If you were a teenager when the original Wasteland was released, odds are that you’re most likely now in your forties, saddled with a spouse, kids and a mortgage, and barely able to discern the post-apocalyptic hell you’d previously experienced on screen from the one you’re currently living through. Should that comparison seem blackly humorous, yet still manage to elicit a self-aware grin, then you’ll feel right at home with Wasteland 2. Despite taking twenty-six years to hit retail, inXile Entertainment and its loyal Kickstarter fanbase have combined to craft a role-playing experience which is as much a true sequel to the original two Fallout games as its eponymous forebear.
Starting off with an impressive live-action video sequence charting the world’s drive to apocalyptic ruin and the subsequent formation of the Rangers - a self-appointed peacekeeping force - you’re given the choice of creating a party of four. This can be done from the ground up, by utilising already created characters, or a mixture of both. Each character is essentially a blank slate for you to imprint your desired skills and attributes upon and these are as wide as they are intriguing, covering everything from Animal Whisperer to Toaster Repair. Deciding where to drop your skill points as your party levels up is a recurrent dilemma throughout the game: do you opt to bump up your sniper or assault rifle abilities, improve your lockpick skills or increase your effectiveness at smooth-talking the locals? There are far too many slots for you to become a jack-of-all-trades, and you’ll soon realise that the only way to progress effectively is to have your party specialise in different areas. It isn’t fundamentally necessary, but doing so serves two purposes: it allows your Ranger team to maximise the chances of solving more of the problems they face (locked doors, broken computers, buried landmines, and so on), and it injects an element of attachment to your group. This latter point is pertinent as your initial party are not strongly characterised individuals - although you can recruit more personalities as you progress - so providing you with an X-COM level of bonding is a neat trick, making you desperately keen to protect your team as they head into danger.
Wasteland 2 immediately drops you into the thick of a mystery and asks your green recruits to head out and solve the murder of a fellow Ranger who was trying to set up radio transceivers in the area. Controlling them will be immediately familiar to anyone who has played any nineties CRPG, and helpful tips will guide you through the initial orientation. Moving your party around an area is as simple as selecting them and clicking the desired destination, but zipping around towns is not recommended as you will miss out on a huge amount of information. Whilst there is a modicum of voice-acting, most of the narrative is delivered by text conversations and the vidiprinter in the right-hand corner which ticks away, updating you with interesting and often funny descriptions of the areas you’re passing through.
Pop culture references are littered throughout the game, both relevant and obscure, and range from smirkworthy to hilarious. The breadth of coverage is extraordinary, running the gamut from Blade Runner to Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, via The A-Team. Ever want to see junkie barflies sing the theme tune to Cheers? You've come to the right place. The writers have obviously had fun building Wasteland's world and exploration is thoroughly rewarded, not just with enjoyable throwaway lines but often with useful items for the inquisitive. You find a turtle on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun, beating its legs, trying to turn itself over. What do you do? The answer will pleasantly surprise you. Wasteland 2 is chock full of interesting nuggets like this in the books you find, the remarks made by locals as you pass through a village, or even during combat on the vidiprinter. There is a lot to read (comments from the studio have suggested it will ultimately contain more words than the Bible), and for pretty much the entire game you'll be happy to do so. With Chris Avellone on the design team and Planescape’s Colin McComb on story duties alongside fantasy author Nathan Long amongst others, the writing’s verbosity is matched only by its quality.
The story is broken up by the excellent turn-based combat system which will be familiar to Fallout fans. Combatants are queued up and assigned a number of Action Points (AP) to utilise. These are consumed by movement, attacking, reloading, and other actions such as crouching or preparing to ambush assailants which stray into range. When your AP are used up, the turn moves to the next attacker in the queue. You can store a small number of AP to use on your next turn and may benefit from Luck which can grant you extra AP or critical hits. Battles usually take place in areas which are strewn with objects to take cover behind or destructible items such as fuel cans to aim at, which adds more strategy to proceedings. Similarly, planning for encounters is essential to success - charging in gung-ho will get you mown down, especially if your gun jams (which is more often than we’d have liked). Instead, remembering to reload after battles, taking higher ground where possible and utilising the best weapons for the job are key. Sniper rifles are as useless up close as handguns are from a distance, so giving your team a combination of arms alongside hand-thrown munitions will generally give you the best chance of survival. Combat is genuinely fraught, and your team can become afflicted with unconsciousness, bleeding or more serious negative status modifiers which tick down to imminent death. You’re able to inflict these on the enemy of course, but if your medic is out of reach of the party, or worse, momentarily taken out, the tension can be unbearable. Even the new recruits to your team - amongst them a washed-up hobo and a diehard mercenary - have their own ideas during battle, and can often take fights into their own hands and throw your carefully managed plans into disarray.
The inventory system is laid out well, although the distinction between useful goods and junk which can be immediately sold is not as clear as it could be. The balance between available goods and the amount of scrap you have for sale is reflective of the overall setting; ammunition is scarce and you’ll need to make each bullet count. Caches of goods can be found in safes, crates and on the bodies of your assailants, but you’ll want to ensure that any traps are dealt with beforehand. If the game falls down somewhat, it’s in its aesthetic. It’s far from the prettiest adventure you’ll play through and the browns, yellows and greys of the post-nuclear landscape are not particularly easy on the eye. That said, the areas you’ll visit are clearly distinguishable. Whether a lush, overgrown agricultural centre or the dingy tunnels of a water treatment plant, the variety of locations is impressive and the game gets by more on the personality of the characters within the world than the actual dwellings they inhabit. Slightly more concerning were some of the bugs experienced by day one players, although huge patches have since been released which have addressed the vast majority of these.
However, the situations you’re thrown into and the decisions which Wasteland 2 forces you to make are what elevates the game beyond standard CRPG fare. The humour is as black as it comes and the gory dismemberment of your foes by shotgun and plasma rifle is easily matched by the disturbing encounters you’ll have with some of the world’s inhabitants. Early on, you’re given the choice of saving one of two key facilities. Choosing isn’t easy and the game will make it abundantly clear to you that your actions have damned the population of the location you neglected, in quite disturbing tones. Similarly, for many of the quests you’ll be handed, the “right” decision isn’t always the correct one and the repercussions of your actions will be felt further on in the game when you least expect it. The most enjoyable aspect of it all is that there is no set path. If you decide from the outset to go it alone and murder the entire Ranger population in the area, you won’t be punished for doing so. The freedom of gameplay is remarkable, and the number of possible solutions to any given situation plays well to the diversity of skills in your party. Don’t have adequate Lockpicking skill to get a gate open? Try using Brute Force to kick it down instead. Not enough points in your Kiss Ass skill to get a local wastrel to see your side of the story? Use Smart Ass, and confuse the hell out of them until they comply.
There are between fifty and seventy hours of gameplay in Wasteland 2 for those willing to invest in its world, explore each new area fully and complete each available mission. That we were happy to do just that is testament to the brilliant design, engaging storyline and immersive combat of inXile’s world. Brian Fargo and his team have excelled here, and it leaves us with one remaining question - if Wasteland 2 is this good, what can we look forward to with the forthcoming Torment: Tides of Numenara?