PLATFORM: Windows (Reviewed), Mac, Linux
ESRB RATING: M
DEVELOPER: inXile Entertainment
PUBLISHER: Deep Silver/inXile Entertainment
GET IT ON GOG: Here
GET IT ON STEAM: Here
GET IT ON AMAZON: Here
For all the criticisms you can level at the rise of crowdfunding, it can’t be denied that it’s been a godsend for older genres that have struggled to get a break in the modern industry. It’s been a huge factor in the resurgence of the space sim, with Star Citizen and Elite Dangerous enjoying enormous support from a demographic the major publishers never even knew existed. Likewise we’ve seen Kickstarter magic rejuvenate that other much-missed genre, the isometric RPG, bringing us the excellent Divinity: Original Sin and now the much anticipated Wasteland 2.
1988’s Wasteland is one of the first great post-apocalyptic RPGs, with one early attempt at a sequel developing into a certain game called Fallout. While that series passed into gaming legend, however, Wasteland diminished into relative obscurity, never getting that much-wanted followup. That is, until two years ago when Designer/Producer Brian Fargo announced a Kickstarter for the project involving a team of classic RPG veterans including Michael A. Stackpole and Chris Avellone (Who came to the project after he and Obsidian joined the project as a stretch goal for reaching $2.1 funded). The project was announced to be an authentic Wasteland sequel, made as intended in the 1990s with an isometric camera (Changed from the simple, mostly text-based interface of the original and of course one of the major features that found its way into Fallout) and expansive text-based dialogue.
This final version certainly lives up to that promise. One of Wasteland 2‘s biggest strengths is that it’s an unapologetically old-school slice of PC RPG. However, it is also occasionally one of its biggest weaknesses too.
As per tradition, there is very little narrative setup involved apart from a short intro sequence basically saying ‘Nuclear war, society’s screwed, all yours’. You play as a rookie in the Desert Rangers, a heroic band trying to keep order in the savage Wasteland. The game opens with the funeral of Ace, a Ranger killed on a mission and whose death it is your first mission to investigate. As you would expect from a game in this tradition, the initial mission is quickly backgrounded as things get crazier and the stakes get higher.
Interestingly, and in one of the game’s few breaks from tradition you control a party of four rangers as opposed to a single protagonist. The game will let you roll a smaller party or even a single character if you wish, but you’d be doing so at your peril: Wasteland 2 can be a brutal game, especially in its turn-based combat – and there’s a lot of combat. Many encounters require a party of four plus any available NPC companions to tackle, and even then you can expect the odd pasting depending on how much the dice roll-governed combat system likes you at that particular moment. Unfortunately, this system isn’t without its quirks with a lot of the contextual hit percentages occasionally feeling a bit too random for comfort. Point-blank range encounters can be particularly frustrating as the targeting system will give you 0% chance of hitting, which in a game where the vast majority of enemies run straight at you puts medium-range characters at a particular disadvantage.
Wasteland 2 takes a holistic approach to its old-school design, with next to no streamlining or shortcuts allowed. Pick up some items that can be used by different characters in your party? You need to get into the Inventory and distribute that stuff out one item at a time. One of your party members needs healing? Select a character with the required skill, make sure they have been given enough medpacks and manually point them at the injured. Someone gained a level? You need to call base and get clearance before you get those skill points, Ranger! Wasteland 2 harks back to a time when the RPG was the micromanager’s shangri-la, and as a result retains the slow, deliberate pace of those games.
This turns out to be a blessing and a curse. It gives you a huge amount of control over your party members, allowing you to determine their individual roles to a much more in-depth level than we’ve become used to in modern RPGs. An impressive range of skills is available to be developed, from combat-oriented skillsets to environmentally-focused abilities and the game’s open-ended character creation system gives you full rein to specialize your party members as you see fit but it comes at the price of intuitiveness. Even the simplest adjustments result in a lot of clicking around a crowded UI, and judicious use of the quickbar is vital to keeping track of which party members have each skill.
This becomes especially important due to the emphasis the game places on combat: you don’t go long at a time anywhere in Wasteland 2 without getting into a scrap, and you quickly learn to always use downtime for healing and item management. This is crucial for ammo management, with ammo types not automatically assigned to the appropriate party members on pickup. It’s one of those little things that would be handled automatically in a modern RPG, and which Wasteland 2 proudly keeps 100% manual.The question it raises, however, is whether this is necessarily a good thing. The school of thought held by Wasteland 2 is that it’s about keeping the player mentally vigilant, keeping them thinking instead of assuming that things are being done for them. It’s a philosophy with some merit, though it’s fair to counter this with the observation that after a point this constant tweaking becomes routine, mere busywork that ultimately drags things out. Even navigating the levels is a slow process, with continuous selecting of party members to utilize specific skills ensuring a very methodical pace which can make getting to the more distant checkpoints quite time-consuming.
Ultimately, however, the real star of the show is the writing. As with the Fallout games, the overarching plot is often secondary to the lunacy you stumble into as you make your way across the wastes. Thankfully, sharp and witty writing keeps said lunacy highly entertaining, preserving the darkly humorous streak we’ve come to expect from the games in this lineage, and the game does a fine job of setting up consequences for your actions that eschews the ubiquitous ‘demon or angel’ approach to moral choices. Those who like their dialogue choices plentiful will also have a ball with three upgradable personality attributes – with the self-explanatory names Hard Ass, Kiss Ass and Wise Ass – enabling additional dialogue options. The game also has an impressive amount of flavour text , especially when used with a character with high Perception. References, both to the original Wasteland and popular culture, are rife but rarely grating, and sardonic tone of it all will be music to Fallout veterans’ ears . The only real downside is the occasional disconnect between the story and the slow, methodical gameplay; we know that we’re supposed to be hurrying and racing against time to avert whatever disaster is looming at any particular moment, but the interface means that nothing actually happens quickly, meaning that as much as the story imparts urgency you rarely fully feel it.
However, it has to be kept in mind that we’re talking about a contemporary perspective here, one used to games so keen to imitate the narrative traits of cinema that visceral impact often trumps mechanics, and one has to consider how much Wasteland 2‘s occasional clunkiness should be held against it when that’s exactly what was sold to us from the Kickstarter’s inception. This really is a bona-fide 90s isometric RPG, the kind some gamers seem unable to forgive Bethesda for not making, with little to no concessions made for the modern audience. In those terms it’s as much a rousing reminder of what this style of RPG still has an offer, while also highlighting why the genre evolved in some of the ways it did. Wasteland 2 is an easy game to like, not just for its strong writing but also for how damned inspirational it is to see some of the masters of the early years of the medium come back and prove the suits wrong (See also: Elite). Just be ready to meet it halfway now and then.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars