While many might consider the CRPG genre a bit niche, and only a handful of people know what the C stands for (it stands for computer, impress your friends with this factoid), the fact that Wasteland 3’s developers inXile raised 3 million cold hard dollars via crowdfunding shows that people still hold a candle for these sorts of experiences. It helps that the developers have quite the pedigree in the area, having developed the well-received sequel to the original Wasteland, as well as Torment: Tides of Numenera. It’s heartening then that Wasteland 3 ends up a strong CRPG that pays homage to this classic genre, even if it is a few action points short of a reload in a few areas.
Vic Buchanan – the rotten apple that fell far from the tree
Wasteland 3 takes place in a post-apocalyptic US, where a nuclear war has left only the remnants of humanity and society intact, and the survivors must scrap amongst the rubble and eke out an existence amongst the bleakness. Comparisons to the Fallout series are impossible to avoid, but the game has a distinctly different tone to that particular franchise, even if it does try and mimic some of its humour from time to time. Playing as a Ranger from Arizona, you begin the game with the simple task of helping out the Coloradan leader named the Patriarch. Turns out Arizona is struggling with securing supplies, and the powerful Patriarch has promised a steady stream of them in return for a rather large favour. The Patriarch – for better or for worse – rules Colorado with an iron fist, and therefore naturally has a few enemies. In a twist of fate though, his greatest enemies turn out to be the fruit of his very own loins. His three children have all indulged themselves in a fair amount of bloody rebellion, finding themselves on the wrong side of their father, the law, and morality in general. It’s up to you to hunt them down and bring them to justice, in order to bring stability back to the region torn apart by this filial war.
Initial worries that the game would force me to play as the good-guy American Ranger with a heart of gold turned out to be unfounded, and although the beginnings of the game certainly establish the Rangers in this sort of light, that doesn’t mean you have to play that role. In true RPG style, you are given freedom to go about your business as you see fit, and just because the Patriarch wants you to abide by his rules while conducting yourself, doesn’t mean that you can’t have a little rebellion of your own. While his task on the face of it seems simple, Colorado’s long bloody history means everyone’s got a menagerie of skeletons in the closet, and it’s quickly established that the road to the stability that Colorado appears to be enjoy may have been paved with more than a few of these skeletons.
Wasteland 3’s world is interesting and quirky, with tons of weird characters, crazy gangs and wild stories. It’s got some fairly sharp writing and a hefty amount of fully voice-acted dialogue to help bring it to life, but some of its attempts at satire are a bit hit and miss (some of the forced excessive swearing could probably have been left on the cutting room floor for instance). While I generally liked the overarching themes of control versus chaos, society through sacrifice and the concept of the benevolent dictator, some elements seem to exist just for the sake of weirdness or to exemplify how cruel and sadistic people can be for no reason. It works fine in the context, but it makes the world feel like more a crazy diorama than a tangible place. It also made it impossible to philosophically align myself with any of the warring parties, and while I knew I was making important decisions that would shape Colorado’s future, it didn’t have the gravitas one would expect.
Gameplay-wise, if you’ve played any CRPG in the past three decades, you’ll be right at home here. While I never played the original Wasteland titles, it certainly channels the mechanics and feel of the first two Fallout games, and its combat also aligns with that of XCOM. From an isometric viewpoint you traipse around Colorado talking to NPCs, accepting missions, looting everything that isn’t bolted down, getting into fights and levelling up so you can get into harder fights. It takes a while to find the rhythm, and I didn’t find the game particularly inviting going in; it kind of just plonks itself in front of you and lets you fumble awkwardly with it until you get results. Your first fumbles will no doubt have you staring quizzically at the multiple menus and complex HUD wondering what the hell is going on and why you need a skill called Toaster Repair, but once everything clicks and you start building a formidable team it’s sheer tactical magic.
Praise be to Reagan
Your first fumbles will no doubt have you staring quizzically at the multiple menus and complex HUD wondering what the hell is going on and why you need a skill called Toaster Repair, but once everything clicks and you start building a formidable team it’s sheer tactical magic
The game wastes very little time in handing you control of a team comprising four Rangers and two Companions. Each member of your team has a separate, highly-customisable skillset, as well as stats, armour and accessories. While the inventory is thankfully shared across all six controllable characters, how you kit out and grow each member specifically is entirely up to you, and of fundamental importance. There are dozens of skills to invest in that are both utilitarian and familiar (such as Sniper Rifles, Big Guns, Lockpicking and First Aid), as well as bizarre but no less useful (the aforementioned Toaster Repair is surprisingly awesome and Animal Whisperer also gets a strong shoutout). You quickly realise that no one member of your team can be a jack of all trades, and that it’s better for each to specialise in something specific to unlock higher perks and get the most out of a skill for the betterment of the entire team. It really helps galvanise the sense of camaraderie, and while I’d argue that my animal whispering master lockpicker/sniper was the spiritual leader of my team, my heavily armoured Leeroy-Jenkins-style brawler was just as important in many situations. Wasteland 3 is a tough game that demands you strategise and build your team smartly, and once the dots connect and you see what you want to achieve as a cohesive unit it’s extremely compelling to mould your gang of misfits into an unstoppable war machine.
While there’s always going to be plenty of conversations in an RPG, sometimes you just can’t talk your way out of a situation, and it’s time to throw down. Combat in Wasteland 3 is not reinventing the wheel in terms of turn-based strategy, but like a heavy imaginary argument you have with someone while taking a shower, it’s deep, complex and extremely satisfying. Using a limited pool of action points, you can manoeuvre about the tile-based battlefield performing actions like taking cover, shooting, reloading and using weapon or perk-based abilities. The bigger the action the more points it requires, and you’ll have to ration out your AP and make sure your motley crew’s abilities synergise with one another to smartly take out the numerous enemies. Combat encounters can be quite tough, and though it may feel that unleashing the arsenal of six separate people gives you a lot of violence to dish out (and it does), as soon as your turn is over, the enemy gets their turn to do the exact same thing. Battlefield position and defensive abilities such as going overwatch, increasing evasion or banking action points have to be factored in, and having the right armour and weapon balancing in your squad is paramount. Do it wrong and your team will suffer the consequences, get it right and you’ll be standing triumphantly on a pile of corpses after barely receiving a scratch. Imagine it like a game of chess with lasers and critical headshots and you’re basically there.
Combat in Wasteland 3 is not reinventing the wheel in terms of turn-based strategy, but like a heavy imaginary argument you have with someone while taking a shower, it’s deep, complex and extremely satisfying
Wasteland 3 is compelling on the strength of its gameplay and complex interconnected systems, but it does lack a certain level of polish on the technical side. Playing on Xbox One X, issues such as the screen becoming completely black save for a few icons requiring a save reload and enemies not appearing properly were extremely prominent. Despite the relatively simple visuals the frame rate can take a critical hit when large explosions occur or complex animations like energy damage appear on screen, and there is severe slowdown when walking around Ranger HQ (your central base of operations) for some reason. The camera will also fight you mid-combat, making it so you can’t zoom out far enough to see a hit percentage on an enemy that comes into range when you move. Additionally, the contextual interact button is often simply labelled as ‘Talk’, which is more odd than game breaking, but after ‘talking’ to several corpses, computers and bookshelves you’ll feel yourself going a little mad. Other issues like janky targeting of hacked or tamed enemies are also an annoyance, but the most egregious issue of all is the persistent hard crashing (I believe this is most prevalent on Xbox from a cursory glance), and just like the snowy wilds of Colorado the game froze on over a dozen occasions before booting me back to the home screen. This is made all the worse by the game’s interminable load screens, and there was no greater salt in the wound than losing progress and then having to sit through eons of static imagery. In short – save hard, and save often.
Party Bot about to bring the pain
Have a chat with a burning pile of corpses
For those looking to scratch that CRPG itch, Wasteland 3 has absolutely everything you need. It’s got a distinct tone and style, lots of familiar yet clever RPG systems and brilliant squad-based tactical combat that only gets better the more you invest in it. It’s unfortunate that technical blemishes I experienced over my 30 or so hours with the title were too frequent and legitimately game impacting to ignore, but if you can forgive those, the more love you pour into Wasteland 3, the more its experience pays dividends.
Reviewed on Xbox One X // Review code supplied by publisher