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The world is finished.
Cold War politicians emptied their missile silos after World War II, and only a tiny fraction of the population survived. Food and water are scarce. You are surrounded by pockets of radiation and goons that want to drink from your skull. The Internet never existed. It’s time to take stock of who your friends and enemies are and ultimately decide who lives and who dies on your road to survival.
This cheery world is Wasteland 2’s reality. Brian Fargo, creator of the original Wasteland and executive producer of its spiritual successor Fallout, released the game after several years of crowd-funded development. Wasteland 2 comes 26 years after its predecessor’s release.
I followed what I believe to be the main or major storyline for the game. Wasteland 2’s story is not at all linear, and players can do pretty much whatever they want from day one. I progressed through the Desert Ranger’s primary quest line, which is about 60 hours long depending on side quest choices, for the purposes of this review.
What you’ll like
Post-war life is shit in Wasteland 2
Wasteland 2’s shining achievement is creating a nuclear holocaust-ridden dystopia that truly sucks.
Too many post-apocalyptic worlds found in games are more akin to 24-hour summer camps than Hell on Earth. Titles like Fallout: New Vegas and Dead Rising portray the end of the world as a party where people enjoy the lack of rules and structure. Sure, people die every now and then, but we are all having fun in a life with no rules.
Wasteland 2 does not. Everyone you encounter, even the people who appear to be partying, hates their life. They’ve all lost family and friends. They need supplies and have turned to eating dogs and sometimes people to survive. Many of them wish for death and eventually kill themselves in front of you. Desperation surrounds you at all times.
Players command a squad of Desert Rangers, law enforcement units spawned from a corps of army engineers sent to Arizona to build bridges after World War II. After the bombs went off, they turned a prison into a base and began to re-establish order in the region. Your first mission is to investigate the killing of Ace, a high-ranking ranger torn to pieces by an unknown foe.
That is, unless, you don’t want to do that.
Unique open-ended gameplay with tons of replay value
Wasteland 2 offers players a level of freedom they probably never thought possible.
Here’s an example: The game picks up with a gorgeous live-action movie narrated by General Vargas, the Patton-like leader of the Desert Rangers. He gave me a history lesson on the nuclear war itself before explaining the current situation surrounding Ace’s death.
After the movie, I found myself at a stereotypical post-apocalyptic desert base, a la the “Mad Max” film series. Vargas gave me a cookie-cutter starting mission: Prove your worth recruits, and I will let you into my super exclusive club. We have outfits and tell ghost stories at night. You are going to want in on that.
The conversation ends, but I wasn’t convinced by his sales pitch. I selected the red targeting reticle next to the picture of my submachine gun, hovered it over Vargas, saw that it had a 50 percent chance of hitting him, and fired. It hit him, and he promptly turned around and curb-stomped my entire squad. I was sent back to the main menu to play again.
Every single interaction that I encountered in Wasteland 2 can be handled in this way. Players can murder, rob, or help anyone they want. It’s possible to wage war against the desert rangers and end the game by wiping them out. In this scenario, players never take the ranger helicopter to Los Angeles. The game simply ends at the halfway point of the traditional storyline.
Even positive interactions have their consequences. As Fargo noted in an earlier interview with GamesBeat, Wasteland 2 has more text written into its vast conversation bank than all three “Lord of the Rings” novels. I suggest reading most of these word blocks carefully, as they can make your miserable life a little better.
Another example of Wasteland’s unorthodox gameplay comes fairly early in the Arizona section. I was tasked with saving a farming community and a dam. One provides the rangers with their food, and the other provides their water. Vargas told me to hurry, and my radio exploded with cries for help from both sites. I saved the dam, but it took me a while. By the time I got out, I heard bloodcurdling screams over the radio. I ran to the farm, but everyone was dead or worse — transformed into poisonous pod people bent on killing my squad. I emptied the area of danger, but the farm was too far gone and had to be abandoned.
Could I have saved both? I don’t really know. I expected the typical video game experience where I would save one then arrive just in the knick of time to save the other. That’s not how Wasteland 2 works. Player choices mean more here than in any game I have ever seen. And this is just one of many, many such scenarios.
Given all of the decisions you can make, Wasteland 2’s replay value is vast. I would guess that it features more than 100 total hours of possible story arcs and questing content. The lengthy main storyline is just the beginning of Wasteland 2’s gameplay possibilities.
A living environment unlike any you’ve seen before
Wasteland 2 also tests problem-solving skills in an unorthodox way. Each of your squad members levels up according to the experience they gain from quests, battles, conversations, and the use of various skills, which can be upgraded.
These skills are dramatically important because your squad typically receives very little help when tasked with a problem. A non-playable character will tell you to get from the bottom of a hill to the top, and that’s it. Doors, minefields, fences, computers, turrets, etc. will block your path, and it’s up to you to figure out how to navigate through all of this junk.
Wasteland 2 offers one tiny hint: When a player hovers over an interactive object, that object lights up. Most role-playing game series like Fallout and Dragon Age give players prompts on which skill to use, but Wasteland 2 does not.
I know that I can get through this door, but I have no idea how. So I try to pick the lock. If that doesn’t work, I try brute force to knock it down. If that doesn’t work, I lob a grenade at it. If that doesn’t work, then I know I must need to find a key somewhere.
Players face tens of thousands of these interactions throughout Arizona and Los Angeles. Some may find it tedious, but I really enjoyed the next-level thinking required to solve even the most mundane of puzzles.
This interactivity also extends into Wasteland 2’s combat system.
Brutal combat with dire consequences
The combat in Wasteland 2 is almost a mirror image of that found in the XCOM series. Squads assemble on a grid and take turns blasting each other in a slow, methodical strategy test. Players can take advantage of their environment by ducking squad members behind cover and blowing up flammable materials to wreak havoc on the enemy’s squad.
I noticed that Wasteland 2 has more destructible environment elements than the last few XCOM games. Everything even remotely flammable can be used to your benefit or disadvantage. The enemy AI is quite intuitive; if your squad is standing next to a barrel, the enemy will throw a grenade and wipe you all of the face of the Earth.
What makes the combat in Wasteland 2 stand out is the potentially high price of every battle. As I said in my hands-on preview, Wasteland 2 teaches players about its combat system by killing them repeatedly. I had to learn fast what to do and what not to do to ensure the survival of my squad, and I faced losses.
When a squad member dies in Wasteland 2, you get this screen:
I assumed that Wasteland 2 was like any other game in that squad members could be resurrected somehow or new members could be recruited in their place.
No. When they die, you just have a smaller squad now. Recruitment opportunities are extremely rare, and they have to be unlocked by your actions. If you are a jerk, NPCs may not join you.
I learned this lesson the hard way.
At the beginning of the game, I spent 30 minutes creating four custom members. I never gave any thought to the dozen or so pre-made members I could choose instead. Each member of my squad had a specialty, which is my typical strategy in these types of games. One member was big and tough, one did damage, one healed, and one knew a lot of skills.
Unfortunately, a reckless enemy grenadier threw a grenade near a mortar stockpile, killing four of his buddies and Ace McNeely (ironically the same name as the fallen NPC), my skill specialist. I assumed I could replace him, so I carried on. It was only later that I realized I now only have three members, and none of them knew how to unlock doors or do several other mandatory tasks.
I had to grind my squad up a few levels to teach them these skills. Squads can be anywhere from 1-7 members, and the game’s difficulty doesn’t adjust based on your hardships. If you only have one guy left, he will have to finish the game out.
These life lessons create a bond between you, the player, and your squad members. Their fragile little lives mean more to you than typical RPG teams. Thankfully, I only lost four members. If I had lost Madness, my crazy healing lady, I don’t know what I would have done. The same goes for Lancelot Du Lac, my armor-clad bruiser, or Articuno Jones, my hotshot weapons specialist. I’ve never felt more invested in a game’s playable characters than I did with Wasteland 2.
Squad members also don’t heal on their own, and supplies are limited. You can patch teammates up using various medical kits, but those run out pretty damn fast. I had to wander the wastes digging through trashcans and begging for supplies more than once.
I played the game on seasoned difficulty, which is the second-lowest of four levels. It was extremely tough, but in a good way. I was looking for an extremely challenging, take-no-prisoners RPG experience, and that’s exactly what I got. I can’t even fathom life at the higher difficulty levels, but some of you masochistic Dark Souls fans would probably delight in this torture.
What you won’t like
Mid-2000s graphics with repetitive backgrounds
I loved Wasteland 2, but even I can admit that it looks like shit. Fargo’s team over at InXile clearly prioritized the title’s vast story and other features over the actual graphics. I’ve always felt that Indie titles can overcome a lack of funding by creating a unique art style, but Wasteland 2 doesn’t really attempt this either.
I wholeheartedly agree with the developers’ priorities, but certainly some people will be turned off by Wasteland 2’s lagging graphics.
My computer is right at the recommended specs, and I played the game at maximum graphic settings.
Here’s an example found immediately in the squad creation screen:
The in-game graphics aren’t much better.
The backgrounds also get repetitive. The deserts and caves all look the same. The busted cities with overgrown moss all look the same. The Los Angeles section of Wasteland 2 is a little better in this regard simply because it isn’t just endless desert, but you never really see a great variety in settings.
A few radioactively enlarged bugs
I encountered a few problems during my 60+ hour journey through Wasteland 2.
The worst was a very serious bug I encountered while trying to clear the robot-infested city of Damonta. At this point in time, I was playing an earlier version of the game. It’s entirely possible that this bug has been ironed out (I didn’t have the time to play through 20 hours just to reach the same point again). Here’s what happened:
An evil scientist took over the town of Damonta. My squad checked the place out, and the people asked me to kill the bastard. I found the guy, and his robot army kicked my ass. I kept loading up previous saves and trying, but he was too strong. I needed healing, so I left Damonta to forage for supplies.
When I got back, the robot army had killed every living thing in the town. My bad, but I will at least make the scientist pay for this. I wiped the floor with him, but he now had robots in place of every person in the very large town. For some reason, these robots were included in my encounter with the mad scientist. The robots skipped their turn every time, but I couldn’t get out of the combat screen without fighting them.
I decided to fan my squad out across the map and find these random robots. This took almost two hours. Once I finally killed them all, I was still locked in the combat screen. Luckily, this quest was only a large side quest, so I was still able to progress through the game. But I was definitely pissed after wasting several hours on a huge encounter.
I also had about eight crashes to my desktop and several freezes throughout the early and current versions of Wasteland 2. I save frequently, and the title has an autosave feature, but it was still pretty annoying.
The story lulls from time to time
Wasteland 2 does get repetitive and boring from time to time. The sheer magnitude of it has a lot to do with this, but I also encountered a few snooze-worthy quest pockets in the main storyline.
The biggest lull came when I first went to Los Angeles. I spent 35 hours roaming through the Arizona desert, and I expected a riveting story arch with different bad guys set in a new world.
What I found was the exact same setup as I had in Arizona. I had to wander around setting up radio antennas, just like the first few Arizona quests. The cities, though filled with grass instead of sand, looked the same. I found it really difficult to power through these first few L.A. quests.
The bad guys? Robots, crazy people, and religious zealots. The same core group found in Arizona and virtually every other post-apocalyptic game.
I also found the ending a little lacking. I won’t blow it for anyone, but I will say that I think a number of characters could have switched allegiances to really heighten the drama. It wasn’t a bad ending, and I enjoyed the game as a whole, but I think it could have done more.
I absolutely loved Wasteland 2. It succeeds on a variety of levels and manages to overcome its shortcomings by the sheer force of its overwhelming strengths.
The gritty world and its many pitfalls create a realistic post-apocalyptic experience where every choice can mean the life or death of any or all of your friends and enemies. The responsive combat system and environment test the limits of video game problem solving, and the size of Wasteland 2’s quest bank allows for countless hours of enjoyment.
The graphics aren’t great and InXile has a few kinks to work out in the game’s programming and storyline, but these become less and less apparent as Wasteland 2 sucks you into its brutal version of America.
Wasteland 2 is available now for Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. InXile Entertainment provided GamesBeat with a digital download code for the purposes of this review.