Wasteland 3 has a far less enviable task than its predecessor; Wasteland 2 released in 2014, 26 years after the first game and at a time where the resurrection of CRPGs, alongside the likes of Divinity: Original Sin and Pillars of Eternity, was in full swing. Now, in the hellscape that is 2020, we’ve seen efforts like Disco Elysium and Divinity: Original Sin 2 surpass the lofty heights of those that preceded them. Wasteland 3 has to prove that the franchise belongs in this, the new world of isometric role-playing games. It does so without even breaking a sweat.
The eponymous wasteland of this iteration finds us in a frozen Colorado; the bombs long since dropped and with the radioactive dust settled the mountainous state has found itself overseen by a divisive figure known as The Patriarch. We’re still not quite post-post-apocalypse videogame scenarios, but Wasteland 3 manages to prove there’s a shred of life left in the concept of inhospitable desolation. Its a game drenched in desecrated Americana, telling of disparate factions scrambling for a crumb of power in a state that, against its better judgement, refuses to die.
There’s an emphasis on deities and iconography as well as heritage and idealism, with each faction finding themselves somewhere within the fine triangulation of principles, anarchy and control. You play as the Desert Rangers; a squad made up of player character creations as well as recruitable in-universe companions. The character creation tools are fairly robust, though the interface and skill tree isn’t particularly helpful for first-time players. It can be hard to equate attributes to what they actually do in-game, but you’ll quickly get the hang of things as you play. My first two rangers were Crow, a mopey poet type with long hair and skull make-up who was skilled in both lockpicking and sub-machine guns, and Tati, a sniping mime who, despite her profession, served as my principal negotiator.
Wasteland leans into this freedom more than it does into individual character development; it’s a game that revels in creating the most outlandish situations and factions it can within its setting. After ten or so hours Crow had used his Animal Whisperer trait to lure a two-headed goat to our squad, who’s stun attack helped us narrowly beat a Mexican cartel of clowns wielding flamethrowers and exploding pigs.
The essence of Wasteland 3 lies in the chaos of possibilities. Player choice extends far beyond this character creation suite, and the developers have gone into an unprecedented level of depth to accommodate each and every playstyle. Everything in Wasteland has been designed with two core principals in mind; action and reaction, or rather choice and consequence. It’s through every conversation and decision made that you build a standing with the game’s numerous factions, with this balancing of allegiances spurred by estranging setpieces.
It’s in this way that some of the reliance on tropes in leader and companion design can be forgiven. Though some of these characters sound a little bland on paper, they come to life through the ways in which they react to what’s going on around them. Every NPC and companion character is also remarkably well voice acted, which helps build their characters but also, crucially for this genre, makes it far more accessible for those who are interested in the kind of intricate, choice-based story Wasteland’s going for but who might have been put off by the amount of reading involved.
Chat it up
There are also some animated conversation scenes which are a definite highlight in both story and presentation. It’s a shame there aren’t more of them, but their sparsity does help each feel consequential. Whilst the general idea of faction-balancing to shape the future of the world isn’t particularly new, the sheer scope of opportunities available to you here makes the story impossible not to invest in.
Wasteland 2 earnt itself some arguably unfair criticism in regards to its locations becoming samey and predictable, but the same can’t be said with its sequel. Everywhere you travel to in Wasteland 3 has its own — albeit always blizzardy — aesthetic and ecosystem, from The Patriach’s heavily guarded mansion to an underground marketplace renowned for smuggling and illicit deals. These locations are as much defined by the people you’ll find within as they are the ways in which you can change them.
The addition of a vehicle to reach these outposts is a welcome one, as is your HQ where you’re able to switch up your squad and track your current reputation. Unfortunately, neither of these additions feel as well integrated as they could be. Some quality-of-life improvements in terms of more fast-travel points would’ve been welcome. Wasteland 3 is a gargantuan game, and everything you choose to do within the 80+ hours you spend will affect the areas you visit. But it’s not particularly fun having to travel through three loading screens to get to your vehicle and finally warp back to your HQ to see a doctor.
Oh no, it’s 5 am
There are fewer of these nitpicky faults found in the combat, which is a substantial portion of the game compared with some other isometric RPGs. No matter how heavily armoured or levelled your squad is, you’re usually only one ambush away from having two squadmates downed and a dire situation on your hands. This keeps combat intense, which is apt for a setting so at one with annihilation. There’s a suitable amount of diversity in roles too which makes designing and refining your squad from both a skill-based and combat-based outlook absorbing. Fights can be long, but I never grew tired of seeing the wireframe grid slam down onto the map, a sign that it was no longer words but bullets that would save us.
If you’re already a fan of this type of game, then you’ve likely already been sold on Wasteland 3, and with good reason. But if you haven’t delved into an RPG of this size before it might be the perfect place to start. It’s a much more action-focused experience than some of its contemporaries, with a combat system that’s developed enough to carry the game even without the arresting narrative and its inviting pliability. Despite a couple of minor irritations, Wasteland 3 is the very definition of a game you can get lost in.
[Reviewed on PC]