Jagged Alliance: Rage – Here we go again

So there is yet another game trying to revamp the Jagged Alliance name. I have lost count of how many that is now since Sir-tech’s masterpiece Jagged Alliance 2. While a company could just take the original formula, update the graphics and improve the UI to please the fans, every iteration tries to put its own spin on things. It is due out in the beginning of December and looks like the most promising remakes so far. However, the developers are the same that did Jagged Alliance Online, so proceed with caution (although I did enjoy their game Aerena).

This time around, the game seems to focus on a small group of mercenaries going on a road trip through a jungle. The setup is that it is 20 years after the events of Jagged Alliance 2. The map recalls the island of Minerva in Jagged Alliance 1, and the premise is very The Expendables. This is an intriguing setup, even though it sounds like it removes some core things like squad management. The art direction is going to be hit or miss for most. Rage forfeits realism and goes for a more cartoony look but it might be something that one can get used to. I don’t think this will scratch the itch for those who are waiting for a Jagged Alliance remake that tries to simulate some measures of realism though. From the trailer, the gameplay looks alright, both familiar and off. A road trip with some buddies sounds like you will be limited to just one squad but it is something I can get behind if they maintain the unique flavour of what made the original Jagged Alliance games so good.

In the two videos I have found, the mercs are voice acted and the game at least tries to bring personality to them. How effective it is we will have to see once the game is available. I was a bit concerned that the game will feature a very limited roster of our favorite mercenaries. With each new piece released, the roster grows a little despite the company not updating their website. On the official website, they list fan favourites Ivan, Shadow, and Raven. In the released videos, I also spotted Vicki, Grunty, Dr. Q, and Fidel. It is a decent start and here is hoping that it includes more.

The game also introduces a new mechanic, Rage, which acts as a sort of limit break. The mercenaries accumulate Rage points and once they have enough, they can spend them to use their super abilities. A PCGamesn article goes more in-depth into how this works. Some of these abilities even interfere with each mercenary’s faults. With age comes fragility I suppose. This kind of system could work well, where every encounter needs to be weighed against the status of your mercenaries. Darkest Dungeon does something similar, for example, and it added depth and planning. With a limited mercenary pool, it might become more of a burden than a nice little feature.

Alec Meer over at RPS said it doesn’t suck, but needs a hefty dose of polish. The game was supposed to be released earlier, but was delayed, hopefully adding that polish that was missing. Writing Bull on YouTube has a let’s play series on it already (in German) and the game looks…OK. There is some Jagged Alliance there, but it also looks like a mobile game UI. Inventory management looks as annoying as Jagged Alliance 2’s, so it is sticking to its source material in some ways at least.

I have said that I will no longer look forward to another Jagged Alliance remake, since so many of them have missed the mark. I might have to take that back, as Rage is working for me. I am still hesitant because the game won’t have a large roster, it looks simpler, and although I am not sure how the campaign will go, the map in the screenshots looks a lot more linear than the open world of Jagged Alliance 2.

Hopefully it is not too much like The Expendables.

Telltale’s The Walking Dead: A Review

Telltale’s The Walking Dead is considered by many to be a modern classic – a shining example of storytelling in videogames, the definite game that will make you cry. I had never gotten around to playing it, or any other Telltale game, until recently when the first season of Walking Dead was given away for free. In retrospect, a move to shore up any lingering interest in their franchise to get the company out of dire straits. As Telltale closes up shop in a classic case of piss poor corporate management and miscommunication, I thought to give it a go and see what, if anything, I had been missing.

The game follows the now standard trope of a group of humans trying to survive in the wake of an apocalyptic event where they themselves are the true monsters. Anyone familiar with Robert Kirkman’s comics or the TV show will find Telltale’s version very familiar. You play as Lee, a man on his way to prison for murder whose transport gets interrupted by the imminent zombie apocalypse. Shortly thereafter, he joins up with a young girl named Clementine and a gruesome adventure follows.

On the way you make friends and enemies as you navigate through now cliche set pieces. Additionally, the story servers up numerous decisions where you get to choose who lives and who dies. Some criticise the game for having a rigid story. The choices you make don’t change the outcome, but this kind of misses the point since stories are all about the journey. The choices influence how you get to the end, with who you get to the end, and what kind of character Lee is. A story with a dramatically different outcome would not fit with the Walking Dead universe, and nor would multiple divergent endings be able to supply the same punch across all branches. Even in a Telltale-like game such as Life is Strange, where there are two endings, only one of them actually feels complete.

The game is six years old and it has not aged well. There are pauses after certain parts of dialogue with the characters standing around awkwardly. I imagined the game was trying to puzzle out what dialogue to return based on past choices. The inclusions of gameplay mechanics, such as shooting and quick-time events feel forced most of the time. There are a few instances where these are effective, such as one of the last scenes where Lee battles his way through a zombie horde to get to Clementine. More often than not, they feel like interruptions, added because the developers didn’t want their game to be labeled as “not a real game.” There were also very minor things I noticed, such as in one scene, the prompt for the quick time event did not display properly, and some strange shadow thing off of Kenny’s right shoulder which made him look like he was walking around with some ghost grass on his back.

The story unfolds kind of like how you would expect. Things go wrong very fast, people come and go and usually die, and few of the characters are ever able to really work together. Aside from Clementine and Lee, I did not feel close to any of the characters. For most of them, the only way I could gather any empathy was to relate to the trope they were based off of. I am not sure if it was because of the choices I made, but few of them stuck around long enough for me to care too much. While certain moments are loaded with emotion, others felt flat. In a few scenes, the camera even lingers on the robotic expressions of the characters to try to drive home that this moment is meaningful and you should feel something. Perhaps with a greater visual fidelity, this would have felt less forced.

That’s not to say the praise is undeserved. The writing and voice acting is quality, producing gut-wrenching moments with an effectiveness only an increasingly handful of narrative games have managed. The game excels where it matters most and judging from other games which have built upon the foundation set by The Walking Dead that its influence has been great and not yet fully realized. At the same time, it is only as good as the IP it is based off of lets it be. With these constraints we know that someone will get mad, then someone will die, later someone will dick the group over, and that the dairy farm eats people. It is The Walking Dead, it can’t be anything more or anything less – there is an expected formula to follow.

The formula works. The final scene in the first season is the kind of satisfying end that is fitting of a pessimistic zombie apocalypse story. Six years later, while the game and formula feel more tired than they would be, the game still delivers. As I watch the credits roll, processing the final scene,  I think of all the names that pass and of Telltale. It wasn’t their first game by far, but The Walking Dead season 1 is for many the game that defines the studio. After churning out a massive number of similar games under various other IPs, following a similar formula for half a decade, and operating under dubious managerial staff under a former CEO, the studio is suddenly closing. The final chapters of the last season of Walking Dead will likely remain unfinished. Would this giveaway capture another fan in me? No. The lead writers left to do other things after season 1 wrapped and despite being solid, one season is enough for me. It is a worthy legacy for the studio that, to some extent, reinvented and breathed life into the adventure game genre.

Except it might not be Telltale’s legacy. Currently, as a result of their mismanagement of the studio wind-up, it is facing a class action lawsuit from former employees who were wronged in the suddenly announced closing of the studio. The Walking Dead season 1 contains a few key themes – to what limits would you go to survive, parenting in the apocalypse, dealing with loss – but at the forefront the franchise is about how, even in the most dire of circumstances, it is humans who are the real monsters.

Banner Saga 3: A Satisfying Ending to an Epic Tale

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Off-Peak: A Review

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Amphora Review

In Amphora, you command a wisp of smoke that lives in a, well, amphora. Like a genie or spirit, your smokey form watches over the life of a girl, guiding her and her family through the major scenes in their lives. Each scene is displayed in colourful … [Continue reading]