Do you ever feel that probabilities are always in your favour? When most games say 70% chance to hit, it often feels more like a 90. Well when Wasteland 2 says something has a 40% chance to hit, it means 40%. Then again, a 40 in Wasteland 2 more often feels like a 10…
Wasteland 2 is a bastard, you see. That’s not even a bad thing – in many ways it’s humbling. Where other games fuel our hero lust through constant success and savoury outcomes, Wasteland 2 seems to take pride in punching you in the gut and laughing to itself as it kills your long time party member just after you’ve run out of suture kits to revive them with.
It’s a brand of cruelty that echoes the isometric pen and paper-style RPGs of the ’90’s, a heritage that Wasteland 2 is more than happy to embody. Baulders Gate, Planescape Torment and, most crucially, Fallout 1 & 2, are all apt comparisons for Inxile’s isometric strategy RPG.
Yet this is more of a full circle situation. The original Wasteland (released in 1988) was actually the inspiration for the Fallout franchise, so to find oneself in the harsh browns of Wasteland 2’s Arizona following an apocalypse in the almost flavourless 90’s after so many years accustomed to the 1950’s inspired retro future of Fallout is a peculiar one – Wasteland 2’s tone is, while still darkly comical, notably more stark despite presentational and narrative similarities.
The setup itself is nothing extraordinary. You start the game by creating a team of four Desert Rangers (essentially post apocalypse peace keepers) and are quickly introduced to Ace, who is dead. Your mission is to find out why Ace is dead while also carrying out his mission, which was to investigate strange radio broadcasts and establish connections with outlying radio towers.
How the game plays out – and the choices you make – is where the interest lies. Very early in the game, for example, Wasteland 2 gives you two missions simultaneously, but in heading to one the other changes (complete with distressing radio chatter while you’re attending to the chosen mission). Wasteland 2 never lets you have everything, but that’s a crucial cog in creating a savage world that feels alive. Wasteland 2 has to be a bastard.
That said, sometimes it’s too mean. Take navigating the world for example: it’s a really simple map to walk around from a zoomed out view, avoiding radiation and stopping at an Oasis here and there to fill up your water supplies, but it has random combat encounters. On a few occasions I entered fights that were downright unwinnable. This is a nuisance only because much of Wasteland 2 promotes creativity (not got a high enough skill to break a wooden barrier by hand? Use a shotgun), but it has occasional moments of outright mean-spiritedness.
This wouldn’t be so bad if combat in Wasteland 2 wasn’t unavoidable. This isn’t Planescape, and there will be violence. Admittedly the game has a great system for fighting – units move on an isometric grid, spending action points on moving, attacking and using items. Thing is, everything you do must be considered. The first time I shot an enemy, only to have the bullet go through it and kneecap my own party member, I winced. It was a harsh lesson, but one that, once learned, stayed learned.
Friendly fire isn’t the only reason for constant consideration, it’s also simply that combat in Wasteland 2 is desperate. Low ammo and low hit percentages in the early game combine with jamming weapons and ruthless enemies in encounters that always feel tight, if occasionally unfair.
But it’s every unlucky moment that enhances the luck. For every time your team flunks a strategy – weapons jamming left and right, backs against the walls, barely tearing through the enemies with bare hands and pixels of health – another encounter will see the sniper pull off two headshots while one teammate kites the explosive zombies and unloads some TNT amongst them in a perfect sequence of events. When something works there’s a distinctly unique satisfaction that is enhanced through the harsh nature of the game, and seeing your team pull it all together as you progress feels rewarding.
Wasteland 2 is really good at that, at making your team feel valuable. You’ll have the gunner, the smooth talker, the lockpick, the hacker, the healer etc. Everyone has a role, and seeing each person pull their weight is delightful. So you have a world that reacts and changes to your choices and a party of individuals that develop and build synergy like a real team. What’s not to like?
Well, I’ve already alluded to Wasteland 2’s unfair tendencies, and I’ll admit that the world map is pretty poor design on the whole, but it’s the whole saving/loading that flips the blame back on me. Now, I don’t know if there is an intended synergy between the way you can save and load at any time and the game’s cruelty, but the way you can simply mulligan instantly can add a frivolous vibe to Wasteland 2’s mean streaks. It’s so easy to rewind time outside of combat and try that 40% until it rolls in your favour, that it makes the game somewhat trivial unless you have incredible self-restraint. This almost seems like a trivial point to put against the game but it’s something you can do, and something that undermines the oppressive vibe of Wasteland 2 should you do it. So try not to.
Anyway, that’s not a reason to dislike Wasteland 2. If I was to sit and nitpick I could point out that skill use (select character, select skill, select object) can seem needlessly arduous for a modern audience, or that the frequently referential humour (one room is full of plants with descriptions of flauna from other video games, while another character outright talks about “a boy named Sue”) could grate for one person as easily as it could warm the cockles of another, but these are mostly flavouring issues and nothing game-breaking.
Wasteland 2 is a warm return to the RPGs of yesteryear. To quests that take hours to complete, to traps in every corridor, to desperate item foraging in light of dwindling ammo supplies. It’s not a classic of its genre, but it is ultimately a beacon of hope for a certain style of RPG – the video game pen and paper style – that many thought had been lost in more recent years.
VERY GOOD. An 8/10 is only awarded to a game we consider truly worthy of your hard-earned cash. This game is only held back by a smattering of minor or middling issues and comes highly recommended.
Review code provided by publisher.