Wasteland 2 is many things. It’s ample compensation for the fans who invested almost $3 million via Kickstarter to resurrect the series after its 1988 original. It’s also a convincing argument for the relevance of a classic form of game born of early computational constraints. But misty-eyed backers might be disappointed by what it isn’t: Wasteland 2 is a bustling, if scruffy, RPG in its own right, but it’s no new Fallout.
You assume command of a band of up to seven Desert Rangers, the last law in the wastes of a postnuclear USA. It’s a familiar setting, but considering Wasteland’s status as the elder statesman of irradiated roleplaying, it feels something like a coming of age. InXile knows the territory best, and this particular no man’s land takes pains to distinguish itself.
Life abounds in Wasteland 2. The scenery transitions from scorched desert to LA swamp by way of gigantic mutant vegetable garden. In its clutter and set dressing, Wasteland 2 is varied and exciting. Ruined highways are choked with vibrant debris, and the swamps of the later game are convincingly sticky. Zoom in too close, however, and your characters resemble an early Lara Croft; pull out too far, and the broad strokes of the wasteland are stretched and simplistic. This might have been a major grievance given InXile’s intent to craft an RPG befitting modern systems, but it’s clear that the effort has been expended elsewhere.
InXile estimates it will take 70 hours to reach the end of Wasteland 2, and that’s a dense 70 hours of relentless, frenetic activity. The first mission to recover tech from a fallen comrade ramifies something fierce, sprouting a tangle of roots that feed the main story. Should you choose to pursue their snaking trails, you could find yourself embroiled in a turf war along a defunct railway, branching off further to expunge thieves from the tracks, or meddle in forbidden romance.
Yet you might as easily not. Wasteland 2 does what few dare, closing off swathes of content in response to your choices and the passage of time. Choose: the dam under Raider assault or the farm that’s being devoured from within. Choose: thirst or hunger. This early dilemma is a statement of intent, one on which InXile consistently delivers. The hectic setting, rife with nervous energy and unforeseen consequence, instils the sensation that there’s not enough law to go around. The strain is intentional: the replay value here is immense, and the true impact of your actions on the world may only be grasped after several playthroughs.
These actions carry a strong sense of agency thanks to comprehensive character sheets. Six primary stats govern base attributes such as health, action points and speed, and support a wealth of specific abilities: animal whisperer, sniper rifles, toaster repair. Their diversity presents an exciting but short-lived dilemma. Exciting because the first points feel crucial, as if a squandered level could bring your initial team of four to its knees. The impact of these decisions is clearly communicated, too. Even the typically opaque Luck stat makes its presence felt, flamboyant popups announcing each lucky miss or critical fail. Wasteland 2 triumphs at telegraphing its mathematical innards.
Towards the middle of the game, team size challenges this tried-and-tested formula. When your soldiers are stretched thin, there’s gravity in the placement of each skill point. Muster the full seven troops and you’re guaranteed a nondescript soldier for almost every occasion. What began as a struggle for survival, racked by thoughts of what could have been had your strategies been sharper, becomes a matter of cycling to the right tool. Outside of scripted choices, the absolute command you exert over your environment strips much of the character from your patchwork army. Combat is their redemption. The menu-bound battles of yore have been translated into an engaging turn-based game of tactics with careful reference to XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Under fire, each party member plays their part, and you come to know your recruits by the weapons at their disposal. How you choose to array your team is just as important as their weapon types. Explosive foes will devastate the party that rushes in blind, and extra attention must be paid to riflemen, whose aim goes to pieces when enemies get close. Each encounter is a compelling scramble of planning and execution (or poor planning and recovery), which keeps even random attacks while travelling tolerable.
Though based on firm foundations, gunfights aren’t without foibles. The cover system is implemented without enthusiasm. Tutorials stress the importance of the evasion and accuracy bonus that cover confers, but most battles aren’t staged to make use of it. Improbable lines of sight – straight through walls, for example – apply minor statistical penalties. Indeed, the interface as a whole can be described as particular, with much mousing over objects to find interactive sweet spots.
Wasteland 2 suffers for cut corners and rough edges, but the situation isn’t so gloomy as a list of slip-ups suggests. They niggle rather than frustrate, and the astounding breadth of the missions is enough to distract from finicky systems and low-res textures. As such, this game is a strong successor to the original, although it never quite rises to the height of the series that followed. Indeed, the importance of Fallout’s 1950s kitsch to the appeal of a ruined future has never been so pronounced as in its absence. The wasteland itself is less characterful – more dark than dark humour. Wasteland 2 has carried the standard for a computer RPG renaissance with utmost credibility, then, but it’s hard to see it leaving a legacy of its own.