First Impressions: Jagged Alliance Online

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First Impressions: Jagged Alliance Online
Jagged Alliance Online screenshot
A short time ago, I posted my thoughts on UFO Online, one of the most exciting titles I found while at E3 this year. While I was there, I was given a tour of Jagged Alliance Online during the same sitting. Both games were thrilling in a "tiny army" sort of way, and both seemed to finally get what makes tabletop gaming and strategy games fun. UFO Online was more complex in some ways, and I found the beta to be further along than Jagged Alliance Online's, but I have had fun in both so far. I'm hoping that gamigo, the publisher of both titles, keeps getting them both right.

I still had some issues with Jagged Alliance Online, but it's hard to say whether these will be corrected during one of the following betas. So while it is my duty to report to you these issues, I want you to bear in mind the state of the current game. Fortunately the title seems far enough along that I got a real feel for what is coming.

War is coming.

Click past the cut and I'll give you the details.

Jagged Alliance Online screenshot
I want to start out by describing the single greatest detail about Jagged Alliance Online, and the main difference between the two turn-based, squad-based strategy games: There is no time-limit during turns. That means I can get up, go grab a drink, think about what I want to do, consult The History Channel, ask Twitter what my next move should be, and come back to find my squad dutifully awaiting my command. Of course the time limit could be present in the PvP mode of the game, something that was not featured during this beta. Little did I know that I was signing up to play a single-player browser game! Even then the basics of combat should be pretty similar between the two options. I cannot stress enough my love for timeless turns. I get why the developers would want to include a limit during PvP matches, but the developers could always leave in a toggle for "unlimited time turns" and I would be a happy man.

Graphically, the game does a lot. It's using the Unity engine, so it features all sorts of fancy effects. The lighting is nice but sometimes can be a bit harsh or dark, and the muzzle flashes and blood spatter are a cool touch. One of the neatest things to see is the physics involved with dead bodies. The developers really went out on a (severed) limb and made bodies fall and flail around so that every kill comes out differently. It has no benefit to the strategy of the game at all, but that's why I love it.

Strategy is not limited to how you move on the battlefield. Squads are made up of hand-picked mercenaries, and each one of them is customized further as you add add different clothing, armor, weapons and items. Many of the items are found in the cash shop, so cries of "buying power" might come from the audience. Still, the number of items is impressive, and I can honestly say that I had just as much fun making up my armies as I did while playing them on the battlefield. There are scores of mercenaries to choose from. My opinion might be skewed a bit, though, since the cash-shop cash flowed like water during testing. I have no idea how hard it would be to make a good, or near perfect, army without the use of free virtual money.

Jagged Alliance Online screens
One of the most attractive things about Jagged Alliance Online is its simplicity. I love simple gameplay that hides deep strategy, but I love simple systems and UIs even more. Let's say you want to hire and outfit a new mercenary. OK, so you start by picking one out, naming her, and then outfitting her with gadgets, weapons, ammo, armor or clothes. Yes, it's dress-up. Awesome dress-up. Everything is drag-and-drop, and if your particular mercenary cannot use anything it is simply grayed-out.

Once you hit the battlefield, combat is only a matter of moving your cursor around the map and clicking. Each mercenary has a certain number of points to use for actions, and as you move your cursor, a number will tick down so that you can see how many points that particular movement or action will take. Making your mercenary crouch is simply a matter of double-clicking her; reloading your weapon is done with one click. All of these actions take away from your point total. Hovering your cursor over an enemy will even show you your chance of hitting. Call me crazy, but it seemed a bit like the dice rolls were a bit off, especially when I would miss so many times while having a hit chance in the high 50s or 60s.

"The first and most important benefit of browser gaming is convenience, so forcing players to have a slightly beefier machine is a little silly."

There are some problems with the game besides questionable combat math. First, the game is made using the Unity gaming engine. While this means the developers can make a good-looking game, it also means that many basic laptops might have an issue running it. The first and most important benefit of browser gaming is convenience, so forcing players to have a slightly beefier machine is a little silly. There is an unfortunate lack of graphics options, as well, but that might change as new versions of the game are released. Also, the camera is locked in only one isometric view, which is not true in the previously mentioned UFO Online, so players might become a little frustrated when they cannot zoom in or change the camera angle to witness carnage up close.

Voice-overs are corny, for sure, and some are downright dumb, but that might be in the style of the original game (the one I never played). The odd voices don't really match the "serious" look of the game, but again I might have heard temporary placeholder voice-overs. I certainly hope so. One of the characters sounded so silly that I literally cringed every time I heard her. Gunshots and other wartime sounds are sparse but done well.

After my short time with Jagged Alliance Online, I am more excited than ever to play it at release. Granted, I am a bit worried about how "MMO" this MMO is, but it will still remain on my favorites list. UFO Online looks to be the more massively scaled game of the two, but both provide simple, direct and easy fun. Gunning down baddies is always a blast, but it's especially fun when you can tweak almost every aspect of each individual warrior. Count me in!

  • Fantastic graphics, thanks to the Unity engine
  • Turns are not limited by time, at least in the single-player mode
  • Each mercenary is customizable, and there are plenty to choose from
  • The play map is large and provides a lot of scenarios
  • Battle sounds are well-done, if a little sparse
  • Interface and gameplay are simple to learn, hard to master
  • Unity might be a bit much for basic laptops
  • No graphics options, at least not now
  • Voice-overs are horrible in many places
  • Cash shop might not be for everyone
  • Locations do get a bit stale and repetitive
  • Camera is locked in isometric view
  • Hit chances seem a bit off
Keep an eye on Massively for news about open beta and launch. Testing is continuing, and as of the time of this writing, a new large patch was introduced that included an upgraded new player experience and more on-screen information. Until then, see you on the battlefield... just wait your turn!

Massively's not big on scored reviews -- what use are those to ever-changing MMOs? That's why we bring you first impressions, previews, hands-on experiences, and even follow-up impressions for nearly every game we stumble across. First impressions count for a lot, but games evolve, so why shouldn't our opinions?
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