RPGs like Wasteland 2 are difficult to pull off without a misstep. They typically have very large ambitions and the larger that they become, the more options that they offer players, the more likely they are to fall short. Trying to account for every way a player might want to interact with a given scenario is a shotgun approach to game design and it is tricky to master. They also tend to be very structurally spread out. The core narrative seems to have importance than the numerous vignettes that players may or may not encounter. Key decisions have the potential to significantly alter events that players come across and lead to different gameplay experiences, meaning that reviews of this type have to be taken with a few more grains of salt than usual. It isn’t impossible to break these types of games down, just a bit harder and a bit more dependent on how the game was played. With that said, let’s roll up our sleeves and get started.
The original 1988 Wasteland almost single-handedly made video games about wandering an irradiated, post-apocalyptic world cool. Wasteland predated the beginning of the Fallout series by almost a decade, but became lost in the mists of time. Then in 2012, InXile Entertainment launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $900,000 to develop a true sequel to the 1988 title. Within two days that goal had been reached and by the time the campaign drew to a close a total of around $3,000,000 had been secured to fund development. After two years the result is a staggeringly large RPG with astonishing amounts of detail. In a livestream interview with Joystiq, creative director Brian Fargo stated that if you took all the text written for the game, all of the dialogues and descriptions, the word count would surpass all of that of the entire Harry Potter series. Think about that for a minute: The developers wrote over seven novels worth of text in addition to making a game. Some of you might be a bit skeptical of Fargo’s claim, but having poured 75 hours of my life into Wasteland 2, I believe it.
Out of those tens of thousands of words arose the tale of the Desert Rangers, post-apocalyptic cowboys who strive to establish law and order for the residents of the habitable portions of Arizona; an Arizona that has been cut off from the outside world by deadly radiation clouds. Strange animals roam the wastes like mutated honey badgers or giant rabbits posing an ever present threat to those new to wandering the parched lands of Arizona. However, as is the case in an un-irradiated world, the most dangerous creatures in the wasteland are your fellow human beings. Player begin with a team of Desert Ranger recruits that have been tasked with looking into the death of Ace, a fellow Ranger who was gunned down while tracking down the source of a mysterious radio signal. And… well, that’s about as much as I can say before what players experience could conceivably be different from the choices I made.
There is no set course in Wasteland 2. Instead, there are numerous vignettes that can be explored at will with only a small number of essential scenarios that need to be dealt with before the main narrative is allowed to progress. After leaving the starting area to tackle the initial task of investigating Ace’s death, players receive calls for help from two different settlements that have found themselves in imminent danger. Choosing to help one over the other leads to sweeping consequences for a large portion of Wasteland 2. Players who are more inclined to explore can encounter smaller side missions, too. The diffuse structure of the narrative leads to a very erratic core narrative. Some of the episode are truly engaging and ask players to make difficult choices, while others feel more like a slog of going through the motions rather than an enjoyable experience.
The meat of Wasteland 2 is the turn-based tactical combat. Each character under the player’s command has a certain number of action points that are determined based on their attributes. The more action points they have, the more stuff they can do on their turn. It is a relatively simple system that is pleasantly complicated by alternate firing modes for guns, crouching, and headshots, all of which have different action point costs associated with their execution. The result is a mostly satisfying strategic title that can concoct some difficult scenarios to keep players on their toes.
What really bogs down the experience are good ideas that have been executed poorly. A great example of this is any time an NPC follower is picked up that acts independently when in combat. The AI governing their behavior makes mind-bogglingly awful decisions, which can be really frustrating when you are trying to complete an objective that requires them to be alive. They’ll shun cover and brazenly stand in front of several enemies armed with miniguns and grenades without a second thought. It is frustrating to do everything as tactically correct as possible only to have an NPC derp its way into oblivion.
Two more great ideas that don’t quite live up to their potential are inventory management and melee combat. Managing inventory becomes problematic because you will often find weird items that may or may not have a purpose later in the game. This reinforces the compulsion to hold onto a variety of random crap that might randomly be useful. Ammo has weight, but you probably want to keep that in your inventory if you feel like living through enemy encounters. Do you like being healed? Yes? Well, that takes up inventory space, too. The amount of stuff a character can carry in their inventory is related to their strength attribute, which is very unfortunate since strength means almost nothing in a game full of ranged weaponry. There are skill categories for blunt weapons, bladed weapons, and unarmed fighting, but none of those routes feel like they pay off in the slightest. Why leave cover to get in close to an enemy when he has five or six ranged friends for backup and you can do two or three times as much damage with one sniper from a mile away? Strength improves melee attacks, but not enough to make them feel like a viable option when compared to all of the cool shotguns, heavy weapons, energy cannons, sniper rifles, and assault weapons. This is all the more unfortunate because you will need a character with high strength just to carry your junk around and they’ll end up feeling like dead weight. By the time I reached the end game I had to stop for five to ten minutes to get my characters’ inventories sorted out every time I acquired something that weighed more than five pounds.
Wasteland 2 also features permadeath. If a character loses all of their health, they’ll fall unconscious. If they continue to take hits, they’ll die and exit the party permanently. For a player like me, that just means that losing a party member means reloading an earlier save. I imagine that most players will react similarly since losing a character can be effectively crippling, especially if they were relied on for their non-combat skills like lock picking or demolitions. It is a tangible loss that isn’t easy to replace and is punishing for the rest of the game.
My golden standard for permadeath in strategy games was set by XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Losing a soldier was certainly a blow to the missions that followed, but unless it was on the highest difficulties, it wasn’t something that left a campaign crippled. The permadeath served to make XCOM harder, yes, but it also strengthened the emotional attachments players developed for their soldiers. They took on the role of their commander and felt responsible for their soldiers’ fates. Unlike XCOM, a disconnect exists between the player and the characters in Wasteland 2. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing; many games are fantastic without inviting the player into the fiction as a character. The tradeoff seems to be that if you are going to have that sort of distance between the player and the characters, then you need to have engaging characters in which the player can feel emotionally invested. Wasteland 2 only partially succeeds at this. The four Desert Ranger recruits that begin the game can be customized by the player or picked from premade backgrounds. They then all proceed to be silent protagonists, a decision that renders them inert and emotionless. Luckily, the supporting cast of recruitable NPCs does some serious heavy lifting. Characters like Scotchmo, the shotgun wielding hobo with a heart of gold, or Rose, the scientist with a prosthetic arm who dreamed of becoming a Ranger, go a long way toward giving the journey through the wastelands a dash of characterization; saving it from becoming just another generic romp.
However, level design is the biggest quagmire that painfully slows the experience of Wasteland 2. There is an awful lot of backtracking through large levels. I kid you not, I eventually picked up a book so that I could have something to do while my characters ran through the same area, repeatedly going back and forth between to NPCs that I needed to talk with. Perhaps more than any other thing that I’ve talked about so far is what dampened my enthusiasm for Wasteland 2. It is not awesome to spend two or three minutes wandering through a level that you’ve already thoroughly explored to get from point A to point B. Fast travel within locations or quick exits from thoroughly explored areas would have been a fantastic addition.
Related to the level design is how the camera interacts with the environment. Many tactical games have a fixed camera, but creating a fixed perspective can lead to obstructed vision for players. Wasteland 2 tries to avoid that problem by including multiple camera angles that players can switch between. While a good idea on paper, it quickly becomes disorienting. It can even get you turned around in areas that have been explored. To top it off, even the rotating camera can’t save all of the battles from the challenges of objects obstructing commands. A number of times I noticed characters who were caught at awkward angles in a bit of object that was supposed to provide cover. These incidents were few, but they still popped up from time to time and provided some frustration.
With everything that I’ve gone over, you might think that I found Wasteland 2 to be a negative experience. On the contrary, I enjoyed the majority of the time I spent with the Desert Rangers. There are so many things to discover and so many ways to solve the situations that are happened upon. The sense of freedom is enjoyable and it’s nice that entire enemy encounters can be skipped at times if a character possesses the appropriate skills or items. The elements of exploration and discovery are in full force. On top of that, Wasteland 2 has a great sense of humor. At one point my party ran across a solitary man in the wastes who began following us while spouting a lengthy, ridiculous one-sided conversation about all the places he had been and seen. There is a faction of people who live in the wasteland who base their society off of a book of etiquette while also being more than happy to resort to violence. At one point, I found the treasure of the Sierra Madre. There is a world of references that prove to be good humored nods to famous movies, books, and video games and jokes that poke fun at the same. And there is just so much game. I put 75 hours into the game before I saw the credits roll, but I skipped many sidequests that I knew about and I’m sure I skipped other bits of the game that I never even discovered. I enjoyed the game despite its numerous imperfections. At the heart of Wasteland 2 is an earnest effort of staggering proportions and it isn’t hard to appreciate that in the final product.
Note: I'm about to go into a topic that might be a bit uncomfortable for some of you out there. If that is the case, feel free to skip down to the conclusion.
That being said, there was an issue that I found deeply disconcerting in Wasteland 2’s narrative: The treatment of sexual violence. This is something that video games are notoriously terrible at depicting in a way that is tactful. While I don’t doubt for a minute that Wasteland 2 has nothing but good intentions toward its players, this was something that stood out to me as needing to be called out. There are a number of parts in the game that deal with people who have been enslaved and abused sexually. From a writing standpoint, that would be fine if there was a reason for it, if there was a purpose to including that content. However, from what I saw, this sexual assault is never the focus of the scenarios in which it appears. It might help if I give an example to illustrate what I mean. At one point, Wasteland 2 takes players into a prison that has been converted into a headquarters for a gang that wants to start being what passes for a government. As players make their way through the town that’s just outside the prison, it becomes clear that the people who live there have become indentured as unwilling workers on a nearby farm. Many of the other residents are living in poverty and starving to death. Later, it is possible to return to negotiate with the leader of the gang and help him see the error of his ways and how they’d been going about trying to help people in the worst possible way. That all makes sense, right? It establishes the gang as bad guys, but later it turns out they just had no idea how to go helping people without innocents getting hurt by their efforts. What doesn’t make sense is also including a section of the gang’s camp where slaves are kept like animals and raped repeatedly. What possible purpose does that serve? None. There is no justification for it. The worst part is that it is never mentioned in any of the dialogue that I saw when speaking with any of the gang members or their leader. The focus was meant to be on the farm that the indentured workers were forced to cultivate. The area of the gang’s camp dedicated to rape was rendered as something that was barely worth consideration. This isn’t an isolated incident either. There are several instances of sexual violence invoked casually.
InExile was trying to make a gritty game, a mature game, and of course that led to including lots of f-bombs, a number of prostitutes, and segments of sexual violence. People will try to mitigate it by saying that the occurrences of that brand of violence aren’t as explicit as they could be, the camera is distant, the violence isn’t directly shown, but the ugly truth of it is that it is still lurking there in the shadowy underbelly of the game as an implication. The lack of importance tells me that the writers of Wasteland 2 didn’t think when it came to this topic. It is as if the game threw up its hands and said, “Well, OF COURSE, this happens after the end of the world, especially when you are trying to portray the apocalypse in a mature way!” That might sound like a defense, but there is no reason to include scenes of sexual violence in the name of “maturity” or a “grittier experience” when the game in question cannot or will not maturely address the important topics it casually brings up. Nor is grit of such terrible importance to your game when you include a large number of mutated honey badgers as enemies. If you are a developer and are considering including sexual assault in your game, I believe you have a human obligation to try and treat it with the gravity it deserves. Like everything else in your game, there should be a reason that sexual violence is included and that reason shouldn’t be to titillate your players or serve as a momentary distraction.
At the end of the day, I am attempting to critique an experience that took up more than three days of solid effort on my part and contained more text than seven books. How does someone even begin to try to do that justice? While Wasteland 2 certainly has a number of issues that relate to its core mechanics, design, and narrative, I enjoyed a lot of my time in its world, especially when it allowed itself to be a bit more lighthearted. The combat is satisfying, though sometimes frustrating. The narrative oscillates from being very good to being really not great from scenario to scenario, but generally errs on the side of quality. Wasteland 2 succeeds at being the game that its backers desired, while also paving the way for a renaissance of games made in this style. However, for as much as I enjoyed its strategic gameplay and unexpected turns, there were many flaws that detracted from my enjoyment on an intellectual level. Wasteland 2 is a solid RPG with enough detail to satisfy even the most rabid of lore-hounds, but I hope that InExile learns to address sensitive topics with a bit more humanity in their future endeavors.