes, sir”s, until they’re not. Then it’s a MAC-10 to the back of the neck and that’s all she wrote.

The trials and tribulations of dictatorship are no mystery to publishers Kalypso, of course, after their success with the Tropico games. Jagged Alliance: Back in Action sees things from the other side of the balaclava, however. You play the part of the boss of a team of mercenaries sent in to the tinpot dictatorship of Arulco to off the evil Queen and fight for freedom.

Dictatorial themes aren’t the only things that Tropico 4 and Jagged Alliance: Back in Action have in common, however. Both work under the principle “take a successful game, change very little, and sell it to today’s gamers”. However, whereas that was a good tactic in Tropico, it fares less well in Arulco.

JA:BIA is essentially a top-down squad-based tactical shooter. From the outset the action centres around small teams of mercenaries assaulting enemy-held positions, pausing the game to give instructions to your armed hardnuts then un-pausing for a bit to see how the whole plan plays out. After the dust settles, you’re back to the map screen from which you can split and reform squads, choose new destinations to attack or defend and manage your invasion on the national scale.

If you’ve played Jagged Alliance 2, the previous Jagged Alliance game, there’s something you should know right away: This isn’t a sequel, or even really a reimagining. It’s a REMAKE. That is, it’s the same game. Same plot and characters, even the maps are really similar to the originals. The real-time over turn-based approach is a fundamental change, of course. Sadly, the other thing that’ll strike you is overall lack of polish.

See, nothing in JA:BIA is actually broken, or unworkable. It’s all just really clunky and, in some cases, unfinished. Let me give you a couple of examples. After you’ve cleared an area out of enemies, the ground will be littered with enemy bodies (and, correspondingly, a ton of loot) and a couple of militia men will turn up, ready to defend the site for you from the Queen’s men. They will gladly stand in the midst of a ton of armed corpses and never think to pick up any of the weapons themselves, leaving you to micromanage each and every battlefield once the shooting has stopped. Each of your characters has a stamina bar, which ticks down as they run around, even when you’re in a non-combat situation, so as you’re sweeping up the battlefield, collecting weapons and distributing them to your goons, you need to keep stopping and waiting for your ‘hardened mercenaries’ to catch their breath. Oh, and stamina almost never matters when you actually are in combat – it just seems to be there to interfere with your mercenary admin. Which is to say, the compulsory-yet-not-fun bit.

Plenty of the in-game text has simply not been finished. While this is, at best, merely bemusing (a particular famous assault rifle’s text mentions that it’s been used in conflicts in , , and .), and at worst, unforgivably annoying (a key that opens the door to the general’s mansion in , for instance, or a location that, once captured, increases the morale of .) Switching weapons – for instance, if a villain is charging into melee and you want to switch to the combat knife – removes any ammo and accessories from that weapon. So, once you’ve finished with the combat knife and you pull out your sniper rifle again, not only is it mysteriously empty, but the scope’s been taken off. Well, I say mysterious, but really it’s pretty obviously just the result of sloppy programming, bad QA or – most likely – a release deadline that came before the game was really ready to go.

Normally, I’m quite forgiving of things like that. I seriously hope that most of these gripes will be sorted out in the inevitable patch this game so critically needs, but there are so many of them it’ll be a wonder if they really whip it into a significantly better condition with a patch. Also, there are a couple of design decisions that really detract from the fun of the game. Trading items between your characters – well, actually, the whole interface – is cumbersome, and there’s no fog of war. No fog of war! In a tactical shooter! You automatically know where everyone is all the time, even if they’re on the other side of the map. Sure, it makes planning ambushes pretty easy, but you don’t really need the help because the AI is as dumb as a bag of spanners. At one point, I was firing at a pair of enemies who BOTH started moving between prone and standing over and over again, on the spot, until their brainless heads were ventilated with 5.56mm rounds. I guess their bad guy boot camp training kicked in, and the only thing they could remember from it was how to do burpees.

I was pretty disappointed with the way the game’s been put together, as I’m sure you can tell. However, it’s sometimes fun to play. It’s a good feeling to see your first mercs, armed with pistols and wearing civilian clothes, develop into brutes with military hardware and night vision goggles. There’s a real sense of satisfaction that comes with capturing more and more of the map, and repelling the Queen’s attempts to recapture the land from you. Oh, and some of the voice acting is particularly funny – like Steroid, the Austrian bodybuilder who sounds like he could run for Californian governor. There are a ton of weapons and armour, and some of the maps have unexpected little surprises dotted around which made me smile. This could have been a really good game, and for dedicated tactical shooter aficionados who can look past the awkward interface and painful AI, there’s a fair game here. Shot in the foot, though, I’m afraid.

Which, admittedly, is better than the back of the neck.

Stealth attacks are by no means guaranteed kills.