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Reaction – Wasteland 2

Wasteland 2 was not a game I ever expected to play.

The original, as I’ve discussed at great length before, holds a very special place in my heart as the game that helped introduce me to CRPGs. Despite that deep and abiding attachment, after 24 years my hopes had worn pretty thin. Even after Brian Fargo announced the Kickstarter to fund the project in 2012 (full disclosure: I totally kickstarted it) and the project was fully funded, I still had a hard time imagining it was every actually going to come out.

And yet, despite the odds, it happened.

In September 2014, 26 years after the original, Wasteland 2 became reality. So now, some 100+ hours of game later, does this return to the wasteland hold up?

Just Your Run-Of-The-Mill Apocalypse

When the original Wasteland came out in 1988, nuclear war was a very real, very present threat. The Cold War had dominated American culture for decades, and tales of the end of the world in nuclear flame were everywhere. Wasteland certainly wasn’t the first post-apocalyptic story out there, but it was one of the first video games to do it. And, it wasn’t just some Mad Max-ian romp down an abandoned highway, blasting mutants into oblivion — it was an RPG. It let the player create their party of intrepid Desert Rangers and explore this broken world.

In 1988, that was pretty damn cool.

But in the intervening years, the ground that Wasteland first trod has been trodden again and again. Fallout, the spiritual successor to Wasteland, took the concept and developed it even further, with bigger, richer worlds. And then it did it again. And again. And then other games joined in as well. At the same time, the Cold War ended, and the threat of nuclear annihilation started to drift out of the minds of most people. Instead, new ways to end the world came to fill in the void. Most involved disease, or zombies, or some combination of both.

Now, you can’t call Wasteland 2 unoriginal for using the setting it helped pioneer in video games. But the success or failure rides on what you do with that setting.

[This is where the spoilers start, if you aren’t into that sort of thing]

Wasteland 2 opens 15 years after the events of the original. In an intriguing twist, it also opens with a burial The default party from the first game are now the senior leadership of the Desert Rangers, and Ace (a recruitable NPC from WL) has been killed in the line of duty. The player’s party are the newest rangers on the force, and of course all of the more experienced teams are occupied elsewhere. That means it’s your job to find out what happened to Ace, and to finish the mission he started. It seems that strange transmissions threatening the Rangers have been coming in from… somewhere. The question, of course, is where? As far as General Vargas knows, nothing in the world has survived outside of this pocket of the American southwest (take note of that, as people like to mention it a lot).

In a fun callback, the Rangers now occupy the Guardian Citadel. In the original, the Guardian Citadel was a high-level area that you could reach very early in the game, taunting you with secrets and riches inside that you knew you would eventually be able to reach. In WL2, you start at the Citadel, but once again are denied entry until you are more experienced. Cheeky? Yes. But appreciated.

So with not much else to do, with guns/knives/crowbars in hand, you rangers set off into the world.

The Old Neighborhood

It seems that in 15 years, the Rangers haven’t gotten much accomplished. The area immediately around Ranger Citadel will be very familiar to anyone who played the first, and revisiting these old locations to see how things have changed is a natural inclination. But… not much has changed. Yes, Highpool and the Ag Center are bigger than they were before, and far more detailed, but beyond that the world still seems much as it was 15 years prior. In fact, in many ways, it almost feels worse. When you first arrive at the Radio Tower that marks the site of Ace’s murder, you immediately encounter a pile of dead bodies — innocents gunned down by nearby raiders. This is happening in the Rangers’ backyard. General Vargas and some of the other Rangers explain how the force has turned inward, focusing only on their immediate borders. In many ways, it puts the lie to the idea that the Rangers are the one true force of good in these wastes.

But it’s also the best device for keeping things familiar.

The Arizona of Wasteland 2 feels familiar. I cannot help but compare with Fallout 2, Here again you have a sequel picking up years after the original, in the same general location as the first. But in FO2, there is more of a sense that the world advanced in the interim; evidence that the player’s actions in the first had a distinct impact on the future they are now witnessing.

In WL2, that feeling is missing.

The places are mostly the same, if not changed slightly. The same raiders roam the lands, the same mutant animals, and the same sad civilians just trying to eke out a living stuck in the middle. And yet, I think this is all by design. For returning players, this land is full of clever callbacks to the original designed to fire off every nostalgia circuit in your brain. With a 26-year interlude and funding supplied by the fans itself, I think the creators were out to give us what they felt we wanted: a trip down memory lane.

It’s undeniably fun if you have the history with the game to appreciate it, but for a new player, I would imagine it would leave a lot of questions. Still, there are plenty of NPCs more than happy to fill your party in on the happenings of 15 years ago if you happen to not be familiar with them.

Yet, for all the fun of the nostalgia trip, by the time I’d fought off another invasion of Slicer Dicers and assorted other killer AI, I was ready for something new; something that would make this world feel fresh again.

Apparently the designers felt the same way, because right about the point I was asking, they provided in the form of L.A.

L.A. Story (Problems)

By the time I had wrapped up in Damonta, I was somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 hours into the game. At that point, I thought I was pretty much in the endgame. Imagine my surprise when instead, I was suddenly being whisked away by chopper to a land thought long dead.

The arrival of your party in L.A. marks the transition from the old to the new – this is where the nostalgia trip ends, the new world begins. This is a place unfamiliar to players both old and new, and everything contained within are new stories waiting to be discovered.

It also, unfortunately, is where a lot of the structure of the game kind of falls apart.

From a story standpoint, I have a lot of problems with L.A. How did a place that would clearly be a much bigger target than Arizona survive in what seems like even better shape? How did the Rangers never notice its existence before, especially once it’s established the have transmitters powerful enough to reach AZ? Why is the hat selection so much worse there?

la_mapDespite these details, I was willing to let my willing sense of disbelief take over and accept L.A. for what it was: unknown ground.

But for being unknown ground, the second half of WL2 trod on some very familiar gameplay crutches. Upon arrival in California, once you’ve secured your beachhead, the first thing that happens is you are assigned a good old fashioned fetch quest. From there, you wander into the ruins of L.A. and discover that, unlike Arizona, you are hemmed into a fairly small area with very clear radiation border lines stopping your progress.

While the actual locales are interesting in their own right, I couldn’t help but view every new place that I arrived in as an exercise in figuring out how to get cat litter the fastest (trust me, that makes sense in context). And even once I had wrapped up the first fetch quest, I was immediately given a second one with pretty much the exact same criteria.

On the whole, it felt like a heavy-handed way of making sure I ticked off all the boxes on my “Tour L.A.” checklist. While the radio distress calls provided a much more organic method for providing me impetus to explore areas, the cat litter fetching made it feel like a requirement.

The pacing of the entire region feels off, and it doesn’t help that the “big bad” ends up not feeling all that threatening after all. When Matthias is just a voice over the radio waves, hidden somewhere in the great unknown, the threat felt real. Once you get to L.A. and meet his actual army of bumbling synths, I had a hard time taking him seriously. Though, after fighting 500 random synth encounters and random Dugan workerbot encounters, I did carry an awful lot of rage towards them.

This all comes to a head in the endgame, which ultimately left me feeling very flat. The callback to the final foozle – the long dormant Base Cochise A.I. of the original – just doesn’t pack the punch one might expect. It doesn’t help that the A.I. wasn’t a particularly memorable enemy to begin with, and that the “twist” about its role in the war that ended the world is about as predictable as my use of quotes around twist. The montage of people you’ve helped throughout the game coming to your aid is nice, but the whole sequence plays out as a very long, drawn-out slog through a bunch of identical robots. In contrast to what has come earlier, the whole thing feels like it was tacked on because they couldn’t think of any other way to wrap things up.

Brains Over Brawn

Combat plays a major role in Wasteland 2, and for the most part it’s a pleasant enough experience. WL2 takes some steps towards making combat a more tactical experience, but a lot of it feels very shallow. Cover is cover, and getting behind it is generally a good thing. However, it’s so easy for enemies to simply run around you, it often doesn’t make much of a difference. In terms of actions, the only choices beyond the normal move-shoot-skill are crouching, which provides a slight boost to your hit chance, and headshots, which do critical damage at a very high to-hit penalty. For the variety of weapons available, it feels like the player should have more choices to make. But, this falls apart as melee skills feel very underpowered compared to ranged weapons. and there is generally little reason to charge a melee fighter into danger when you can hit enemies at a distance with much more effective ranged weapons. When enemies to move into melee range (which they almost always will), most of your time in combat will be spent arranging your rangers so that they don’t shoot each other. Or unjamming your weapons. Both are critical exercises.

char_screenWhile not nearly as a large a time occupier as combat, character management still plays a major role in the game.

Characters are still skill based, with skills falling into three categories: weapon, general, and knowledge. The balance you strike in your party between these skills will determine much about how you are able to tackle the many challenges the wastes will throw at you. Most obstacles still have multiple ways to overcome them, depending on where your party excels. Sometimes disarming the alarm and picking the lock on the backdoor can get you where you need to go, but maybe your approach involves more of a “kicking down the fence and walking in guns blazing” flair. The spread of skills and the variety of ways they can be implemented does a nice job of providing options, but also forcing the player to be selective. Because of the limited skill points available to you, it’s almost impossible to create a party that can do everything. You could invest a few points in every skill, but at the cost of crippling your ability to deal with any high-level challenges that may come along. For my rangers, we made a hard decision early on that we wouldn’t have a safecracker on the team. It was painful wondering what secrets the many safes we passed by held, but it also meant that my lockpicker had enough skill to tackle tougher doors earlier on. And overall, all the skills ultimately felt useful, with plenty of opportunities for all of the non-combat skills to shine in their own ways throughout the course of the game.

In a much welcome change from the original, experience points are now divided among the party evenly for combat and mission rewards. No longer do you have to try and meticulously control who gets the kills to try and spread growth around. The only place that characters earn individual experience is through use of their skills, and most of those rewards are so small and infrequent as to not amount to much (though I did find my Field Medic accelerating slightly ahead of the curve for… reasons).

In Conclusion

Wasteland 2 wasn’t made because a studio felt there was a market demand for it – it was made because fans came together and were willing to put up the cash for something they’d been waiting a very, very long time for. So when you get right down to it, Wasteland 2 does exactly what it needed to do. WL2 is very much a love letter to those who had been hanging on for 24 years, bringing some small sense of continuance to something we never thought would be continued. There is no denying that I played much of the first half of the game in a slightly elevated nostalgia high.

But beyond that, WL2 is very much a game divided. I could have played through the Arizona section of the game and been completely satisfied, nostalgia or otherwise. The pacing is good, the world is exciting to explore, and there is just enough of a sense of mystery to keep you moving forward. But Inxile went above and beyond and gave players a whole new part of the world to explore. Unfortunately, it is here that things lose that tight pacing and driving sense of purpose, bogged down instead in fetch quests and sewer crawls. And, in the very end, the game delivers a weak conclusion compared to its promising beginnings.

The gameplay of WL2 is solid and familiar. It won’t win any awards for innovation, but it is a nice evolution of the systems begun in the original. That said, the lack of tactical options and the overall weakness of melee weapons does cause combat to start to feel pretty stale midway through the game.

And yet, despite all that, I still left WL2 feeling pretty good. In spite of my story quibbles and the game’s latter-half problems, I did genuinely enjoy wandering the wastes again, bringing law to a lawless world. I united the tribes of the Railyway Nomads, uncovered the secrets of Darwin anew, and helped end the Hollywood slave trade. Not bad work for a Ranger on 24 year’s rest. If you are a fan of the original Wasteland, this is a game for you, warts and all. If you aren’t… well, maybe it’s time you learned just what exactly a snake squeezin’ is.

In the meantime, I have a pretty strong suspicion that my wait for Wasteland 3 is going to be a good deal shorter…

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