Preview – Wasteland 2

I haven’t run into any Scorpitrons. Yet.

(Full disclosure – I am a Kickstarter backer; open beta access was made available to me and others via backing the project at specific tiers)

Wasteland is one of those iconic games that always seems to appear on CRPG lists reminiscing about the olden days of the genre. Unlike the majority of its peers in the late 80s, it decided to take the role-playing formula to a post-apocalyptic corpse of a future riddled with Cold War paranoia and the desperate dregs that were left to live in it while a seasoned band of Desert Rangers proselytized safety and sanity from the barrel of an AK-97.

It was material that tabletop PnP works such as TSR’s high sci-fi Gamma World to more serious fare such as TimeLine Inc’s Morrow Project worked with, not to mention countless SSI strategy titles such as Roadwar 2000.

But a full blown CRPG set in the kind of grim aftermath that only the 80s could imagine? On PCs? It was fresh, new, frightening, and thanks to a solid gameplay system set in the sandbox of a corner of what was left of Nevada, great fun. It also gave players an excuse to ignore the deluge of Tolkeinesque fantasy for a few hours.

More than a quarter of a century, and several PC/graphics cards/Linux distros/Windows versions/console wars later, this would finally get a sequel of its own.

Something like that had to get its own sequel. And one was made — albeit without Brian Fargo or his team’s input. EA created something of a follow-up based on the same engine and pushed it out in 1990 which wasn’t that great. As CRPG veteran Scorpia put it in her review of the game in an issue of Computer Gaming World in ’91:

“It is a perfect example of grasping the form, but not the substance, of a superior product, and coming up with a loser.”

Twenty six years later following several post-apoc descendants from studios such as Black Isle and Obsidian Entertainment, Wasteland is finally getting a sequel courtesy of a successful Kickstarter launched by Brian Fargo and his team at inXile. An early beta preview is also available under Steam’s Early Access for those that missed out on the Kickstarter yet still want to contribute to the game along with trying it out.

With that in mind, Wasteland 2 is still in early beta, a point that the loading screen makes abundantly clear every time I transition to a new area. This is the front row seat for backers (via Early Access or Kickstarter) on what Fargo and his team are working with.

Rough edges and incomplete sections are, by and far, absolutely expected, right down to the text such as when it says “irradicate” when it really wants to say “eradicate”…I hope. It was only a few weeks ago that a patch had come down to actually improve loading performance that made it a dreaded feeling to go anywhere in the game for fear that it wouldn’t actually start up again. At the same time, those are the kind of growing pains that game development has always had to live with.

Things in the desert had apparently gone downhill in the years since the first game and for veterans that remember the original, there are a lot of callbacks to it and the pre-built party they could have used who are now (non-spoilery) interactive characters with personality in the game. The continuity is amazing in seeing how things have changed since exploring the wastes in my Apple days, but it’s not entirely necessary to enjoy it. There’s enough exposition at this point to indicate that newcomers will still get enough immersion to enjoy this corner of an irradiated Earth going forward.

Instead of the great stylized sci-fi wreckage of a society frozen into the mold 1950’s and 60’s in Fallout, Wasteland 2’s aesthetic tilts back the other way in keeping to real-world parallels instead to give itself, like the original, a sense of grounded familiarity disrupted by hints (like ion rifles and synthetics) that it was still so much more.

First impression – it’s not the easiest game to get into. This is a grittier and meaner take that lives up to the original credo in Wasteland’s ad above in being “Hot. Mean. Radioactive”.

My first team was pulped into blood sausage early on after getting jumped in the wastes by rail thieves who were far better armed and beefier than my custom newbies. I don’t quite remember the original Wasteland in being as brutal early in, especially since the party regenerated HP as they wandered about while easing into combat by throwing general trash in their direction to give them a bit of a head start. It was only when I knowingly wandered far from Ranger HQ and into bigger cities that things got a lot more rough. Here, not so much, but the game does give you a huge batch of pre-made characters to pick from to quickly try out different strategies. It’s also clear from their notes that balance is still an ongoing process.

You can shoot anyone in the game before they know what’s going on. Just don’t expect to make a lot of new friends that way. You can also see the trouble that lower resolutions seemed to have with text in making certain things (like the text hovering over my target as opposed to the printout at the bottom right) a bit hard to read, at least on my end in Windowed-mode.

Not all of the skills are in yet but enough are to give players a taste of what to expect. Attributes are also fixed with bonuses relegated to whatever gear you might find making it more of a deliberate process in sculpting your party than in banking on later upgrades via leveling (aka earning a field promotion once you had enough XP) as in the original game. In my case, with my second batch of custom characters, I ended up min-maxing certain attributes for one or two members to give the party a better fighting chance by specializing.

Another change from the original is in allowing everyone in the party to earn experience in combat versus only the person who dealt the killing blow, which I’m actually thankful for. That cuts out the specialized grinding I had to do in the old game by intentionally telling party members to sit on their hands to defend in order to allow the one guy I wanted to level get the experience which just felt awkward to do by making the argument of “learning more by doing” a hard rule leaving those passively watching a few feet away ignorant.

Having a few characters specialize in melee combat was a great complement to my shooters. That blue square represents the range at which my axe man can move with the action points he’s got left. Attacks, reloads, and different weapons all have a certain number of required points. My first party was annihilated in the wastes on one occasion by bad guys that apparently had enough for multiple attacks. It’s rough out there so plan accordingly.

With the change to a third-person camera, I also get a bird’s eye view on everyone similar to Fallout’s fixed isometric view or that used with BioWare’s Infinity Engine, or more accurately, like the third-person view used in their Dragon Age titles which allow the user to move the camera about.

Combat’s all turn-based with each character listed in a queue which also displays enemies’ turns to give you an idea of what to expect. Friendly-fire is a given — if a team member is in your way when you take a shot, you also run the risk of putting a hole in them instead. Movement ranges are displayed using a field grid to give you an idea of how many action points you will be spending to get to certain areas and hopefully have enough to squeeze off a shot at the enemy at the same time.

Characters brought into the party also display their own character either through comments or in combat by going rogue. One of the characters I brought in, a hobo, was a brutal butcher with bladed weapons. He’d also go occasionally rogue and run right into danger to prove it during combat which created a number of tactically sticky situations. A better leadership skill with one of my characters might have helped mitigate that, but at the time, my team was geared primarily to shoot first and sweet talk later. Well, except for one of my party who could talk and shoot well. Just don’t ask him to do anything else.

She’s not talking about the visuals which are, even at this point, darn pretty. Notice the dot matrix printout on the bottom right? Yeah buddy. DOT MATRIX. And speaking of classic tech, there’s also a classic game console or two in the game. One of them is like the Ark of the 16-bit Covenant to someone else as a side quest. I’m fully expecting more of that post-apoc bizarreness in the year ahead.

Adding to the starting difficulty is a lack of any stores for your party at the very beginning. The new Ranger Citadel is closed to you until you can prove yourself. My next few attempts to follow the “script” often resulted in a party battered and low on resources with no opportunity to stock up on supplies.

After creating a new batch of characters (following the latest patch which suggests starting a new game because of the huge changes made), and wisely specializing on a few skills and attributes at a time, I had much better luck by not following the script and instead wandered around the wastes, discovering loot caches, someone that sold a few essentials, and eventually getting my leveling foot in the door to season my party up from being targets to actually being dangerous to more than themselves.

By the time I “ran out” of things to do in the beta, my party was finally at a point where they didn’t feel as if they were being arbitrarily pushed around by low level scum which was great for the 10+ hours that I spent in dodging bullets, scavenging for scrap (money), blood packs and painkillers (heals), and raising skills. It’s funny — as soon as I upped my shooter’s rifle skill to at least 3, he was able to finally start hitting things on a semi-regular basis as if that gave him just enough percentage points to be magically efficient. Melee was also an incredible backup to bullets, though it was kind of odd seeing a lot of energy cells drop from enemies armed with assault rifles chambering 7.62 ammo.

Ah, the Ag Center. So many memories. So many…giant pumpkins. The beta offers the choice of answering one of two desperate distress calls, but not both at the same time resulting in lasting consequences. Like this. Good thing I still have those saves. I should also be thankful that no one is infected…so far.

A few more rough edges still exist in the game that I’m holding out hope for improvement with, such as no option to set up formations for my seven member party (hooray for big party sizes!), clicking on moveable tiles in cramped spaces, or having used up a shovel and finding no one else to buy another one from. There’s another store I had also found but, fair warning, it’s not working yet. So there’s still lots to do.

What’s already in place, though, is a solid foundation and even with the glitches, crashes, and oddball balance issues (amazing how much damage a junkie can still do to someone in high grade body armor), I didn’t want it to end and will probably wander around the wastes to see if there’s anything else I might have missed. inXile’s artists have ingrained plenty of grit into the solid visuals powered by the Unity engine and the hand-drawn art in the game adds an interesting degree of grim atmosphere tempting me to jump back in and see just how far the wastes went behind those irradiated clouds (there’s not much out there…yet…but there are one or two surprises) when more content becomes available for testing.

So is it worth jumping into Early Access right now? As a longtime Wasteland and Fallout fan, I came away wanting more especially after getting a team together that has a chance to survive out there. Just don’t go in expecting it to be ‘complete’. That’s one thing that it isn’t so if you want to wait things out, there’s always that option. But based on a lot of the feedback that inXile have been getting on the game, the laundry list of patch notes continues to grow as more things are tweaked, fixed, and polished. It’s come quite a ways from its initial release late last year.

But if you want a taste of what the apocalypse has to offer right now and don’t mind getting your virtual nose bloodied a few times in getting the swing of life in the beta testing of an irradiated future, Wasteland 2’s welcome mat is already rolled out. Just watch your step through the front door. They haven’t finished the house just yet, but the invitation is there to pick up a hammer and help out.

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