My overriding thought during the first few hours of Wasteland was that somewhere — etched into a stone tablet carried down from a mountaintop, written into human DNA, inscribed in the basic atomic structure of the universe, I don’t care — the following message needs to be preserved for posterity:
THOU SHALT NOT FILL THE STARTING DUNGEON OF YOUR RPGS WITH ANNOYING GIANT RAT/ANT/FLY ENEMIES. (delete as appropriate)
It should be a fundamental law that you don’t do this. Ever. Shooting rats isn’t satisfying. Poking giant ants with a spear for an hour at the start of Fallout 2 is what puts me off replaying Fallout 2. When I play an RPG I want to feel like I’m doing something meaningful, not like I’m a pest exterminator for hire. Say what you like about modern RPGs but they’ve successfully moved beyond what I shall term Daikatana Syndrome1; Wasteland 2, on the other hand, proves to remain firmly entrenched in the past by having you spend your first hours with the game shooting giant flies and maggots
This conscious rejection of modern design principles and ideas is something I’ve seen before several times now in other Kickstarted games. When you Kickstart something based on nostalgia for – in this case – Fallout, which most people have played, and Wasteland, which most people haven’t, and you get three million dollars to do it, the temptation to just copy what worked in the past must be overwhelmingly strong. and inXile have caved to that pressure with everything good and bad that that implies. Wasteland 2 plays like I imagine the infamous Van Buren prototype2 of Fallout 3 would have before Black Isle got shut down. Had Wasteland 2 been released instead of Van Buren, I imagine everyone would have gone away quite happy that they’d gotten a worthy followup to the first two games – but that was ten years ago. That Wasteland ignores everything that’s happened in RPGs in the last decade ensures it feels like it’s stepped right out of a time capsule from 2003, and while the Fallout style has aged far better than the previous games I slated for doing the same thing I still think this attitude hinders Wasteland 2 far more than it helps it.
Take skills, for example. The above screenshot shows the character creation screen when you start the game; you have to make a party of four characters, so you have to navigate this overwhelming array of skills and abilities four times without any idea of how useful each individual skill is going to be. If they’d followed through on making each of them genuinely worthwhile I wouldn’t complain about it, but having gone through the whole thing now my assessment is that fully half of those skills are either useless, not used anywhere near enough to justify the skill point investment, or are just flat out redundant skills that have been split in order to promote the illusion of choice. For example, there’s the Lockpicking skill, which is used to open locks, and the Safecracking skill, which is used to open combination safes. As you can imagine you come across locked doors far more often than you do locked safes, so one is very useful while the other just gives you a little more loot. There’s absolutely no reason those two skills couldn’t have been rolled into one, and yet Wasteland 2′s stubborn refusal to streamline itself in any way whatsoever means that the arbitrary split remains and the player ends up getting confused. Alarm Disarming is another good example, this time of a skill that is just flat out useless. There are never any negative penalties for having an alarm go off; most of the time anyone who would have been alerted by it is already dead by the time the alarm is tripped, and so the skill simply functions as a trap during character creation for unwary players who think it’s going to be more useful than it actually is.
Speaking of traps during character creation, I was absolutely dumbfounded at how awful Wasteland 2′s attribute system is. In most RPGs a characters intrinsic attributes (Strength, Dexterity and so on) are very important and affect almost everything they do in the game world, with individual skills granting specific abilities and bonuses on top of the innate stats provided by their attributes. That’s how Baldur’s Gate did it, that’s how Fallout did it, but it’s most definitely not how Wasteland does it. In Wasteland skills are everything. Take a brawler archetype, for example. In most games you’d pump their Strength and Constitution and leave them with low Intelligence in the expectation that a character who exists solely to punch things in the face isn’t going to have to do any heavy thinking on the way. If you do this in Wasteland, though, you end up getting screwed since Strength has minimal impact on melee damage, while you get the skill points you’ll need to level the Brawling skill from your Intelligence stat. More Intelligence equals more skill points per level, and more skill points equals high Brawling – and so the ideal brawler character in Wasteland maxes their Intelligence first and their Constitution second, with Strength a distant third in consideration. If you made a brawler character with low Int I’m not even sure you could max the Brawling skill by the end of the game, which would make them decidedly useless.
This is the story of Wasteland 2′s attributes: Intelligence trumps everything. I spent the entire game lamenting the fact that I’d given only two out of my four characters high Intelligence scores, since only they could learn combat and utility skills quickly enough to be useful. The other two were largely relegated to carrying around huge piles of loot, since this was all their high Strength values made them good for. Other attributes are similarly awful — each point in Coordination gives you +1% chance to hit an enemy (exciting, I know), while a single level in a weapons skill will raise you chance to hit with that weapon by five or six percent. Speed and Awareness affect combat movement and initiative, but while always taking my turn second was annoying it absolutely wouldn’t have been worth taking points out of Intelligence to make it up. Because so much is invested in the skill system, it renders the attributes almost entirely one-dimensional, and counter-intuitively so.
Then you’ve got the weapons themselves, which are very inconsistent. Melee weapons are (again) split into two types, Blunt and Sharp, but both are equally useless. The power of Brawling scales exponentially with skill and character level from awful at the start of the game to downright overpowered at the end of it. Heavy Weapons are terrible since all of the guns you’ll find up until the Minigun fire large bursts of expensive assault rifle ammo and have underpowered armour penetration. Shotguns hit all enemies in a cone, which is a nice idea, but the enemies in Wasteland 2 get special cheat moves that let them run across as many squares as it’ll take — even halfway across the encounter map, if necessary — to close to melee range with your party, meaning that nine times out of ten you’ll hit your own party with friendly fire if you try to take advantage of shotgun spread. Handguns start out decently, but are so underpowered by the end of the game that you might as well be throwing the bullets at your enemies for all the good they do. Once again, the problem here is that there was apparently an overwhelming desire to have as many skills in the game as possible, and so each weapon type has its own skillset, except half of them are crap and function as point traps for players unwilling to abandon the skill because they don’t have the Intelligence to properly retrain.
This skillset design is just plain dated. It’s exactly what I’d expect to see from a game released in the 90s – the designers had all these cool ideas, either didn’t have the time or couldn’t figure out how to properly make use of them, but left them in rather than cutting or streamlining things back to a more sensible state. All this false quantity does is present the player with the illusion of choice – and not even a particularly meaningful one when all most skills do is increase the chance of success when doing something by five percent. When you have to wait two or three levels to scrounge up enough skill points to raise skills by a single level, this is an incredibly underwhelming and unexciting way of doing business. I’d probably point to the skill system as the single weakest part of Wasteland; because it’s so poorly thought-out, and because it’s so easy to cripple characters in ways that aren’t easily recoverable, level ups are more useful for the full heal that they bring your characters than they are for actually improving their stats.
Still, now that we’ve got that out of the way I can talk about the part of the game where Wasteland’s refusal to streamline is actually something of an asset: its quests and locations. You start the game as a squad of rookieDesert Rangers, sent out into the post-apocalyptic wastes of Arizona to investigate the death of another Ranger, and from the word go the game branches out without quite sprawling out. The first choice you get is forced down your throat a little bit; you’re told that both a water station that supplies the Rangers and an agricultural centre that grows their food are having difficulties and that you should attend to them at your earliest convenience, but what you’re not told is that whichever one you pick, the other one succumbs to the thing that’s attacking it while you’re dealing with the first problem. In my case I ran across the agricultural centre first and ended up shooting flies for several hours, but what I found interesting about this artificial choice was that once you’re done with the first location you still get to visit the second one after it’s been destroyed, to pick through its smoking ruins and wonder about what could have been. Wasteland is pretty big on showing you the consequences of your actions — not just tying things up neatly in a cutscene, but actively having you explore a location after something horrible has happened to it, which is a far more effective way of communicating cause and effect. And while this first demonstration of its willingness to do this was a little hamhanded, I admit I did end up accidentally destroying a couple more communities before the game was over, and this time it was entirely my fault. I’d gone in expecting the usual no-strings-attached Paragon resolutions to quests, but it’s very rare that Wasteland’s solutions to its quests are neat enough that nobody gets hurt.
It’s also pretty open about the order in which you tackle stuff, and in how you tackle stuff. You move from location to location via a world map, and while radiation blocks the route to anywhere you’re not supposed to go yet because of plot reasons you can do pretty much anything else as long as you have the map location for it and can get there without dying. As for methods, well, during the second half of the game I came across a town that had been taken over by a bandit gang. There was a non-lethal option for gaining entry to the town, and it was chock full of named NPCs who hinted at an intricate questline for getting the bandits to vamoose. If there’s one weakness with Wasteland’s quests, however, it’s that too many of them involve repeatedly running back and forth across a map shuttling items and weapons between NPCs, and I wasn’t really in the mood for dealing with that at the time. So instead I just started killing. Killed the bandits at the gate. Killed the bandits roaming the streets. Killed the bandits and bandit NPCs inside the casino, the bar, the distillery. I didn’t stop killing until I ran out of bandits, and the game still accepted this as a valid resolution to the quest: the objective was to remove the bandits from the town, and I’d definitely achieved that in a very comprehensive fashion even though I’d sidestepped what was probably a couple of hours of subquests in doing so.
Structurally the game is split into two halves. The first, Arizona, is by far the best part of the game. You’re unravelling the mystery of who killed the Ranger, you’re exploring a map that, while visually uninteresting, at least has some topographical features like mountains on it, and you have the Ranger Citadel to retreat to as an HQ, which provides a whole lot of attention-grabbing backstory for people who didn’t play the first game (i.e. nearly everyone). The locations are, on the whole, interesting and varied, with the high point being the mountain pass guarded by the sect of crazy monks with nuclear grenades who threaten to detonate an ancient Titan II missile if anyone breaches the peace. The way Arizona is put together — the way the quests are designed and the options it gives you to resolve them — definitely made me think of Wasteland 2 as a first-class RPG despite the horrible skill system; after all, it’s what you do that makes up the essence of role-playing game. It’s the choices you make and the consequences of those choices, not the numbers attached to your characters, and Arizona is excellent at demonstrating both.
Unfortunately once you’re done with Arizona you then get shipped off to the ruins of Los Angeles, and its here that the game falls over massively. Where Arizona comes off as a well-designed, complete and satisfying experience, LA feels like content that should have been cut from the game but wasn’t because of the developers’ mistaken belief that more == better. It’s far more simplistic than Arizona, with even more fedex quests and encounters that simply consist of “Go to location, kill thing”. It didn’t help that finishing up in Arizona takes around 18-20 hours, and I thought that after that I was leaving for the finale, not to experience another ten hours of substandard content. At one point I got so fatigued that I murdered the population of yet another town just because I couldn’t be bothered to figure out who to talk to start the quest chain to get some plot-sensitive items that were needed to finish the game. LA doesn’t substantially add to the Wasteland experience; it just prolongs the game with tedious make-work, seemingly in the belief that people are expecting a 30 hour RPG so dammit, they’re going to get one even if the last third of it is a dull, dull grind.
Like Wasteland 2 itself, then, this review has ended up being very uneven. It’s a decidedly old-school RPG with some fantastic content built on top of a very shaky system and with an unnecessary second world map bolted on to the end of it. Its a very wordy game, and the writing doesn’t usually dip below the level of “competent”, but I didn’t come away from it feeling any particular attachment to the world or the characters in it. It’s done a lot with a budget that, while large in Kickstarter terms, is still a relatively small amount to fund the development of a game, but it ironically may have tried to do too much. And I think that’s Wasteland’s cardinal sin; if it had been more focused, if the designers had had the courage to cut content that wasn’t working and not spread everything out for the sake of it, it would probably be my RPG of the year and a true modern update of the classic Fallout series. As it is, not only did it overstay its welcome by about ten hours, but it made me spend the first three hours of the game shooting flies and maggots, which I’m having a really hard time forgiving it for. I hate games that do that.
- Whose opening level violated just about every one of my long-held beliefs about games by both being set in a swamp and assailing you with giant frogs and flies. ↩
- Van Buren was the first time I heard the name Josh Sawyer, who I subsequently dubbed the unluckiest man in game development since he ended up being designer on this version of Fallout 3, the similarly-canned Baldur’s Gate 3, Alpha Protocol – a fascinating if heavily flawed gem that was left to die after Sega refused to commit to any significant marketing push for it — and Fallout: New Vegas, the victim of the Metacritic bonus scandal. Still, he’s made several really good games at Obsidian and is now lead designer on Pillars of Eternity, so I suppose he gets the last laugh. ↩