Wasteland 2

Note: This review and the playthrough that informed it both followed the release of Patch 5.

I’m happy with the game I got in Wasteland 2. It’s a deep, expansive RPG in the style of the original Fallout games, but it allows itself to be much more farcical and strange than the world of Fallout ever was. There’s a Toaster Repair skill. It also distinguishes itself with an emphasis on squads, rather than one heroic Vault Dweller. While having a team, and packing the dumb bruiser, the sniper, the lockpicker and so on into every party eliminates a lot of what Fallout’s replay value consisted of, it also makes combat much more interesting, using something like XCOM’s proven cover/overwatch combat system. It even makes the player’s session somewhat recoverable even after a permadead squad member or two, at least in the early game.

More importantly, the level of freedom to do a number of locations in any order, and to shoot whoever you want, provides a level of freedom that I had really grown to miss when playing the Shadowrun Returns campaigns, with their tight controls on combat and habit of moving the player through a linear sequence of setpieces, even when bringing the player back to a home base at the end of the day. Shadowrun Returns was prettier and a little better at balancing the numbers and playstyles, but Wasteland 2’s convoluted quest logic–the “What if I picked this up and killed that guy and I know about this thing from this other town before talking to this lady” stuff–is a highly rare thing today, and to me, much more impressive and ambitious.

I’ll most likely play the game again some day, if only to try out some of the more sinister forms of conflict resolution and to see everything in the Ag Center quest hub, which the player is locked out from if he or she chooses to go to the Highpool quest hub first (and vice versa). It’s admirable to go that extra step and create huge chunks of content that one-time players will never see (even when it doesn’t always work out for the best, as was perhaps the case with The Witcher 2). The Ag Center is available from very early on, so a full replay wouldn’t be necessary for that alone, but there were a number of sinister and irrational approaches to conflict resolution that I’d also be interested in seeing throughout the game. Some day.

The game is split into two acts, one in Arizona and the next in Los Angeles, California. Though some of the second act’s quests felt a bit more rushed, I liked the way it sent me around to small maps for quicker XCOM-esque deployments. That said, Arizona benefited from the lore of Wasteland 1 and it had more of a sense of history behind it. I liked that sense of progression, the long-term goals: the expansion of the Desert Rangers, moving into the base of their conquered enemy, moving into another state to spread law further. This more than anything else makes me interested in a Wasteland 3. In a lot of post-apocalyptic storytelling you don’t get to see what has become of other parts of the world. I found myself wanting to see the Rangers move out deeper as the nuclear fallout settles and the world heals (or doesn’t).

Playing in January 2015, I found the game quite stable. Probably quite a bit more stable than Fallout 2’s official patches ever made it to be. Not once did the game completely crash, though I did have to quickload my way around a few hiccups, and there were a few quest bugs, mostly in the second half, which was less beta-tested. I had one broken quest stuck on my quest log until the end of the game, but I was 85% done when I picked up that quest anyway. Considering that the western RPG is probably the most bug-laden genre in gaming, I can’t complain too much.

I do, however, have numerous remarks (complaints) and suggestions. Numerous issues still hold the game back from being the best it possibly could be:

  • RNG-based systems: Too many things are left up to chance. You better believe I’ll quickload twenty times until I get that safe open, and I won’t enjoy it. Let people choose the salvage result if they meet the weaponsmithing threshold. As with a skill like Kiss Ass, if they don’t have a 7 in safecracking, don’t let them open the safe.
  • Items: They could just use a little cleanup. Some items aren’t marked as junk, maybe because they were components of some quest that got removed during development. Sometimes quest items aren’t removed from the player’s inventory after they’ve served their purpose, and these can’t be dropped or sold. But they can be stored in a locker at the Rangers’ base, which is better than nothing.
  • UI changes: The UI is quite nice overall, but what if you could click an item once instead of holding the mouse button down to move it (Diablo 3 style)? What if, while hovering over an item, you could hit the “1” key to quickly move it to your first party member? What if you could hit x while in the inventory, or even in the shopkeeper UI, to switch guns, so you could compare stats with your other weapon?
  • Quest log: I liked that I could write notes, although due to a bug they wouldn’t stay erased, and anything I wrote ended up buried in the “Resolved” tab, including reminders to come back to some place. What if I could just write in my own quests, and mark them as complete whenever I want? Such as, “Come back to that safe in Darwin Village when I have more than 3 points in Safecracking.” Being able to label coordinates on maps would have been really helpful, too.
  • Reloading outside of combat: I’d suggest less text over everybody’s heads. Maybe a subtle sound effect that means nobody needs to reload. Clear jams automatically at the end of combat, or reload and clear the jam with one press. Maybe double-tap the reload key to reload secondary guns.
  • Quest reward notifications: Sometimes I don’t know what a quest reward was or remember who got it. Try writing out notes in the main text box for quest rewards, like “Angela was given 500 scrap” instead of delivering this information at the top of the screen. The top notice-window is actually harder to pay attention to, often because it’s queued with back-to-back log update and quicksave notifications that can’t be quickly skipped through.
  • Text descriptions of areas: This is an issue of polish, but it’s very noticeable when the text doesn’t match the game’s assets. In the case of portrait art, it’s understandable that one couldn’t paint hundreds of unique portraits for minor characters (though I would have preferred it if portrait art wasn’t mandatory in every conversation). And sometimes perhaps a unique asset wasn’t created. But more often, it seems more like the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. It’d be nice if the text was adjusted where this was especially glaring. For example, when you see the Hollywood sign, it says that all but two of the letters have fallen down. Maybe that was the plan at one point, but the actual asset doesn’t reflect that at all.
  • World map: There’s a lot I don’t like about it. The use of two buttons to move and enter a location is unnecessary. Clicks are often ignored, as if there are tiny invisible pockets where the player isn’t allowed to stand. Actually, it’s strange that there’s even a need for a second map that can be opened up on the world map screen. It should have been one easily readable, zoomable abstract map, with clear color coding showing where radiation starts and where the rangers can’t walk. It could probably speed up load/scroll/movement times if this were the case, too. Also, caches sometimes remain as “Untouched Cache” long after I empty them out, but that’s more of a bug than a design problem.
  • Environments: The locations are well-made, but I actually preferred Fallout’s smaller and more segmented maps, where you could usually quick-jump right to the zone in a city you wanted to go to from the world map, and it was harder to get lost. It would cut down on load times when I’m save-scumming to disarm a trap, too. I got used to commanding my rangers to march all the way across a canyon and watching them make the journey as little triangles on the map on the log screen, but it was tedious. Smaller maps are more fun, anyway: there’s less worry about overlooking some door or important container when there’s less ground to check.
  • Party order: It would be nice if I could reorder party members and decide for myself who the party’s guests would follow. I’ve had guests run out into awkward spots when positioning my characters individually before starting a fight, and eventually I just had to put Vax down. Sometimes it would also be nice if I could put my Perception Shotgunner vanguard in the first slot, which I didn’t have the foresight to do during character creation.
  • Attribute balance: Though I found in late-game that my rangers were earning skill points beyond what was strictly necessary, but that I still had shortages in things like carry weight and combat initiative (because I had felt pressured to go high Intelligence at the cost of things like Strength and Awareness). I still never really regretted putting 10 Int on everyone, because having some two or three extra skill points per level made a big difference, particularly in the early game, when the player is most disadvantaged and there’s a real risk of not having the couple points needed in Brute Force, Toaster Repair, or whatever. I found myself wishing Intelligence had nothing to do with skill points, so that I would have been free to vary my characters more without feeling like I was making them worse for the sake of variety.
  • Skill balance and variety: Some skills, like Animal Whispering, were barely needed, beyond a couple ranks to herd some cows every so often. Other skills demanded five points or more almost right out of the gate. While I understand that Safecracking was meant to be a more rarely used version of Lockpicking that tended to result in more substantial payoffs, in practice the player was strongly encouraged to master all of them by synergizing with additionally recruited characters, and the game ended up with four or five “Open A Thing” skills. It would have been nicer if the skills were less about watching progress bars fill up, and more about fulfilling different roles, as if in a heist movie. What about a Sneak, or Camouflage skill, which could let players send one member of their team into a restricted area? What about an Acrobatics skill that could let a character maneuver around a laser security system to disarm it deeper inside, or climb up onto high rocks to use as a tactically advantageous position in combat? Both Fallout and Shadowrun Returns had more interesting skills, and while the Desert Rangers probably shouldn’t be summoning demons or jacking into the matrix, and maybe Pickpocket was a little broken, there are all sorts of skill ideas that could be implemented in Wasteland 3.
  • Angela: I screwed up by letting her suck up EXP for a good portion of the game, EXP that another recruit could have used, only to discover that she leaves the party for good. I also had been synergizing my party’s skills with hers, and consequently, I was without Brute Force, Hard Ass, and Weaponsmithing for a while. I think it’s a shame when players are penalized for playing blind in this way. A number of things could have made this less of a problem. For example, if it had been hinted: if she had said “I’ll stick with you for now, while you learn the ropes,” and maybe if Vargas said “I see you’ve met Angela–don’t get too attached to her, because I’ll be pulling her back if I have need for an experienced ranger,” it would have saved me some heartache.

All that said, I think the game meets and exceeds expectations, especially considering that inXile was a relatively unknown development team. And talk of balance and gameplay and all that aside, I want to end on a favorite moment from my playthrough: the leader of the Monks of the Temple of Titan, a major faction in Arizona, lay on the ground, dying. His last words to my party weren’t anything dramatic, sad, or foreboding. What he said was, “You suck!”

I immediately looted his corpse. The only thing this leader of people was carrying was a single issue of Mad Magazine.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.
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