Wasteland 2 – 100 Hours Later

Wasteland 2 was once the most anticipated Kickstarter game on AlienLion.com, remember? Here’s the review, by Allen:

 

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I offered to review Wasteland 2 around release, back when it was still a useful thing to do, but I ran into a problem. How do you criticize something that you want so badly to succeed? It’s not every day that we get an independent, old school RPG, from those who made and for those who like Fallout, Fallout 2, Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment. Oh yeah, and the original Wasteland, too. This thing was flawless before it was even made, and saying otherwise was like stabbing a unicorn in the gooch. It takes about 100 hours of dealing with its’ shit to be truly ready, unless you can be as undaunted as this reviewer here:

Touche.

It’s no big secret that Fallout was a spiritual successor to the original Wasteland and I’d wager that a good bunch of Wasteland 2 backers got on board for that reason alone. Without wasting time diagramming why that is and what that means, here’s the point – no, we did not get that next evolutionary step from Fallout 2, which some of us were hoping for, and no, we did not get a ‘Black Isle’ Fallout either. A couple of months ago, I would have told you that Wasteland 2 is what Fallout Tactics should have been, but after spending some more time with it, I feel like it deserves more. Hear me now: this is a good RPG (and I don’t use either of those words loosely), it’s just tremendously uneven.

After a live action intro, which does an excellent job of letting you know that this is a budget title, things appear terrific, but not all of them stay that way. At first, you have to give the game credit for being so defiantly old school that it feels refreshing. When it comes to software in general, the overall philosophy has changed to become all about streamlining the experience, by predicting user input and transforming all the ‘extra’ clicks into a background process…

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Sit back and enjoy the show.

…well, Wasteland 2 has you do the work. If you want to open a lock, you have to examine it for traps or alarms, wait, click on someone who can disarm it, select the skill, click on the lock, wait, try again if failed, wait, click on someone who can unlock it, select the skill, click on the lock, scratch your ass, wait… you get the idea. I can actually appreciate this approach, as it allows for some flexibility and makes you feel like you work for your loot, until you do this uneventful little chore a hundred times and it becomes much more tedious than stimulating.

The same is true for combat. It’s great, for awhile, being basically the classic turn-based Fallout combat, with the ability to crouch, ambush, and take cover, but then you notice how much of it there is in the game and how much of it plays out the same exact routine way. Honestly, in all of my 100 hours, I  have only bothered with placement and cover a handful of times. First, you can’t just switch into combat mode to properly prepare for a battle, and second, you won’t feel like spending your points or your time on the very limited strategic options because it’s just not worth it, and again, there is a shit ton of unavoidable combat in this game.

Lord help you, if you don't have an Outdoorsman in your midst...

Lord give you patience, if you don’t have an Outdoorsman in your midst as you will see this a LOT.

The character creation screen, too, looks deliciously in-depth, but then you play the game and discover the stat system’s weirdness. The Charisma attribute, for example, has no effect on your verbal skills. You can have Intelligence of 1, and just as easily be a dumbass walking crowbar as an expert computer scientist, repairman, and weaponsmith, all in one. Any character can throw a grenade or shoot a rocket launcher with the same perfect precision, dealing the same damage, regardless of their Demolitions skill level, which is only used to disarm traps, despite what you might read somewhere. Weird.

Now, I want to take an intermission here, to highlight the fact that none of these are serious issues. They are only flaws, which started to pop up as I played the game. When it comes to the actual role playing, the case was the exact opposite. I was worried only initially, especially when I got presented with my first major decision, in a very blunt a-or-b type  fashion, in the vein of most modern RPG’s.

Pretty much.

Pretty much.

I was ready to plea official disappointment right then and there, but thankfully, that was not representative of the game’s general approach to role playing. Without spoiling anything, I have to admit that the flexibility of some major quests in Wasteland 2 is truly impressive. You get to decide fates of entire towns, proper massive towns, and you do so organically, without resorting to any controlled ‘decision-time’ moments, a la The Wtcher. If you don’t know what I’m telling you here, this is good. It’s damn good! At the end of the day, it is one of the most important aspects of a game such as this and believe me when I tell you (unless you want spoilers) that this is the stuff we don’t usually see anymore. Wasteland 2 has legitimate, elaborate, detailed quest trees, with significantly different possibilities, and some of them are as elaborate as anything in Fallout or any other game out there.

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You may get countless ways to resolve a situation, but then you may encounter a lock that can only be opened one way.

It doesn’t hurt that the writing stays solid throughout. It’s not particularly incredible, and the main quest does feel like it’s there just because the game needs one, but I will give the writers credit for making some absurd thematic elements natural, or at least fun. I don’t believe in spoiling story details but let me just say that you won’t struggle to relate to this particular brand of post apocalyptic circus. I will also mention that Wasteland 2 is very aware of the fact that it is a sequel to the original. The tone is very true to Wasteland and there is actually a surprising number of references to the first game, considering the fact that you probably have more hair on your sack (or what have you) than your scalp if you played it around the time of its’ release.

While the game’s dialogue benefits from that, unfortunately, very little of the aforementioned role playing goodness is achieved through it. To my utter disheartenment, this is one example where Wasteland 2 ignores the direction of it’s spiritual predecessors and just takes a step forward from the original game instead, by adopting the keyword based ‘encyclopedia style’ dialogue system of games like The Elder Scrolls. After some fan feedback, the devs did go in and add sentences for context but, well, you can tell. It still feels like patchwork, which doesn’t add enough soul to NPC interactions. And by the way, if you are wondering what on Earth was up with dialogue in the original Wasteland, if the image below is what it evolved into, let me just say that you don’t want that back.

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Makes sense for a Wasteland sequel; not the best case scenario.

Now, sure, some RPG fans will disagree with me here but I must maintain that this system fails to communicate the mood of the game world and somehow, makes it feel remote. Combined with the dearth of voice overs or unique character art or detailed visuals, this means that the NPC’s are not as fleshed out as they could have been, and by extension, neither are the game’s locations.

I do want to clarify that, when it comes to the game’s locations, they each have their unique quirks, whether it’s the setting itself or the politics of the place. The atmosphere is often effectively assisted by a combination of subtle musical accents and some occasional pieces of effortlessly sharp descriptive writing, like: “on TV one man with a mullet is punching another man with a mullet.” It’s just difficult to get truly invested in the settings, when all the inhabitants remain emotionally inaccessible.

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After meeting this particular fellow, you will be grieved by the fact that you cannot communicate properly with recruitable characters or help them with unique quests.

Speaking of locations, Wasteland 2 is freaking huge. There is more than a handful of proper towns in Arizona alone, which is about 65% of the game’s content. Some of the towns are enormous multi-area locations, with plenty of small hidden quests in addition to the main goals. The game could almost stand to lose a few for the sake of polishing the remainders and tightening up the main progression.

I’ll say this again: Wasteland 2 is very uneven. It may give us a complex role playing opportunity and then follow it up with a transparent and painfully plain fetch quest. The game world may be an open sand box in one sequence and then herd you into a very linear progression via radiation walls or unskippable tasks. The story may progress steadily throughout the first half of the game and then take a massive step back to act as an unnecessary padding. If feels like the devs had every intention of delivering what was promised but perhaps they ran out of time and resources to make it all perfect. The result is not a bad game by any means. For the role playing elements that it offers, I am very glad that I helped make it happen and I would do it again in a heartbeat. Next time though, I will hope for more because Wasteland 2 is not as good as any of those classics I mentioned at the beginning, and maybe it should have been.

 

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