Friday, November 10, 2006

Brigade E5: New Jagged Union Review

Brigade E5: New Jagged Union, developed by Apeiron and published by Strategy First .
The Good: Non-linear campaign, lots of weapons, “smart pause mode,” pretty decent tactical strategy
The Not So Good: Slow pace (especially in cities), outrageously annoying music and sound, requires a lot of micromanagement
What say you? An action RPG where player freedom almost overcomes the shortcomings: 6/8

The old saying goes: if you want something done, hire a mercenary to do it. Assassins-for-hire are always a popular option for sticky situations where guns and violence are the solution. Not surprisingly, living this lifestyle vicariously through a video game is a popular, and more legal, option. Spawning from the tradition of the Jagged Alliance games, Brigade E5: New Jagged Union lets you assemble a crack team of ex-soldiers and complete missions to earn money and increase your power (because, as The Bible says, “money is power”). How will this turn-based-real-time-strategy-role-playing-game-hybrid fare? How many genres can I fit into one hyphenated term?

Brigade E5: New Jagged Union features OK graphics. The game is rendered in full 3-D and you can move the camera around to view the action from any angle. The environments are OK: they are believably stereotypical for a tropical location, although there could be more detail in the individual maps. The character models are OK: they are detailed to an extent, but they end up looking the same after a while (especially for the non-playable characters). The best aspect of the graphics is the weapon models: they are usually spot-on, and that’s pretty impressive for how large the arsenal of Brigade E5: New Jagged Union is. Still, the graphics will neither impress nor disappoint. See, I told you the graphics of Brigade E5: New Jagged Union are just OK. Now, as for the sound, it is rather horrible. The background music is some of the worst, grating sets of generic songs I have heard in quite a long time. The voice acting is silly and repetitive, especially when using the same orders, as each character has just one canned expression for each command. Listening to the French chick shout, “FAIT!” one hundred times per level, each time you give her a movement order, makes you want to quit the game and burn it. You are better off just playing the game with your speakers turned off.

In Brigade E5: New Jagged Union, you start with a character landing in some tropical, war torn fictional country, accept missions from various other characters, recruit new team members, and make money to buy really sweet weapons. Most of the game will be played through the non-linear campaign, which plays a lot like Oblivion in terms of its open-ended nature. Players are free to venture to any of the cities you have discovered, talk to anyone, and complete missions in any order you choose.
New cities are added to the country map by conversing with new people, and traveling to different destinations is easy (although you may be attacked by roving gangs along the way). This amount of freedom in Brigade E5: New Jagged Union is great and it’s one of the highlights of the game. Of course, you can spend part of the time trying to find an appropriate mission for your progress level in the game, but most of the missions are easy enough that you can complete them using good tactics. There is a multiplayer aspect of the game, although I can’t tell if you can search for and join other games, since there were never any games on the list of games to join. Like Oblivion, you start by selecting a character and answering questions to set your beginning attributes. Unlike Oblivion, however, the questions in Brigade E5: New Jagged Union are off-the-wall, inane, and so obvious on their intent that they are completely ludicrous and subsequently stupidly funny. Missions are pretty easy to find in the game, as important characters are highlighted on the map of the city. You will spend a lot of time walking around, however, and a disturbing amount of the game is spent traveling between locations instead of shooting stuff. I guess this is the side effect of giving the player this amount of freedom.

Most of the game is played from the main screen, where you will issue orders to your characters. There are a lot of orders to issue; thankfully most of them are based on stance and situation, and moving between distant locations will automatically execute intermediate actions (like opening doors or climbing ladders). Most everything you’ll need to do to successfully use cover and engage your opponent is available in the game. The game plays in real-time, but Brigade E5: New Jagged Union pauses automatically whenever an important event occurs, such as finishing orders or spotting an enemy. You can set which actions cause a pause in the action, which is nice. This is a good feature, because the amount of micromanagement required in the game would require you to constantly pause the game a lot anyway, and relegating the game to turns is unrealistic. Since you’ll be normally controlling multiple characters and there is no friendly tactical AI to speak of (meaning units don’t automatically return fire or respond to being shot), people who do not enjoy micromanaging every action of their squad should steer clear of this title. Actually shooting enemies involves choosing a fire mode (single or auto), the location on the enemy (head, torso, arm), and how accurate your shot needs to be. This is a fairly linear strategy, as close combat can use quick, relatively imprecise aiming (especially with shotguns…fun), while long distance sniper action will need accurate fire. You will also need to adjust your stance, as kneeling or lying down will result in more accurate shots with certain weapons. The damage inflicted on the enemy is translated into an immediate hit point loss, short term bleeding, and long term shock. You can also inflict location-specific damage; for example, hitting someone in the arm may cause them to drop their weapon (I know I would). The combat in the game is generally slow-paced (as is the whole game in general), which works to the advantage of those players who like a more tactical approach rather than running into a room with guns blazing. The enemy AI is pretty decent: they can use cover and assume appropriate positions when attacking or being attacked. They are much more effective in large numbers, however, but they still provide a good enough challenge to make the game interesting.

Brigade E5: New Jagged Union features a good amount of role-playing elements. Each of your characters is rated in 13 different areas that impact everything from damage in hand-to-hand combat to discounts on buying goods. Your mercenary will also be rated for each type of combat (like sniping or melee), and equipping your character with the right kind of weapon is paramount for success in the game. Brigade E5: New Jagged Union strives to feature a realistic inventory model. I’ve never understood how you could carry 15 knives, 4 swords, and 3 staffs around in other games, but Brigade E5: New Jagged Union solves this problem by using a realistic inventory system. You can fit one gun in your hand, one around the shoulder, and various objects in your pockets. You can purchase a belt to fit more spare ammunition or grenades, but you’ll never be able to carry every single item you need (and even if you did, it would be too heavy). Instead of imposing some arbitrary weight limit, you’ll be more restricted by how many pockets you have. And Brigade E5: New Jagged Union features a whole mess of weapons; there are over 80 real-world firearms and accessories present in the game, and each of them seems to behave pretty realistically. The prospect of outfitting your crew with a range of different weaponry should make most strategy players drool, and successfully attacking any given situation makes for some fun gameplay.

Despite all of the good things about the game, I feel that Brigade E5: New Jagged Union will ultimately only appeal to a small audience. The game is definitely rough around the edges due to its foreign roots, and the graphics and (especially) the sound are average to atrocious. Although it involves a lot of down-time and walking around, the non-linear campaign is pretty immersive and it makes the player think they have influence over the game instead of following a series of canned orders. After all, you are a mercenary-for-hire: shouldn’t you be able to pick and choose? The amount of weapons in the game is disturbingly satisfying, and the general combat is fun when you are controlling more than one character. Brigade E5: New Jagged Union features solid strategy, and it’s just plain fun to sneak up on a group of unsuspecting enemies and shoot them in the head. Brigade E5: New Jagged Union does play a lot like a role playing game, with the addition of more tactical battles (instead of just hack and slash) and real-world weapons in the place of fairy dust. I found Brigade E5: New Jagged Union to be pretty enjoyable and it should appeal to strategy fans that can get past the rough issues and look at the great strategy, weapons, and non-linear campaign.