Formats: Mac, Linux, PC (Reviewed)
Price: $39.99 (Steam, GOG)
Developer: inXile Entertainment
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 follow up. That is, until two years ago when Designer/Producer Brian Fargo announced a Kickstarter for the project involving a team of classic RPG veterans. The project was announced to be an authentic Wasteland sequel, made as intended in the 1990s with 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 in the line of duty, and whose death it is your first mission to investigate. Naturally, 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 to be had. 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.
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 micro-manager’s shangri-la, and as a result retains the slow, deliberate pace of those games.
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. 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 the 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.
But then again, that’s exactly what was sold to us from the start: a ’90s style RPG, flaws and all, and in those terms it makes Wasteland 2’s quirks easier to forgive. It’s as much a rousing reminder of what this style of RPG still has an offer as a demonstration of 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. Just be ready to meet it halfway now and then.