This Kickstarted RPG delivers exactly what was expected
[Disclosure: I backed the Wasteland 2 Kickstarter and as such received an Early Access copy of the game.]
Wasteland 2 is one of the projects that saw success in the wake of Double Fine’s Broken Age. Just a month after Tim Schafer’s adventure game project blew past its funding goal, Brian Fargo and inXile Entertainment also saw their Kickstarter pull in millions of dollars.
Despite the original Wasteland dating back to 1988, there were more than enough fans who wanted to see a sequel made. So Wasteland 2 exists in a strange position where the fans who remember the original played a very different game than the one that’s been delivered in 2014.
While PC RPGs have changed a lot over the years, Wasteland 2 is still very old-school in a lot of ways — some good, some bad — and remains true to its intentions and origins.
Wasteland 2 (PC [reviewed], Mac, Linux)
Developer: inXile Entertainment
Publisher: inXile Entertainment
Released: September 19, 2014
inXile head Brian Fargo has talked at length about how Wasteland 2 was rejected by numerous publishers over the years. It’s a traditional, old-school PC RPG in almost every way — so much so that it feels like a follow-up to the original Fallout games.
The world of Wasteland 2 is still the irradiated wastes of a post-apocalyptic USA. The only form of law enforcement is the Rangers, a group of former military engineers operating out of a base called The Citadel. Starting with a party of four characters, players will roam the the Southwest, initially hunting for clues to solve the murder of a Ranger but gradually uncovering a new enemy.
What’s interesting about the Rangers is that they’re not universally liked; despite your best efforts, you won’t always be able to change people’s attitudes about your specific team or the Rangers in general. Not everything is black and white and your crew is going to have to make tough choices to achieve its goals. The wasteland is a dangerous, unforgiving place. Although the Fallout series has always had some dark humor to it thanks to the retro-futuristic setting, Wasteland 2 is mainly played straight — there’s not a lot of joy to be found in the irradiated wilderness.
At the start, you’ll get to select a team of four characters that you can either pick from a pre-set group or design on your own. All the named characters have a predefined set of skills to suit certain roles, like a medic or sniper, but you’re free to generate a custom character and choose their skills as you please. As with a lot of role-playing games, you’re shown many stats, abilities, and attributes when you pick a character and it’s hard to know what to invest in. Wasteland 2 is the type of game where after a few hours of playing, you’ll realize you’ve got a bad or otherwise ineffective combination of skills and will want to just start over.
That’s echoed with a lot of the quest design where there’s often the urge to reload a much earlier save because you’ve either missed something or your party didn’t pick up a vital piece of equipment from an earlier mission. You’re not going to see everything on the first playthrough so don’t be disappointed when there’s some unresolved loose ends in the story when the credits roll. However, certain early missions just seem to lead into other ones without feeling resolved and you’re left with unfinished business in your log. The game could do a better job of keeping you informed of where the most pressing mission is happening or let you know before you leave an area that there’s still things to be done.
Eventually, you can recruit for your team and add up to three extra party members. They all have their own attributes, gear, and stats but are prone to losing their cool under fire and ignoring your commands. Most of the time this actually works out fine as they charge into battle, shooting enemies as they go but sometimes they’ll walk into a trap and just cause trouble. Early on, it’s worthwhile to take an extra teammate or two with you just to at least have another person for raiders and mutants to focus on instead of you. One way the game could stand to improve is sharing resources between party members; dragging and dropping items to a member’s icon more often than not led me to just dump items on the ground instead.
Combat is based on action points that the player can spend to do things like move, shoot, and reload. Positioning and use of cover is key but it can be frustrating when you’ve got party members who are armed with melee and short-ranged weapons fighting in a big open area. An action queue is displayed at the top of the screen, showing the order of characters and who will act first, which is based on their initiative skill.
Action point usage is displayed pretty clearly — like when you hover over an enemy to see how much AP it will take to shoot them, or to throw a grenade, for instance. Keeping characters out of harm’s way is a good idea as you can roll some unused action points over into that character’s next turn. While it’s possible to just push your way through early battles, you’ll need to make good use of your party’s skills to beat large groups of enemies.
It’s easy to see where Wasteland 2‘s fairly modest, Kickstarter-generated budget has gone. Close up, the character models are basic, even compared with previous-gen console games. They’re almost PlayStation 2-era graphics — but they’re not the reason you’re playing the game.
A few darker areas could have used some extra user-interface prompts to help players pick out their party and traps, and there’s a strange lack of consistency with character’s painted portraits and their actual 3D model in the game. One of my custom characters had a picture portraying him as a clean-shaven black man even though the actual 3D model showed him being white and having a grey beard. It’s not a major problem at all, but it was jarring every time it popped up.
Something else that’s noticeable is the voice acting, or lack thereof. While your main contact General Vargas is fully voiced and you’ll hear plenty of radio chatter with other characters, more often than not it’s only the first and last line of a conversation that has spoken dialogue — the rest is just text. Again, not a problem in the larger scale of things, but it’s noticeable.
If these sound like nitpicks, then it’s because they are really the only problems that are due to how the game was made. Other issues come from the fact that this is a real old-school RPG, the kind that most developers haven’t made made in a while (Divinity: Original Sin is a recent exception).
It’s the type of game that sticks with the “dice rolls in the background” mechanic and there will be times when you have a 99% chance to succeed and you’ll still fail. There are separate skills for lock picking, safe cracking, and bypassing alarms. That’s been part and parcel of the genre for years so if that kind of thing doesn’t put you off, you’re going to enjoy your time here.
Wasteland 2 is an expansive game that demands to be replayed again and again to get the best out of it. While a lot of the detailed mechanics feel somewhat archaic, they’re not going to hold back dedicated players who want to micromanage and really role play their group of characters. It has all of the familiar elements and even if some aspects of its presentation are not quite up to modern standards, its design and gameplay are timeless and welcome.