Wasteland 2: A grim, great vision of the future

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Being released more than two decades after the original and funded by nearly $3m of contributions from fans, can Wasteland 2 possibly match expectations?

Whilst the prospect of making a sequel to a game from 25 years ago would seem like a lofty enough goal in its own right, Wasteland 2 has the added challenge of being one of the first of the wave of Kickstarter games that punctuate the 2014 release calendar, as discussed in our feature last week. Having played through a chunk of the game made available as a beta release, it seems like inXile have succeeded. Rather than ‘just’ being a good sequel to the original Wasteland, or ‘just’ a promising indication of where crowdfunded games are headed, Wasteland 2 is looking like an honest-to-goodness outstanding RPG.

The early section of the game cleverly interweaves two narrative strands – an introduction to the world of the wasteland and the various groups that inhabit it, and an investigation into the discovery of a metal foot near the site where a distinguished member of the Rangers, the organization your player characters are a part of, was found dead. Whilst the slow-burn mystery of the metal foot is somewhat undermined by the fact that the background image of the main menu is a huge robotic scorpion – I think androids might be to blame – the drip feed of information that you get still remains compelling. However, it’s getting to know more about the world itself that proves the most engaging. You feel like you’re constantly being exposed to more of this grim alternate future as you go, and every shanty town full of disillusioned survivors only serves to expand and reinforce this vision of the wasteland.

inXile have lovingly crafted a very well-realised world for Wasteland 2 to unfold in, and that hard work pays off throughout the minute-to-minute gameplay. A common complaint of the WRPG genre is that quests often amount to following a map marker to a location where you either kill or collect a certain amount of enemies or objects. Wasteland 2 manages to avoid this by giving you a constant feed of narrative as you go, more often than not through your actions as much as dialogue and flavour text.

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The section of gameplay immediately after the opening mission that shows you the ropes aptly illustrates what makes Wasteland 2 so compelling. Frantic radio chatter alerts you to two emergencies unfolding in two nearby settlements: mutated plants putting the food supply at risk, and psychotic Wreckers mounting an attack on your water supply with explosives and mortars. It’s a testament to the quality of the dialogue that you will recognise both of these places by name, despite not having visited them up this point.

Characters are very well written, so you want to hear what they have to say, and you’re rewarded for listening by being given information that will soon come in handy – you’ll find yourself paying close attention whenever faced with dialogue rather than just skipping through it to get back to what you were doing. For instance, inside one dwelling in Highpool you’ll find an old woman who informs you of a group of enemies who have broken into her house and are lying in wait round the corner. Should you ignore her upon entering the house and see if there’s anything for you to loot as your first order of business, you’ll no doubt end up in an unexpected bit of close-quarters fighting that could well end in tears. However, once she’s made you aware it’s simple enough to get the drop on them and quickly dispatch them without much trouble.

Whilst traversing the world map,  you’re limited by how much water your team is carrying. You can discover the odd oasis here and there to restock your water supply, but nevertheless there’s a sense of tension when you travel from place to place that feels fitting for the post-apocalyptic setting, as running out of water will cause dehydration and, eventually, death. The combination of  radio calls and water running out forced me into a snap decision to save Highpool, the water source. Usually, I find decision making in games like this to be rather superficial, but this choice had a real impact. Part of that is the way that the whole sequence unfolded naturally – I knew of both places beforehand so I knew there would be some idea of making the choice between which to attend to first, but the added emergency aspect really shook up what my normal, measured, decision making process would have been. Whilst this sort of narrative trickery to force the player into making a snap decision has been done many times before, it’s done so well here that I bought into it completely.

Once I was in Highpool, I found myself following train tracks. If I had a complaint about Highpool as a whole, it would be that it is a little bit linear, falling into a groove of encounter followed by looking around at stuff that repeats throughout. Thankfully, this is not indicative of the rest of the game, with even the Ag Centre (the settlement besieged by plants) having a far more open feel.

There’s a fair bit of combat to be seen in the besieged Highpool settlement, and it wasn’t long before I was faced with a group of both melee and ranged enemies, a step up from the first mission of the game. Combat in Wasteland 2 employs a system of action points that recalls the original X-COM from the early 90s. Being spotted by an enemy converts the field of play to a grid, with overlays telling you how far your character can move, and how far you can move if you want to attack as well. Unlike X-COM, it’s not simply a turn-based back-and-forth, with the order of play instead being based on the stats of each combatant individually.

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At this point, the combat isn’t incredibly varied, but it isn’t without its charms. It’s a familiar blend of finding an optimal combination of cover and a good angle on your enemies for your ranged fighters and gauging how to get in close with your melee specialists without leaving them wide open for the next turn. Earlier this week, inXile responded to criticism of the combat system as it stands now, suggesting that since the beta portion of the game only has you fighting the simplest of enemies and lacks a special attack system that will apparently be present in the full game, it’s perhaps not a complete picture of how combat will look come the official release of the game. That being said, the combat as it stands still has its appeal. Bone-crushing melee attacks with blunt weapons are particularly indicative of the brutal nature of disagreements out in the wasteland.

After a few minimal encounters, you’re faced with the task of dispatching a woman with a jackhammer for an arm and a few of her thugs. Whilst earlier fights are fairly simple to muddle your way through, this one is clearly a threshold of things to come, a statement of intent that from this point onwards you might have to start thinking with a bit of strategy. There’s not enough cover available to have all your squad in a safe position, so it’s up to you to decide who is strong enough to survive out in the open. All of this is combined with the constant threat of your jackhammer-wielding antagonist, who is far more resilient than any enemy thus far and lethal in close combat thanks to her construction yard body-mod. Although emerging from it relatively unharmed, a couple of members of my squad took a real beating, not least the wonderfully named Angela Deth.

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You first meet Angela mere minutes into the game as she stands grieving Ace, the victim of the murder you are initially sent out to investigate. Offering up some details of her relationship to Ace and her backstory in general, she then suggests that she joins your party to add a bit of experience. Angela establishes her position as a grizzled veteran in comparison to your naive idealism in the first bit of conversation, and regularly demonstrates that she knows best by choosing her own actions in combat when she sees fit. Mechanically it’s the same as when one of your squad panics and stops following orders, but it’s used in a novel way to build character through the gameplay itself.

I continually found myself with the wasteland itself during my time spent in it. Whilst some areas are a little under populated at this stage in development, you rarely go any length of time without coming across something that adds some colour to the world. The game does this through conversation, through written logs and through the throwback narration window in the UI that displays your comments whenever you examine an object or walk through a new area. It’s the sort of videogame storytelling that has fallen by the wayside in favour of cutscenes, but it’s completely fitting with the era that Wasteland 2 is harking back to and it’s executed brilliantly. The gallows humour that pervaded the original Wasteland and  Fallout games is prominent in Wasteland 2, and it adds a welcome bit of levity to the grim setting that doesn’t interfere with the tone of the game.

Whether you’re one of the backers who helped to fund this game via Kickstarter, a die-hard fan of the original or just a PC gamer longing for a return to the sort of games that were being made twenty years ago, Wasteland 2 will likely do a lot to please you. It remains to be seen how many of the rough edges present in the beta will be smoothed out before its official release, but with a bit of polish on top of this already impressive package, Wasteland 2 looks set to be a rousing confirmation that a well-executed crowdfunding campaign can yield a seriously impressive final product.

 

All images: Electronic Arts

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