Preview: Wasteland 2

When I first saw games being funded on Kickstarter, I was skeptical about whether it would add lasting value to the hobby.  Then, I started to see games like Shadowrun Returns and Wasteland 2 appear and receive funding.  Suddenly, Kickstarter has become a dream come true for fans of isometric, party-based role playing games.  This genre, which was a pillar of PC gaming during its golden age, disappeared almost overnight in the early oughts.  Disappointed PC gamers have since been relegated to playing their copies of Fallout and Baldur's Gate 2 for the 100th time.    Until now, that is – or so it seems.  Wasteland 2, the next game in the isometric, party-based RPG renaissance has hit Steam early access, and is now available for preview.

If you wish, you can import four pre-made characters into your small party of rangers or dive right into the game’s robust character creation system.  It is a complex affair that shares a lot of features with the Fallout series.  You begin by assigning character attribute points to the usual categories.  They have their own names, but for the most part, it is akin to Fallout’s SPECIAL attribute system.  However, it carries an extra layer of complexity, because the four-character party system gives you all sorts of opportunities to create specialists and min/max your characters.

Next, you move onto the rich skills section.  There are three pages of skills en todo.  They are familiar categories – dialog, big guns, little guns, melee, stealth, trap detection, medic, etc, etc.  There are a few dialog-related skills that rely on smarts, charm, or intimidation.  Once again, the ability to create four characters for your party multiplies the game’s choice and complexity.  It also gives you the opportunity to experience most of the skills, as opposed to single character games that only let you specialize in a few abilities.  The character portraits are somewhat lacking, as there are only about five of them each for males and females.  Hopefully, InXile will add a few more of those for the official release.

Wasteland 2 certainly starts off on the right foot with its character creation, but what about dialog, exploration, and combat?  The early access build gives you a taste for these.  The dialog appears to be well written and mature, without being overly mature in a contrived way.  Opportunities to use your dialog skills are somewhat abundant.  For that matter, opportunities to use all of your skills are abundant.  The skills system has a few flaws though.  Higher skills give you a higher percentage to succeed, but since you can retry most attempts, it doesn’t matter.  You can attempt to pick a lock or hack a computer as many times as you want, as long as you have the patience.

The exploration offers promise.  Like the original Fallout games, there is a freely explorable world map, with locations that you can discover and jump into here and there.  The individual locations are decent in size, but lacking a critical feature – a local map.  One of the early quests involves finding a item in a side cave – it is easy to miss, and without a map, there is nothing that you can look at to see where you need to go next.  There is a minimap on the screen, but the game sorely needs an area map on which you can write your own notes.

The original Wasteland is the grandfather of today’s post-apocalyptic video games.  The game’s subject matter was fresh and new in 1988.  Unfortunately, Wasteland 2 will release into a market that is hopelessly saturated with post-apocalyptic video games.  During my time with this build, I didn’t see any signs that this game would offer a different take on this subject matter.   It looks to be the usual mix of futuristic sci-fi, dark humor, and the Wild West.  This familiarity doesn’t bother me though, because other than Dragon Age, I haven’t played a party-based RPG with robust tactical combat since Neverwinter Nights 2 – Mask of the Betrayer.  Even that game wasn’t turn-based, and it came out six years ago.  Wasteland 2 has no real competition right now.

Surprisingly, Wasteland 2 appears as if it is going to retail for a full $60, unlike most (if not all) Kickstarter games.  I don’t have a problem with that price tag, but if it stays there, it needs to provide the epic experience that gamers will be looking for.  The game world has to be large and packed with content, and the game has to provide ample side quests and play time.  In this preview, the world map looks suitably large, and it should be fun to explore the map to find new areas.