Jagged Alliance Online (JAO) is the latest incarnation of the Jagged Alliance series and is made available on the Steam platform. It has been around since the DOS era. (For those who can remember was the era which brought us clunky interfaces and a beautiful ability to be shot at – through walls.) This recent transference has given the longstanding series a boost as seen on forum chatter, especially amongst the more nostalgic players.
Even when one removes the sentimental rose-tinted glasses, one can see that JAO is part of a new generation revolution. Free-to-play (F2P), browser-based gaming with solid 3D graphics engines (take a bow, Unity 3D plug-in) all make for positive features in JAO and offer lots of excitement at first look.
That said, there are problems that Cliffhanger Productions need to work out if this game is going to live up to its predecessors and its revolutionary potentials.
For starters, it’s marketed as F2P and for my money (or lack thereof as the case should be) this label has a certain measure of false advertising about it.
The first few levels of the single-player campaign mode are free, but then you are required to purchase the download content if you wish to continue further. From my gaming perspective, this makes the initial foray into a game boasting over 100 unique missions merely a demo as opposed to being free.
However, if the game mechanics are good enough and the DLC is good enough, I am certainly happy to lay down a little green for content. I can even overlook the modest outlay as long as the game itself is decent without begrudging the money spent.
What you get from the full game is a stereotypical set of missions called contracts that span the globe and require you and your ragtag band of mercenaries to destroy military facilities, take out drug lords, and free hostages – offering plenty of opportunities for imaginary high fives but little in long-term gratification.
As for the storyline, well, there’s a guy called Ice. (So… that’s got to be good, right?) Sadly, Ice can’t carry the show despite his *cool* name, for the storyline is your generic mercenary plot that moves along at an unobtrusive pace as you level up.
Whilst the characters might not offer much depth or backstory, you soon find yourself with favorites and your squad adapts well to your playing style. The leveling mechanics are simplified, so don’t expect too many complexities as your characters climb the ranks. The game sufficiently balances your stats for your chosen pathway that allows you to concentrate on playing.
My strongest criticism of JAO is the lack of tactical depth, which, from my experience, is the nuts and bolts of any decent turn-based strategy game (TBS). You quickly realize that your options are limited to striking a balance between running, sneaking, and shooting, but you regularly find that your most effective option is to forget the sneaking, run directly at your enemy, and shoot them in the face. (Look away now, Solid Snake fans.)
The contracts themselves vary nicely in size and environment, and to JAO’s credit, there are often multiple routes you can take towards completion when the “shoot them in the face” tactic grows a little dull.
The isometric environments do offer protection to your mercs who are able to take cover, but this is the only time your mercs will change plane unless you count the ability to disappear during gunfights, or as I suspect, an unwanted homage to its DOS era progenitors when you find yourself being shot through wall on occasion.
The game mechanics, in general, are impressive for a browser-based game whilst the interface is very intuitive. Anyone with experience with similar games will find their way around JAO with ease.
Particularly notable are the graphics. The Unity 3D engine does a very nice job of rendering detail and provides a striking and varied level of gore and death throws with each kill. The frame-rate does drop during heavier skirmishes, but this rarely interferes with the playing experience.
All in all, the single-player campaign is good – not great – but good. If you like TBS, you could do a lot worse. If you do invest in the DLC you will get your money’s worth, whereas if you do invest in the DLC, there is a very good chance you did so because you were more interested in the PVP aspect of the game. In a twisted sort of contradiction, that is the real F2P aspect of the game. So let us move onto that.
In PVP mode you compete in time-limited turn-based tactical battles against other PVP teams. It has the standard warzones that most PVP players will be familiar with including Death Match, Search & Destroy, and the nice addition of Bounty Hunter Mode in which you compete to be the first team to collect the bounty.
On the other hand, PVP is always a contentious issue. People just do not enjoy getting killed over and over again by players far superior to them. (Is there a light at the end of this tunnel?) This leads to an array of unhappy campers who automatically blame “the system” and “the developers” for creating a “broken” or “unfair gaming experience.” This inevitable feeling of frustration is no different in JAO.
What people don’t realize, or refuse to accept, is that getting killed over and over again is part of the learning curve. Speak to any leading PVPer and that person will tell you stories of having had butt-kickings from Azeroth to Korriban and back again via some Brazilian Favela.
To separate from the average PVP player and become a great PVP player, you’ve got to learn to avoid dying, memorize rotations, and think on your feet under sustained pressure. Then, thinking you’ve succeeded at least and you’re a hero, you’ll find yourself getting shanked by a rogue, throw a tanty, and finally regroup and head out again. Those who can move on from the bitter disappointment and learn from it make the ultimate PVPers.
This is why the learning curve and the ability to progress are so important to PVP. Regardless, you do need some light at the end of the tunnel, that way you can enjoy the repeated beatings. It’s a bit like Stockholm Syndrome!
This certainly seems to be the case with JAO PVP system. There is a need for the developers to insert a tier system, common in most other games, as the current matchmaking system does often drop you in a no-win situation and often after a long wait. But this really is my only criticism of an otherwise fun and fluid PVP experience.
The good news is there is a lively community developing around the PVP aspect of the game, and most importantly, the developers are active on the forums which is why the last few patches have made JAO noticeably fairer to lower level competitors.
The great thing about the JAO’s PVP is that it remains a TBS, a rare trait for this type of game. It is also a really nice touch. Sure, it is time-limited, but really, it has to be. This creates a contrast with the single-player campaign because it speeds the gameplay up, allowing you to decide what style and what intensity you want to go for that day. This element helps to keep the game fresh.
The PVP aspect also maintains your interest by adding new content and tournaments for rare gear and weaponry. The game boasts over 40 mercs and 500 weapons, plus the handy ability to customize your own weapons in campaign mode and transfer merc squads with weapons between campaign and PVP.
In summary, this game is a very good browser-based game. The PVP is as free as you want it to be but don’t be surprised if you end up buying the full game as the rewards are transferable to PVP. You’ll still find yourself being shot down in spectacular fashion by those who have bought the DLC, although the most recent patch has made it fairer for those who refuse to pay.
Single player JAO has enough to keep the casual gamer entertained but those seeking grand strategy should probably approach this game as TBS “lite.” JAO offers an odd TBS/real-time crossover in PVP, which is a standout feature for me. Be warned, though, in either mode, you will never get the nuances that you get with full-blown paid TBS or classical PVP platforms.
- Unity 3D Plug-in provides great graphics
- Two games in one
- Lively and growing PVP community in which developers are active
- Campaign mode boasts over 100 unique missions (100 hours gameplay)
- No tactical depth or grand strategy
- Not really Free-to-Play
- Isometric Environment is truly 2D
- PVP slightly favors players who have bought the download content