Jagged Alliance Online published by Gamigo is underscored by the subtitle “Back in action,” and for good reason: the original Jagged Alliance was published in 1994 for MS-DOS. True to its origins, Gamigo has released JAO as a tactical turn-based role-paying game as a Flash browser-based platform game. In this game, the player takes on the role of a mercenary commander with a squad tasked with performing missions for money and prestige. The game is still deep in beta and the developer, bitComposer Games headquartered in Frankfurt, Germany is in fact the same studio who began then Jagged Alliance series—they’re working alongside Kalypso Media on the development.

We recently reviewed UFO Online from Gamigo, which takes a very similar approach to JAO just with an XCOM angle instead of a world-at-war angle.

In the game, players are given a limited number of resources, a main mercenary for them to play as, and the ability to recruit others with in-game currency and microtransaction currency. Recruit mercenaries only last a few days on hire and are expected to act as ancillary minutemen to the player’s main (as some missions require more than one in a squad.) Missions are taken from the world board and allow them to branch out, equip, and level up their mercenary as they explore the world of being a hired-gun.

The release of Jagged Alliance Online is expected for February 2012.

Gameplay: Turn-based tactical-combat with a nostalgic flare to the Jagged Alliance series

Jagged Alliance Online plays like a standard turn-based tactical squad shooter and there’s just the gun-for-hire outfit pulled over it. This means that people who are already used to turn-based games will have no trouble jumping right in. Unlike most tactical games JAO does not use an apparent grid for movement, instead there’s invisible hexagonal points on the map through which your character moves (displayed when you’re going to move by action spaces.)

Movement in combat is done by picking the place the character will go, watching that they have enough action-points to make it, and then clicking.

Shooting is accomplished by targeting an enemy with the mouse and clicking on them. It’s possible to aim for the body or the head—the head can be targeted by putting the mouse over the head of the target and it turns into a reticle-sight. Head shots are much more difficult, but often do a great deal more damage. Often I discovered that if I had a 50% chance of hitting the body, head would be around 15%. With a handgun I rarely killed anyone in one shot, but often one head hit was more than crippling enough to let me take them down with a closer shot.

Outside of the turn-based combat there’s the outfitting screen. It looks essentially like a base-camp in a remote jungle and includes storage, communication, and a hospital. From there you can also hire other mercenaries into your squad for a short time.

Storage, of course, is where all resources are kept. Most of these may be different types of ammunition (and you run out fast), various guns, armor pieces, and buffs and boons to take along with like med packs and the like. On the ammunition angle, it helps to take extra ammo to fights because misses are common and ammo runs out really quickly. Especially for beginning mercs.

The hospital is used to heal up characters who have been injured in previous missions.

Communication is where mission can be called up and chosen. Most missions are multi-part where a client asks for a series of operations to be done in order. They often cost a type of resource (in this case fuel) which limits the number of missions that the player can take in a day unless they buy more. The beginner mission consisted of learning to move from place-to-place in turn-based combat; then going out and shooting some watermelons dead; and finally going up against and killing a bunch of well-armed bad guys.

I ran out of ammo more than once during the last part of that mission.

Completing missions grants mercs experience, equipment, and cash and opens up extra missions on the world map.

Fairly much the staid, tried-and-true tactical-mercenary combat game here. Although the deep nostalgia factor that players who enjoyed the Jagged Alliance series may kick in here.

Graphics and Sound: Small maps full of people with guns, crickets, and engines

When it comes to graphics, Jagged Alliance Online is a little bit middling as it’s a Flash-based web browser game and must be able to run within the confines of Flash; however, it’s not that bad. The textures are obvious, the zones are well designed and you can tell what you’re looking at. The interface is clear and you’re able to easily identify the various components of the scene for what you need to use them for.

There’s virtually no character definition or customization out of the gate, just choose a photo (mostly men some women) and go. From there character upgrades depend on skills, talent points, and arms and armor. None of this is a big problem, not like many people will see more of your character than your icon, your armor, and the huge gun you have pointed their way.

Movement can be a little confusing at first until you account that it’s a turn-based and action-point based game and there’s no grid. Instead you just need to look to the UI to tell you how much AP it takes to do any action by moving the mouse. Enemies are limned with outlines on mouse-over along with targeting information. When paths cross behind obstacles the paths become online as well, but retain their designation colors (to show you can cross there.)

The textures and models are a bit pixilated but they make due with what detail they have; if you look closely at animations of enemy characters you can often identify what type of weapon they have even before they open fire. Of course, the sound helps with that after they start shooting.

Like most click-and-go games all the character have a few choice phrases they say when they’re acting. There’s only about three canned phrases for probably seven or eight characters (I didn’t test all of them.) It gets a little tedious, but the vocal acknowledgement that a task was done is inherently important to a game like this. The voicing is clear and obvious and comes across extremely well. It’s also in English, although undoubtedly there must be a German version of this game as well.

When choosing mercenaries there’s a lot of different voice actors that I heard, each of them have a different phrase. This doesn’t really come into play in the tactical game, but it felt like a fun little detail.

There’s also a number of yelps, groans, cries, and screams in the game when you put holes in the enemy with guns.

Finally, there’s gunfire sounds. It’s hard to say if this is generic or not but various guns each make their own appropriate-sounding noise. Rifles have a high-pip-crack sound, large handguns have a booming-pop, and automatic weapons go pop-pop-pop when they fire. Even if you couldn’t see the guns in the hands of the enemy characters this would help a great deal in identifying the type of weapon you’d be facing off against when they start shooting at you (and they will shoot at you.)

There’s also a great deal of ambient sound in the maps, I noticed an engine idle a lot of the time in missions where one objective was to “get to the jeep.” No doubt, other maps will have jungle noises, radios, or other ambient environmental noises in order to make the setting seem more authentic. I thought this happened to be an excellent little detail that bitComposer got right about the series.

Freemium: SteamWorks and—well, guns?

While this is a Gamigo game Jagged Alliance Online has suggested that it will also work with SteamWorks, Valve’s microtransaction service. Players will be able to use Steam accounts to purchase in-game currency for JAO in order to buy services and in-game items. SteamWorks will also allow players to play without the CD (via SteamWorks) and experience auto-upgrading and voice chat via Steam.

Most of the in-game store appears to be the standard fare for tactical-based shooters. Mercenaries can both cost money from in the game and in-game currency. There’s also guns, extra fuel, medpacks, premium looking armor, etc. It’s hard to tell how it might affect game balance at this stage because it’s still not released but nothing looked all that powerful.

The addition of SteamWorks will probably make this game a great deal more playable and connect it into a readymade community with Steam. More and more free-to-play games are hooking up to Steam and allowing discovery for players through their social apps.

Conclusion: Guns-for-hire in a world torn by war, guns, guns, and more guns

If this were The Matrix I don’t think Neo would have to say, “We’re going to need guns, lots of guns,” because from the onset, Jagged Alliance Online is all about guns.

From the looks of it, it’s growing out of a well-understood mechanic for turn-based combat and it has a solid underpinning behind it. What we’re going to see post-launch is a collision between players who have grown up on the Jagged Alliance series meeting players who play exclusively online in community-based tactical games and those who use Steam. It’s obvious that the various outfits involved in this game already know what they’re doing and how to do it.

JAO has a road ahead of it, but it’s a well trod property with a strong developer and a veteran publisher-distributor.