Wasteland 2 continues 2014’s streak of fantastic CRPGs, managing to feel fresh even when saddled with a well-tread post-apocalyptic setting.
I’m listening to a woman die, and it’s my fault.
I don’t even know this woman. I’ve never met her. I don’t know what she looks like, what her hopes and dreams were, what she liked to eat for breakfast, whether she had children, her favorite color, nothing. To me, she’s just a voice on a squawking handheld radio. She is electromagnetic radiation entering a bent antenna.
Nevertheless, I murdered her.
It’s my first day as a Desert Ranger, Arizona’s post-nuclear peacekeeping force, and I’m dealing with a crisis. Both our source of food—a station known as Ag Center—and our source of water—the town of Highpool—came under attack at the same time. That’s a bit too odd to be coincidence, but there’s no time to worry about it now.
What matters right now is I elected to save Highpool first, mainly because I was closer, and now time’s run out for Ag Center. With her dying breath, the woman curses my name one last time. Then there’s just static.
It’s been over a quarter century since the original Wasteland, a post-apocalyptic RPG that influenced an entire genre, most notably by serving as the inspiration for the Fallout series. After pitching the project for years, inXile and Brian Fargo raised funding for a successor through Kickstarter and it’s finally here: Wasteland 2.
Note: In the interest of transparency, I haven’t finished Wasteland 2 yet. It’s long—I’ve put in over thirty hours already and just reached the mid-point of the game. However, everything I’ve played was played on review code, not Early Access code, and I feel comfortable giving the game a score now considering I’ve already received more than enough enjoyment from it. (My editor has also played for about 25 hours.) If anything changes in the second half of the game, however, we’ll update this review accordingly.
Wasteland 2 is a traditional-style CRPG, complete with isometric camera view, turn-based battles, and lots of numbers. You manage a team of up to seven Desert Rangers (four of which you create, plus three companions) on a quest to keep peace in Arizona and the surrounding areas.
That’s easier said than done, considering the sheer number of factions out there that want you dead: the Red Skorpions, the Wrecking Crew, random raiders, pod people, robots, et cetera. Suffice it to say the Rangers aren’t exactly well-liked by the people of Arizona. At best, you get a tepid “Oh, I remember you from my childhood, when the Rangers still helped people.” At worst, well… guns.
See, the Rangers are a shadow of their former glory. Once a force for good in Arizona, they’ve grown weak and cowardly, holed up in an old bunker in an effort to “regain strength” while the rest of the world went to hell. And that’s where you come in.
You’re sent out from the Ranger base to take over a mission that saw a veteran ranger named Ace killed. (Old-school Wasteland players will find a ton of nods to the first game, from Ace to Angela Deth to the entire Arizona map.) As you can imagine, a simple mission to find some radio towers escalates fairly quickly into a threat the likes of which the Rangers haven’t seen in twenty years.
It’s almost funny to say this considering the circumstances, but nevertheless a lot of Wasteland 2 will feel very familiar if you’ve—yes—played Fallout. Especially the old isometric Fallouts. The humor is similar, the factions are similar, the aesthetic is similar, the turn-based combat is similar.
But to say Wasteland 2 is derivative is a disservice. Make no mistake, this is a damn great game. Eschewing the happy-go-lucky pseudo-50s of Fallout for a grittier, Mad Max/Boy and his Dog feel, I’m almost amazed by how fresh Wasteland 2 feels despite its well-tread setting.
That’s no doubt thanks to the writing. Once again, the written RPG proves it’s King of Story. Freed from the shackles of voice acting—though some key characters have a few spoken lines—there’s an insane amount ofmuch depth in Wasteland 2. Flavor text adds a layer of post-nuclear neglect that the best AAA graphics still don’t quite nail, and dialogue gives depth even to one-and-done characters.
Voice actors wouldn’t have been able to keep up with this game, anyway. Wasteland 2 offers insanely branching gameplay options depending on your dialogue, skill set, and gameplay choices; you’re free to wander the world map as you please, and you can kill anybody in the game—including your Desert Ranger Superiors. If you’d like, you can even let both the food and water station burn at the beginning of the game. Wasteland 2 will reshuffle its narrative accordingly.
Not that there’s always an emotionally satisfying choice available. As shown in the Highpool versus Ag Center example, Wasteland 2 isn’t afraid of kicking your teeth in with choices. It’s stressful: You never feel like you’re doing a good job, never feel like you’ve succeeded. My career as a Ranger is studded with civilian deaths, and I can’t help but feel like some of those were preventable if only I’d known how. That hurts. There are also just as many situations that have no good outcomes. Instead you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t, and you just have to live with your choices.
It’s tough wearing the badge. It’s wonderful.
Did you eat your spinach?
It’s also tough to be a Ranger for other reasons, though. Wasteland 2, I love you to death, but damn do you hold on to some of the most frustrating aspects of old CRPGs.
Creating a character is a nightmare. You’re confronted with a big ol’ menu full of numbers, and you click those numbers until you think that you’ve created a viable character. And then you do that three more times. And then, five hours in, you realize you screwed everything up and are stuck with half-useless characters. Or twenty hours in you hit the difficulty spike and realize the same thing.
Granted, other recent CRPGs (notably, Shadowrun Returns) have had this same problem. There are so many skills, and outside of a handful they’re mostly useless. You’ll end up using some of your skills a bare handful of times over the course of the entire game, but you’ll keep investing points because “What if I miss out on something important by not investing?”
Wasteland 2 also reveals how likely you are to succeed at a skillcheck, and in doing so encourages save-scumming. Behind-the-scenes dice rolls are always done on the fly, so if you come to a locked door and it says you have a 10% chance to succeed? Just save and reload a dozen or so times until you finally get it! “Well just don’t save scum, Hayden.” Yeah, yeah, thanks for the advice Mister/Miss Morality. Let’s see if your tune changes when you lock yourself out of an entire side-mission because you accidentally broke a door you were lockpicking.
And finally, the main scenarios in Wasteland 2 are so extensive, so full of depth, that it makes the rest of the content feel like awkward filler. It’s basically the opposite of Bethesda’s “weak main story, strong side-content” problem—exploration in Wasteland 2 is a disappointment. All you’re liable to find are linear maps full of generic fodder enemies, the occasional weapons cache or attribute-boosting shrine, and none of the breadth of choice or depth of the “real” story.
Luckily there’s plenty of main content—there are three primary scenarios in the Arizona half of the game, and as I said I played that part for over thirty hours. Plus, the main maps are chock full of interesting diversions for those who stray from the beaten path: Side-stories, hidden items, and hilarious bursts of world-enhancing environmental text abound. But it’s still a shame to explore the actual wasteland part of Wasteland only to find… nothing.
But those are such minor complaints. I’m almost annoyed putting them to paper because I’d feel awful on the off chance someone read them and decided to skip Wasteland 2.
Instead, I want to be the post-nuclear version of Uncle Sam—to point, stare straight into your soul, and say “I want you for Desert Rangers.” Even with its flaws, Wasteland 2 is nothing short of outstanding.