Do you have what it takes to join the elite few, again, or for the first time?

Return of the King: Wasteland 2

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These days, post-apocalyptic role playing games are white hot, but this wasn’t always the case. Back when having a PC meant literally having a (likely) IBM PC with floppy disks and a four or 16-color screen, there wasn’t much in the way of nuclear war fantasies to go around. It was indeed a dark time. Then a game called Wasteland was developed by Interplay Productions and published by Electronic Arts in 1998. It spread far and wide like an exploding blood sausage, and changed the world of computer role-playing games forever.

The original game featured building a party of characters and sending them out into the Arizona desert. It was 2087 and World War III had come and gone. But being a desert, it was one of the few places that didn’t get nuked too badly. That helped a group of Army engineers who were digging ditches and building bridges at the time survive the blasts, and eventually become the protectors of what was left of humanity: The Desert Rangers. The game introduced a lot of players to the concepts of building a balanced party, deep character creation, puzzle solving as part of an RPG, interacting with non-player characters, turn-based combat involving firearms and a game where even the seemingly simplest decisions could have far-reaching consequences for the world at large.

Welcome to the new wasteland there partner. Kind of the same as the old one, and that's a very good thing.
Welcome to the new wasteland there partner. Kind of the same as the old one, and that’s a very good thing.

Today these are things we take for granted in games, especially RPGs, and rally against if they’re missing. Plus, your actions in the game actually meant something, and that was a great feeling.That’s why Wasteland holds such a dear place in the hearts of so many gamers and why many people, myself included, still have their original game box, floppy disks and manuals. Yet, Wasteland never produced a sequel. Games like the Fallout series, also by Interplay, and Bethesda’s take on the genre with its first person interpretation starting with Fallout 3, all either claimed to be the spiritual successor to Wasteland or payed homage to it in some way. But the chance of a full-fledged Wasteland 2 never materialized, until now.

A screen shot of the original Wasteland shows how far we've come since 1988.
A screen shot of the original Wasteland shows how far we’ve come since 1988.

Legendary game designer Bryan Fargo who was the director of the original game, and inXile Entertainment which produced Wasteland and newer titles like Fallout New Vegas, took to Kickstarter to fund the creation of Wasteland 2. Their goal was to keep the original flavor of the first game, but give it all the bells and whistles of a modern experience. They were easily funded by gamers who wanted to relive the good old days of RPGing, and speaking as a gamer who really loved the original, I think they accomplished much of their goals for Wasteland 2. I’ve been staying up quite late into the night with it, just like I did with the original. But even if you never played the first game, Wasteland 2 offers a solid RPG experience that is not to be missed.

Wasteland 2 takes place several years after the first game. Many of the default characters from the original are now running Ranger HQ, which itself has moved out of the prison the rangers once commandeered to call home to an actual military compound. The base still holds secrets too, as there are many doors within the bunker that no amount of force or cutting could yet get through. Snake Vargas is now in charge of the outfit, and he’s much different than he was back in his wild days. Now older and wiser, he is sometimes criticized by other rangers for being too cautious. He has built up the organization to be sure, but his lack of patrolling has left the wasteland more lawless than it should be, and there are even a rival group of “peacemakers” to contend with now. You and your new squad of raw recruits are part of the effort to change all that as patrols resume in earnest. You are Echo Squad.

Fans of deep character creation and the ability to totally customize the look and skillset of their characters won't be disappointed here. In fact, it may take multiple tries to get things "just right."
Fans of deep character creation and the ability to totally customize the look and skillset of their characters won’t be disappointed here. In fact, it may take multiple tries to get things “just right.”

Character creation in the game is deep and fulfilling. You can build out your team using a point system that ensures that every ranger is equal in terms of potential, which is different from the randomly rolled (and likely re-rolled many times) characters of the first game. There are portraits to choose from, or you can import pictures or create them using the character generation interface. So there is a lot of customization in both looks and skill load out. If you don’t want to create your characters, there are some archetypes you can pick to get right out there into the wastes.

Character attributes like Strength or Constitution are fairly permanent, though you do get a point to add to them every ten levels. Skills are more fluid, and points to spend on them are awarded each time a level is gained. Skills cost slightly more points for every three levels and range from zero to ten in power, so while you can get a basic understanding of a weapon type or knowledge skill quickly, it will take much longer to specialize in different areas, which is why a well-balanced team is so important. Not everyone can learn everything, or even a majority of things.

You start off with the four members of Echo Squad that you generate, but you can recruit and hire more people as you travel. A full size party consists of four rangers and three recruited characters. Recruited characters are controlled by players in combat, but there is a chance that they will break free in times of extreme stress, such as when the waste wolves are breaking through on all sides of your hastily commandeered bastion of old tires and concrete slabs. The leadership skill can calm then down, so if you want to keep a full team under control, you will need one character who specializes somewhat in that area. The only complaint I have is that the nuances of the character generation system are difficult to understand without playing, so it’s likely that quite a few people will be unsatisfied with their original builds and start over after gaining a few levels.

It looks like that bad guy will be suffering from a bleeding wound effect. Oh, and he also seems to be missing his head, which is probably a slightly bigger concern.
It looks like that bad guy will be suffering from a bleeding wound effect. Oh, and he also seems to be missing his head, which is probably a slightly bigger concern.

Combat in Wasteland 2 is turn-based and tactical, much like most modern titles these days with similar interfaces like XCOM or Shadowrun. You have action points to spend each round and can use them to move, shoot, throw a grenade, swing a bat or to take a non-damaging action like healing a teammate with a medkit. There are a couple special actions that every character can take like kneeling down, which costs two action points, but gives you a bonus to hit and less of a chance to be hit in return. Or you can choose to try for a headshot, which reduces your chance to hit by about 20 or 30 percent, but if it connects does critical damage – so it’s a good risk to take most of the time. Also, because the game runs in real-time when you are not in combat, smart tacticians who have the advantage of knowing that a fight is about to happen can preposition rangers and their allies in advantageous spots, like getting a sniper up on a hill or rooftop and having them kneel down and get ready, or putting your softer brainiac ranger behind some hard cover. You don’t always get a warning like that, so when you think the guano is about to hit the slicer-dicer, take the time to prepare.

Combat is fairly challenging, even for experienced tactical gamers. You can increase your odds with solid tactics, and having a group of highly specialized rangers working together to form an agile team that is ready for anything will certainly help. But there are some fights that you may stumble into that are simply not winnable without better gear, better armor and more skill points. You can find them because the game doesn’t restrict what you do or where you go, but don’t be surprised if you need to retreat and come back later – especially if you strike out to explore a lot on your own.

This being Wasteland, there is also a heavy emphasis on dialog, which adds to the heavy role-playing within the game. There is an overall main quest involving mysterious radio signals and a group of people who want to merge humans and robots, but also a myriad of side quests in the game that can become quite involving. How you decide to complete those quests, or fail to complete them, will contribute greatly to the developing story and also the ending of the game. And as the game makes painfully obvious in the first set of missions, you won’t be able to save everyone. It’s a huge wasteland and you are just one little squad, so do whatever good you can and try not to feel too bad as you listen to the death screams over the radio of the people you couldn’t help. It’s a rough world out there.

Skillfully interacting using dialog can have some monumentally different effects on gameplay and story. Choose wisely, or face the consequences.
Skillfully interacting using dialog can have some monumentally different effects on gameplay and story. Choose wisely, or face the consequences.

In addition to the standard dialog choices, there are also certain responses that you can choose if you have either the Smart Ass, Kiss Ass or Hard Ass skills high enough in level. If not, you will still see that the choices where there, but you won’t be able to select them. And anyway, doing so is not always the best option. As far as I could tell, every quest could be solved without using those knowledge-based skills, but you can earn bonuses or cut down on some serous leg work if you do, or sometimes craft a better outcome. Like the original game, you can also enter in your own responses in the form of keywords to manipulate certain quests. In those cases, not figuring out what that key word might be can lead to some disastrous results. The game does a fairly bad job of explaining this to players though, so if a quest or side-quest seems like it’s on rails (little hint there) and you can’t steer it toward a better result, then you are likely not entering a keyword at the right time. Both the keywords and the Ass skills can help, but the keyword entering is far more important, but also rarer.

Graphically, the game is up to par with most modern titles. The towns and locations you visit are all teeming with details, so there is a lot to see, even if you go off the beaten path. In fact, the game rewards you for exploring into and around places that you are not specifically told to go to, both within locations like towns and out on the main map. Hidden caches, items and even more quests may be waiting. And even on a moderately-powered machine, you can likely go up to the full detail level. Dropping it back down a bit does not seem to harm the scenery too much, so lower performing machines will still offer a solid experience. All of the main characters and most of the NPCs have their own portrait that pops up when you talk with them, which is a lot like the original game in style. I did notice that a few of them were repeated however, especially for people who you will only likely talk with once or twice in a typical game.

While there isn't an actual day and night cycle, some locations will be bright and sunny, while others will be cloaked in darkness and shadow. Both can be equally terrifying, but the dark ones will put you on edge.
While there isn’t an actual day and night cycle, some locations will be bright and sunny, while others will be cloaked in darkness and shadow. Both can be equally terrifying.

The sound is also fairly good. Sadly, not all of the characters are voice acted, though with so many dialogs, and much of it being optional, one can see why that might be out of reach for a studio funding their game using crowd sourcing. Still, it’s completely functional and sounds great when using a headset because of the Razer Surround Sound utility used to help create the environmental effects. But if you hate reading a lot of text, then this will probably be a problem for you as they contain much of plot and subtlety of Wasteland 2.

The size of the world is quite vast. Expect to put a good 40 more hours into this one, more if you explore all the game’s many dark nooks and crannies. That makes it a great value for the money, and there is significant replay value given all the different choices and character builds available to the player.

I will also say that the game world of Wasteland 2 is very similar to its predecessor. It’s a dark world for sure, as one would expect from a bunch of survivors when the rest of humanity is wiped out. The emphasis is more on survival and doing small acts of good than the more campy sci-fi type worlds of Fallout 3 and New Vegas. That said, Wasteland 2 also provides quite a few moments of humor in unexpected places. You might find that buried stash of Atari E.T. games out in the desert, briefly meet the A-Team or be treated to any number of both inside jokes about the Wasteland series or popular culture in general. Here Wasteland 2 shines beyond its predecessor and pushes the envelope for both humor and darkness.

Do you have what it takes to join the elite few, again, or for the first time?
Do you have what it takes to join the elite few, again, or for the first time?

Wasteland 2 does what many sequels fail to accomplish. It remains stunningly true to its predecessor, expands on the ideas and the game world without breaking any canon, and improves on the original in quite a few ways. It’s an amazing game as a standalone title, but even better if you were lucky enough to play the first one. The boxed version of the game and the Steam downloadable one also contain the original Wasteland if you want to go through its four color world again, or experience a true classic for the first time. Wasteland 2 has been far too long in the making, but the final product delivered more than this hardcore fan’s wildest expectations. I’m pretty sure it will impress you as well.

Wasteland 2 earns 4 1/2 GiN Gems for bringing us all back to that wonderful post-apocalyptic world in style. It’s probably the only reason anyone would actually hope for a nuclear war.

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