Thursday, February 9, 2012

Initial Impressions - Jagged Alliance: Back in Action

Turn-based strategy games are where it's at as far as I'm concerned and my favorite sub-genre of the turn based medium is definitely the squad-based strategy RPG. Games like "X-COM," "Incubation," "Fire Emblem" and the previous "Jagged Alliance" games helped set the bar in terms of what I consider to be gaming perfection. For that reason, I was equally excited to learn that a new "Jagged Alliance" game was in development and terrified at the developer's desire to include "real-time" elements in it.

Having spent a little over six hours with the game, I can tell you that my fear has been almost completely erased and replaced with a joy that I haven't felt from a game in years. If not for a few minor problems, which I could see being easily fixed in a patch, this game could indeed be a perfect single-player experience.

Where to begin? Okay, for the benefit of those familiar with the "Jagged Alliance" series who are wondering if this game is a true JA game, the answer is "Yes!" "Back in Action" was clearly made by people who care about the legacy of the previous games and had not only the vision and guile to attempt to improve upon them, but also the technical chops to make that vision a reality.

I will admit that I was a bit concerned when I first got into combat that I wouldn't be able to control the battlefield in the way that the previous JA titles' purely turn-based systems allowed, but my fears were quickly put to rest when I came to grips with "Back in Action's" new-school approach to tactical combat.

In a word, it's "genius." If anything, the new system provides even more tactical options than were present in any of the previous JA games but lets you decide when the action should play out in real time or be paused manually or automatically by a slew of event triggers that can be toggled on and off in the game's options. With all the auto-pause options on, the combat plays a lot like previous JA games, with the action stopping when a new enemy comes into view or dies, or when one of your mercenaries is wounded or runs out of ammo. This gives you the opportunity to cue up actions for your mercs then resume the action to see everything play out or pause it again mid-stream to alter tactics on the fly. The best part about this system is that you can basically walk around in real time, exploring areas, scouting enemy positions and looting the fallen, safe in the knowledge that as soon as an enemy comes into view or some other important event happens, the game will automatically pause and let you get all strategic on its face!

It's almost unbelievable to me just how well this new system works. It far exceeds anything I'd dared to hope for from this new game and is a real love letter to the original games; taking everything that was great about them, improving it and cutting out the (Dare I say?) tedious bits like turn-based searching and looting which, let's be honest, were the price we used to have to pay to enjoy what JA had to offer.

For newcomers, this is a perfect point of entry. This game would be almost indecipherable to the uninitiated without a good tutorial. Fortunately, it has one, but that's where the hand-holding ends. The good news is that it's pretty easy to intuit the things that the tutorial doesn't cover by simply examining the user interface and its various tool tips. Gamers who've grown up on or become accustomed to games that practically play themselves will no doubt balk at the way "Back in Action" sort of throws you to the wolves right from the start of the game proper, but others will appreciate it giving them intellectual credit for being able to figure out things for themselves and make their own decisions about how to approach its myriad of tactical and strategic choices.

The result is a game that's a little tough to wrap your head around at first but becomes progressively more rewarding as you unravel it's mysteries and nuances. You will feel like the world's biggest bad ass when you finish the first real mission, which involves securing an airport to serve as a foothold base of operations and subsequent missions ramp up in a manner fitting of the genre with the stakes always getting higher, your team always getting better and your attachment to your individual mercs rising to almost unhealthy proportions. You want them to get better. You want them to win, but most-importantly, you want them to survive! :)

I haven't played enough of "Back in Action" yet to give it a proper review, but my enjoyment of what I've experienced so far has been intense. I have noticed a couple annoying bugs, one that trapped one of my mercs behind a desk for the last few minutes of the second mission when an NPC I'd rescued refused to get out of his way and let him leave the building and a couple line of sight issues where I wasn't able to shoot enemies I clearly should have been able to hit. The good news about the LoS issue is if you can't hit them, they can't hit you either, so you don't find yourself in situations where you're getting picked apart by gunfire without being able to retaliate. You just have to move a bit or wait for the enemy to move into a better LoS scenario. As is typical for these sorts of games, shooting from around corners and inside/around doorways can sometimes trigger a LoS issue.

Having said that, this game so far feels more like a great game with a few minor problems than a good game struggling to be great. Highly recommended for fans of the series or anyone looking for something truly original and different from pretty much anything else currently available.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

One Heck of a Week

I'm not ashamed to admit that when I first decided to take the plunge into indie game development, I was almost completely ignorant and perhaps a bit naive as to what goes into promoting a game. In a lot of ways, my professional career had well prepared me for creating the game itself, but how to make people aware of it and convincing them to purchase it were things I struggled with for months after the game was finished and available for sale. In retrospect, it's a small miracle that I was able to drum up any coverage at all for "Powergrids" because it came out at one of the busiest times in one of the best years for gaming in recent memory.

Given my lack of knowledge and experience, it's no wonder that it's only been within the past week that "Powergrids" has attracted significant attention from iOS gamers around the world, but in the end, it wasn't so much what I did, but what others let me do and did for me that's made any sort of progress possible.

It began last week when "Powergrids" was featured on The Joystiq Indie Pitch, a process that I'd started way back in November when I first contacted Jess Conditt about the possibility of being included in the series. Needless to say, that's not something that happens overnight, but knowing at a certain point that it was going to happen allowed me to prepare for it and make the most of the opportunity.

One thing I didn't consider and was frankly blown away by was how big an impact the publication of that interview would have on Twitter. Within a day of it going live, there were dozens of tweets to thousands of followers by people and bots that had picked up the story from Joystiq and tweeted it themselves. It was at that moment that I realized just how important Twitter has become and how glad I was that I'd set up my Twitter accounts before all this happened. :)

And then today it happened, the moment I'd been waiting for since I released "Powergrids" back in October. An honest to goodness video game publication reviewed it, and the review was good! :)

The big thing I hoped for when I started down this path was that "Powergrids" would do well enough to fund development of another, bigger, better game. While that hasn't happened yet, I remain hopeful that it will. Still, I have to accept reality and have begun work on a second game that fits into the constraints of my current development budget. It's not the game I'd hoped to make, but it will still be great and a worthy successor to "Powergrids."

I've learned a lot from this experience so far and I'm looking forward to completing and promoting my next game using what I've learned. I'm not sure how much time I'll have for blogging after this week, but I wanted to thank everyone who's helped me get this far; both the people who've bought the game and those who've helped me promote it.

Stay tuned to this blog and my Twitter account @mdshotter for the latest on "Powergrids" and my next game!