Wasteland 2

There have been a lot of high profile Kickstarter projects as of late, and few have been larger than Wasteland 2, the project that first showed up on the crowd funding platform back in 2012.  RPG fans have been keeping an eye on the title for a long time and, after a lengthy period in early access and a few delays, it finally arrived in September.  It's very faithful to its roots and it provides a lot of the complexity that fans of this genre have been hungering for.  This challenging and addictive epic should hit the spot for old-school gamers looking for a party-based RPG fix.  The game is a slow starter and it takes at least a few hours to sink its addictive hooks into you, but it is an overall success, despite its ugliness and some blunders with the interface.

As a sequel to the 1988 classic Wasteland, Wasteland 2 stays very faithful to its roots and picks up about a generation after the events of the first game.  It takes place in what used to be Arizona, which has been cut off from the rest of the world by deadly radiation.  Your party of four is part of the Desert Rangers, a group of enforcers sworn to protect the innocent in this futuristic wild west.  As a post-apocalyptic game, Wasteland 2 contains just about all of the staples of the genre.  It has mutant plants, mutant beasts, an assortment of guns, lawlessness, raiders, small settlements separated by vast empty space, survivalism, and radiation.  It even has a de facto currency (“scrap” in this case), and just about every other feature that you may have already experienced if you have consumed the glut of post-apocalyptic fiction that is available today in games, TV, and movies.  And, herein lies arguably the biggest problem with the game – its setting is stale and it does nothing to provide it with a breath of fresh air.

I realize that this criticism is horribly unfair- that I'm holding it against this game for existing in a genre that its predecessor practically created.  Many post-apocalyptic games trace their roots back to the original Wasteland.  Nevertheless, it is now 2014, and just about everything in this game has been done before.  Other than using the late 80s as its basis (as opposed to Fallout's 50s), there is nothing that makes this world memorable.  Unlike The Last of Us or Fallout 3, for example, the game has no interesting landmarks or cityscapes.  And unlike the original Fallout, the game lacks interesting locales like creepy abandoned Vault 15.  The presence of Fallout’s vaults were, in and of themselves, an interesting twist.  Wasteland 2 lacks a cornerstone like this.  It dutifully checks off everything on the list required to be post-nuclear fiction and it doesn’t do a lot more.

The somewhat overused setting shouldn’t be taken as an indictment of the game’s writing, though, which is very good.  The game has a ton of dialog, lengthy dialog trees, many memorable characters, and a lot of well written lines.  You can skip through them if you want, but if you do you would be missing a critical part of the Wasteland 2 experience.  The game sprinkles in a healthy dose of dark humor, and there are multiple laugh-out-loud moments.  Much of this humor stems from the game's basis as "1980s retro-future".  There is not just a lot of dialog, but a lot of choice for your characters as well.  There are charming, intimidating, and brainy dialog options that you can access by assigning skill points to the appropriate role playing categories (called “kiss ass”, “hard ass”, and “smart ass”).  These options give you lots of options for receiving and completing quests, an important part of any RPG nowadays.

To any hardcore PC gamer’s delight, Wasteland 2 is packed with choices and complexity.  There are multiple weapon classes, consumables like grenades and med packs, and wearable items like armor and trinkets.  There are bunches of skills and role playing abilities like ones that focus on specific weapons, infiltration skills like trap detection, lockpicking, and computer science, and many others like medicine, animal empathy, and leadership.  The game is stingy with skill points and it forces you to make tough tradeoffs.  As a result, you will frequently encounter locks that you can’t pick, dialog options that you can’t choose, safes that you can’t crack, and traps that you can’t disarm.  Wasteland 2 is a game that will delight role players who can accept these tradeoffs, but it will frustrate completionists.  When it comes to pure role playing through choice, Wasteland 2 is as strong as any game that I have played in the last couple of generations.  It is, by-and-large, a challenging game, and it thrives on its scarcity, tough choices, and consequences.  Enemies are punishing and will cut down one of your party members if you leave them out in the open to take fire.  It is this challenge that gives you an incentive to find every bit of scrap and XP that you can gather.

When it comes to its turn-based combat, Wasteland 2 has thankfully returned to the roots of the genre.  Your characters and your enemies take turns moving along a grid, firing guns, bashing each other with melee weapons, and using consumable items.  The game also makes good use of cover, and most combat environments have boxes or rusted out vehicles that you can crouch behind to help protect yourself.  In addition, there is an “ambush” mechanic, which allows you to postpone your turn to get a free shot at an enemy who enters your combat range.  Some of the game’s more interesting dilemmas stem from scarcity.  Wasteland 2 is fairly stingy on the ammo and the money, forcing you to occasionally resort to melee weapons or crappy pistols to preserve your precious shotgun, assault rifle, and sniper ammo.  You will have to take a lot of chances in this game, preserving ammo and health packs at the risk of getting a character knocked unconscious.  There are plenty of tactical options in the game, although it doesn’t take full advantage of this system.  Some encounters get very interesting, but there are still a lot of mundane fights where you aren’t doing much more than bashing and shooting the nearest enemy until he is dead.

Wasteland 2 has most everything that old-school party-based games from the 1990s had – an inventory screen for each character, a character sheet, weight limits, hotbars, a map, and character portraits on the main screen.  It has a very useful “auto distribute” button for loot that save you a lot of time on inventory screens.  These features are all welcome, but unfortunately Wasteland 2 doesn’t put its best foot forward with the interface.  It is moderately efficient, but not perfect.  There is no mini-map, which means that you will constantly get lost and turned around in circles while wandering the game’s same-y hallways and brown landscapes.  The interface is drab and dull, and everything is tiny.  Whether it is your character portraits, the objects in your inventory, or labels on the interface, you have to squint hard to tell what almost anything is on the screen.   Your character portraits are so tiny that you can barely tell who’s who on the screen.  It reminds me of what games looked like in the early days of hi-res displays, when you would run a 600X480 native game in 1280X960 and you could barely read the text.  The biggest offender though is the absolutely awful map screen.  The areas are usually pretty large, but the map is so small that you can barely see any areas of interest.  The only areas of interest that are marked are doors, but the icons are so small that you can barely see them.  The game gives you no ability to add notes to the map, which is downright inexcusable -- good luck remembering where to find a merchant or where to go to turn in a quest.

Speaking of the character portraits, there is a disappointing lack of pre-made portraits for your party to use.  You can make your own portraits by taking a snapshot of a custom-made character, but character optimization options are also badly lacking.  Furthermore, the polygon counts on the characters are horribly low and the game’s technology seems badly outdated.  Even when you customize your characters heavily you can still barely tell them apart by their portraits.

Since the rise of Steam and the indie movement in gaming, numerous developers have demonstrated how you can produce a visually attractive game on a limited budget.  The examples are too numerous, but from Braid to Shadowrun Returns, small time developers have been making cheap games that are easy on the eyes.  The visuals in Wasteland 2 are a different story.  There is no sugar coating this criticism – Wasteland 2 is a downright ugly game.  Instead of sticking with 2D visuals like many low budget games, Wasteland 2 goes with an extremely outdated, low polygon look reminiscent of early 3D games that have aged very poorly.  The visuals remind me, very unflatteringly, of the original Neverwinter Nights.  To make matters worse, the game’s post-apocalyptic setting doesn’t provide many opportunities for colorful or interesting scenery.  For 40 to 60 hours, you are looking at a combination of sand, dirt, rocks, and an assortment of ugly characters and creatures reminiscent of the early oughts.  If you are an aspiring indie developer looking to make a beautiful game for just a few million dollars, then Wasteland 2 is an example of what not to do.

It's because of this ugliness and the substandard interface that the game makes a negative first impression and takes some getting used to.  The game’s first major quest line also isn’t very interesting.  Wasteland 2 is not a game that could be described as “accessible”.  Even veterans of the genre who are fans of party-based RPGs will probably find the game to be a slow starter- it hits its stride eventually, but it is a slow burn that takes some dedication to enjoy.  For what it’s worth, the audio in the game fares much better.  The sound effects are well chosen, the voice acting is solid, and Fallout veteran Mark Morgan has returned to provide the game’s score.  It is solid material, although it isn't as haunting and memorable as his original Fallout work.

Wasteland 2, for the most part, provides everything that its Kickstarter backers and fans of the genre are looking for.  It has genuine role-playing, a lot of exploration, solid tactical combat, and a long and satisfying campaign.  The game’s ugly graphics are the result of budget-related tradeoffs that RPG fans will probably find perfectly acceptable.  Its unimaginative fiction, interface issues, and slow pacing are significant and may be harder (albeit not impossible) to swallow.  These issues do keep the game from achieving true greatness as an RPG, but Wasteland 2 is still a very strong entry into the genre.