It's been a long time coming, but does inXile's post-apocalyptic RPG earn its Ranger badge?
So there's this guy. He's a warchief, a petty local lord whose small-minded thirst for vengeance and bloodshed has been keeping a tribal feud bubbling over for years. He's only got one arm, but this doesn't seem to have affected his skill in combat. In fact his personal guard have all chopped one of their own arms off in order to honor him. Bit weird. He's demanding I steal a holy artifact from this rival tribe before he will help me, and he's being pretty rude about it. For ten paces outside the door of his tent I consider it. Then I walk back in and shoot his other arm off.
This little tale should key you in on three things you can expect from the long-awaited Wasteland 2 – it's bloody, it's blackly comical, and it's not too bothered if you don't want to play by the rules.
This is my hard-ass Ranger squad. I love these guys
You command a force of Desert Rangers, the only sort-of lawmen around in the bleak, radioactive deserts of post-nuclear devastation Arizona. Newly badged by head Ranger honcho Snake Vargas, your job is to keep the wastes as safe as is at all possible for its few beleaguered, malnourished inhabitants. Creating your team you can choose from a few pre-set rangers, but really you'll want to make your own.
After setting basic attributes for each member, you choose from a number of skills, from demolitions to first aid to... toaster repair. You'll want to cover several bases. Once you've set up their stats, you can choose from some decent cosmetic customisation options that help invest each character with lots of personality; I had a native American sniper/tracker, a punk tech-girl who specialised in anti-armour energy weapons, a big lunk with a hammer and a creepy doctor with augmetic eyes. You can pick up bits and pieces of clothing during your travels to further change your team's appearance, and there's a steady stream of new weapons and weapon attachments to choose from. This all adds to that over-protective, XCOM-style feeling that these are your guys. You'll want to bring them back alive.
Wasteland 2 is entirely skill-based, which makes levelling up your team a more straightforward process than in other RPGs. Skill points are dished out sparingly enough that each team member can only focus in a few key areas, so while you can't pick ultra-specific talents and perks that radically change the way the character plays, there are some difficult choices to make. Luckily the game avoids the trap of redundant choices, and does a good job of making every skill worthwhile. There's generally at least a few places in each level where a particular specialist gets a chance to shine, so you never feel you've messed up by choosing the wrong path.
Some abilities are essential – you'll definitely need a medic of some kind, and perception is a necessity for avoiding the bastard-load of traps and mines those pesky bandits have scattered around the desert. Others aren't quite as key, but are often incredibly useful. Social skills offer different paths when approaching missions, while the various utility skills can net you much-needed supplies from booby-trapped crates or electronically locked safes. Oh, and you'll need some front-line combat types too.
Combat is solid, which is good because you'll be doing a lot of it. Wasteland 2 uses an uncomplicated turn-based system that does the job well but lacks the variety and impact of something like XCOM. Aside from switching to full-auto or single fire, or going for a risky, high-damage headshot, there's not too many options in combat. You move into cover, you pick your target, you miss or you don't. It's livened up by some tricky encounters and some gratifyingly nasty gore effects, but there's just so much fighting in the game that I got a little jaded with it by the latter stages, especially when a honey badger charged at me for the three billionth time.
Occasionally you'll pull off something cool, like sneaking your sniper around to the high ground for a better shot, but I got through the majority of fights by jumping behind cover and focussing fire on the most dangerous targets first – usually any bastard lobbing grenades (these will mess up your day fast). Too often you just find yourself going through the motions, desperate to get the fight over with and get on with something more interesting.
Krauser's my medic. Skilled medics are your only source of healing in the wilds, and offer the only means of reviving downed allies
Fortunately it's not all bloodshed. Sometimes the easiest, least destructive way to access an area or nab a precious item is to suck up to someone you despise. There's some great villains, or at least antagonists. Mr. Manners, leader of the Mannerites, a group of unfailingly polite thugs who build their society around a 1930s book on courtesy and good manners, is a figure you'll come to despise for his soft-spoken, almost passive-aggressive hostility and streak of sheer ruthlessness. The Pistol-Packin' Priests, meanwhile, are gun crazy fundamentalist nuts who are an absolute pleasure to kill. Not that it's advisable to just march in laser-guns blazing.
You're free to start an all-out war if you want, but mowing down hordes of fanatical soldiers tends to drain both your ammo reserves and your blood pretty quickly. This tends to make you consider your situation carefully. While you do get to serve out the occasional bit of frontier justice, I was actually impressed with how many compromises my team of rangers had to make. There were times when I couldn't justify wiping a group out, even though I found them reprehensible, but equally there were times that someone pushed me just a bit too far – like that memorable moment with the one-armed warchief that I mentioned earlier. I found myself making distasteful but rational decisions based on my team's resources, alliances and current situation – that's pretty cool.
It's a shame that the quest design doesn't always match up with the quality of the writing. Fetch quests are a staple of RPGs, but Wasteland 2 has one so frustrating that I very nearly gave myself a stress hernia. I was stumbling around the ruins of Los Angeles in a blind rage, searching in desperation for one last bag of cat litter required to upgrade my radiation suit enough to access a key area (don't ask). Eventually I found the bloody stuff, but the owner wouldn't give it to me unless I fixed his toaster. I don't know where that toaster was, but I do know that searching for it caused my blood pressure to rise to medically dangerous levels. Still I pressed on, calming myself with the knowledge that I would find that toaster, and I would violently insert it into its owner. Lengthwise.
I never did. Eventually I abandoned the quest and simply trudged through the radioactive wastes, nearly killing my party but just about reaching the next area. I'm fairly sure this wasn't the intended path.
Missions rarely reach this supreme level of frustration, but there's few that really stick out in my mind either. The characters, the squad-building and the little moments when I got to do something cool that I didn't expect to be able to do stand out, but the basic structure of most missions quickly begins to feel repetitive. I never suffered a game-breaking bug, but some missions get bogged down with lots of components and objectives, and come the end of the game I had more than a few in my journal that I'd given up on due to a lack of clarity.
Crossing back and forth across the huge open world map isn't quite as much fun as I'd hoped it would be either. Despite the clear affection the developers have for this battered post-apocalyptic world, it can occasionally feel a little empty and drab. While some areas are full of details and hidden nooks and crannies, others are large stretches of bland scenery and sparse vegetation, and take a tediously long time to travel across. Along with the murky palette this occasionally uninspiring level design dampens your enthusiam for exploration, which is a shame when the writing and world-building is generally rock-solid. Performance-wise I didn't have too many problems, but the frame-rate wasn't always reliable and there was the occasional memory leak that forced a restart. Nothing terminal, but strange given the rather modest visuals.
Explosives are rare and expensive, but sometimes the only answer to a charging horde of robots
I've criticised Wasteland 2 a lot, but actually I did enjoy my time with it. I grew attached to my custom Ranger team, enjoyed sticking it to the bad guys with extreme prejudice, and the game's got a charmingly self-conscious irreverence that's hard not to warm too. The radio, which buzzes periodically with messages from the wasteland's cast of miscreant weirdos, is a beautifully thematic touch. There's plenty to do, and enough options and decisions to make to justify a second playthrough. It's a perfectly enjoyable RPG with some fun combat and exploration, and a worthy sequel to the cult original.
WASTELAND 2 VERDICT
However. There’s a level of roughness here that I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed by after such a long development time. For every smartly written sequence with vibrant locations and characters, there’s an aimless fetch quest or an overlong combat section. Oddly enough, despite the content added in Wasteland 2’s extra year of production, I think the game could have benefited from being cut down, edited to emphasise the best bits and get rid of some of the clutter. I like Wasteland 2, I really do, but I can’t help but think it’s not quite the masterpiece we were promised.