The Good: Dense, fully-realized world. Heaps of black humor. Conversations are vast and varied.
The Bad: Bland palette. Difficulty curve is off kilter.
The Ugly: Whole mess o’ bugs.
If you come into Wasteland 2, as I did, expecting essentially a top-down, turn-based, squad-level RPG in the style of Fallout, you would not be far wrong. Of course, the style of Fallout is itself derived from Wasteland 1, which came out twenty-five years ago when computers were largely coal fired and I suspect most of my readers were toddlers, but is a game I well remember playing. The product of a successful Kickstarter campaign, W2 pulled together much of the same team from the first Wasteland to remake their vision, preserve the flavor, while at the same time drawing elements from games that have come in the interim. The result is pretty damned good, and an accomplishment they should be proud of. Sure, it’s got some bugs, and the combat lacks some luster (especially in comparison to the recent incarnation of XCOM, which really defined the gold standard of turn-based squad combat), but it makes up for that with a post-apocalyptic world as it would exist if Monty Python ruled.
Our story begins with, naturally, nuclear annihilation, societal collapse, and the rise of warlords and wandering gangs of thieves, murderers, and cannibals – stock footage theater rejoice! To try and bring order to this world, a group of lawmen (well, lawmen isn’t probably quite the right word, because there’s no rule of law remaining) calling themselves the Desert Rangers patrol the desert southwest (the game takes place in the region that was formerly Arizona). The game then rather unceremoniously dumps you into party creation. Your party consists of the sort of D&D standard four characters, and most people will probably gravitate towards the usual combination of a couple of front line guys for heavy combat, a ranged guy in the back, plus a medic to patch up the wounded. You are provided with a whole set of pre-made characters that you can tweak and keep, or the ability to make your own from scratch. The game is sparse with your initial skill points, so making jack-of-all-trade characters is really something of a non-starter. The brief intro furthermore gives you little idea what skills will be most useful, and some of the skills are total question marks (toaster repair?). I can’t help but feel that you are given too little information to really build characters effectively, and my first two parties rapidly revealed themselves to be throwaways, genetic dead ends that simply didn’t have the mix of skills necessary to survive in this brave new world. Back to the drawing board.
W2 works very hard to make all skills useful. It does this primarily by allowing you to solve most problems in more than one way (you can either pick that lock to open the door, or bash it down, or blow it open). But some skills are so pivotal, parties that don’t have them are going to have a very rough go of it. Someone in your party has to have medic skills. Sure, someone without medic skill can heal using painkillers, but only medics can use medkits or more importantly perform field surgery for characters downed in combat. Handguns, bladed weapons, bashing weapons, heavy weapons, shotguns, sniper rifles, and assault rifles are all separate skills, so it’s clearly impossible to have a party that is good at every weapon. Early on, ammunition is both in short supply and expensive, so a bashing or bladed weapon which doesn’t need ammunition is important. My first party had no one who could do demolition because I figured I would do without blowing things up, but that turns out to also be the skill to remove traps, and frigging everything, doors, boxes, chests, are all booby-trapped after the apocalypse. Also lockpicking, because most things are also locked. Plus computer skills, because lots of electronics stand in your way. And and and, and very soon you find that your skill points are spread too thin to even consider skills like animal whisperer, which come in handy but in a much narrower sense. The game seems to drive you to pick up only the skills you need to survive at first, and take notes on the safes you can’t open, the doors you can’t unlock, the animals you can’t befriend, etcetera, and come back to them later when you are higher level. That’s at least what I’m doing, and it kind of irks me.
Anyway, after you’ve gone through and created your party, the game proper begins with a funeral for a Desert Ranger who was killed while investigating a mysterious radio transmission coming out of the wastelands. Your boss, the head of the Desert Rangers, decides that it would be a good idea if a group of completely noob and untested Rangers try and succeed where the veteran failed. That’s you.
Very rapidly, the game gives you more than you can handle. You receive two distress calls – one from a farm overrun by mutant plants and animals, and another from an outpost under attack. I’ve played these two encounters over and over again, and as near as I can tell you can’t win both, though I’m far from clear on the fallout (pun intended) of saving one over the other. Even beyond the fact that you can’t save everyone, this game is hard at the beginning. When a giant mutant house fly (the game calls them Superflies) does ten points of damage, and your character only has 20 hit points, and they have combat initiative over all but your fastest characters, plus they can move farther in a turn than you can, just two or three of these beasts can really ruin your day. Then the game rewards you if you happen to win with a pair of fly wings worth about $5, but a medkit is maybe $20 (depending on your bartering skill) and a single round for a sniper rifle is, I dunno, $10, probably more. You very quickly realize that the entire economy of the game is screwy, and combat is digging you a hole you can’t climb out of. Later in the game, as you start cracking open safes and gathering some loot, things turn around, but getting your early party to just survive the first few missions and come out with any rounds of ammunition left is difficult.
The solution to this, at least my solution, is to kind of game the game. Very early on you can pick up an NPC to join your party (the game lets you have up to three), and this NPC is high level, a former friend of the dead Ranger who wants revenge. I gave her a wrench (or maybe she already had one), and sent her off into combat while the rest of my party had her back, way back, way way back. Like once three rooms away. She kills a Superfly roughly every swing and has well over a hundred hit points and is pretty hard to hit in the first place. She can clean out a whole room of the pests all on her own, and then when it comes time to award experience points, W2 awards them to everyone in the party. This is huge deviation from many squad-level games that only give out experience based on, you know, characters actually doing something. Additionally, I would sometimes have the high level character go out and force an attack, and then run back to my waiting party which is arrayed in a line like a shooting gallery. Both of these approaches work – my puny party is leveling up and not dying, which is good – but it’s also an approach I’ll readily admit sort of sucks, albeit that the game kind of drove me towards it.
I should probably write something about combat itself, because a good chunk of the game involves combat. While moving around is just click and go, as soon as combat starts the game becomes based on action points (APs). You can crouch, take a shot, reload a weapon, change weapons, move around – most of the stuff that XCOM let you do. You can’t delay your action until later in the round, nor can you go into what XCOM called overwatch, allowing your character to spend unused APs to shoot at targets of opportunity. You can save APs, at least some of them, from one round to the next. Individual enemies and your party members go based upon their combat initiative (which in turn is some mathematical result of your dexterity and perception and such), and you keep going until all of one side or the other is dead. Early on, that ended up being my characters with disappointing frequency. Like in XCOM, combat is a very tense affair. You grow to really care for the members of your party, and suffer frustrating moments like your sniper missing a 92% shot that gets your medic killed by a rampaging honey badger, or your bruiser missing a giant slug staring him in the face with three 75% swings in a row with a bat wrapped in barbed wire. That’s the way the percentages crumble, and all I can say is live with the outcome or save early and often.
Conversations are menu driven, but even for that give you a great deal of flexibility. You can frequently talk yourself out of a fight (not so much with giant flies, but with humans) if you’re willing to negotiate, or force a battle if you like. There are many side quests driven from the most trivial of side comments. You can also at some points go off menu, type in topics of conversation, and see what comes up. Sometimes you’ll be surprised at what characters know. The game is not heaped full of spoken dialog, but it looks like there is enough written dialog to fill several books.
The world of W2 is bland. The desert is bland. Most of it is sand. Buildings are rusty and at best painted beige. Though bland it may be, it is an incredibly detailed place. Many things you see you can click on to examine. You get a lot of clever snark. A field of giant corn is “high as an elephant’s eye” while enormous carrots are “a rabbit’s wet dream.” I greatly appreciate their sense of humor. The world is vibrant, and even fetch missions were instilled with humor that kept them fresh. Who knew the post-apocalyptic wasteland would be so full of quirky characters?
Lastly I ought to talk about bugs, because there are lots of them, big and small. Graphics glitches in backgrounds and surface tiles abound, with something flickering that’s not supposed to in many regions. Some conversations triggered an overwhelming green hue to everything that would return to normal the moment the conversation ended. Character pathing isn’t the best, as maneuvering my party through tight quarters would require me to give movement instructions to each character individually or risk them getting hung up on walls and doorways. Here’s a fun bug: I’m in a room adjacent to a locked room without windows, but for some reason I can see what’s in that room, and even examine items in there from through the locked door. Also sometimes in combat I simply couldn’t get a character to move to a desired location. It wasn’t that the position wasn’t allowed – the game would even tell me how many AP it would cost me to get there – but it simply wouldn’t go. Also, although you can zoom way in and way, way out, and you can rotate and tilt the camera, clicking on the thing you intend to in crowded corners can be a challenge.
I think had I supported the Wasteland 2 Kickstarter, I would be happy with the outcome. It faithfully recreates the atmosphere of Wasteland 1 (a copy of which, I should probably mention, comes with Wasteland 2) while at the same time modernizing the game with new gameplay elements. It’s a little buggy, and a little bland on the eyes (I bought a new 30” 1900×1200 monitor for what exactly?), but it is funny as hell if your humor runs blackly, and is absolutely packed with stuff.
Reviewed By: Phil Soletsky
Publisher: inXile Entertainment
This review is based on a digital copy of Wasteland 2 for the PC provided by inXile Entertainment.