Wasteland 2

Another new-renaissance CRPG down.

Wasteland 2 is a modern take on the classic CRPG. Its aesthetic and game design are steadfastly old-school – the dense lore, the reams of unvoiced dialogue, the top-down perspective, the endless fanservice to the 25 year old original. As a largely conventional take on a classic model, Wasteland 2 is not meant to be an innovator. It is a game that scratches a nostalgic itch for those who may have grown up playing similar games. However, by hewing so close to that classic model, it also inherits some of its shortcomings.

The setting is a world recovering from nuclear war. The Desert Rangers are a peacekeeping militia that patrol the Arizona wastes. For decades their power and influence has been waning, but they receive a mysterious signal that forces them to act. It’s a conventional narrative – and somewhat derivative, too, because the big bad is essentially a rehash of the one in the original Wasteland. The writing is competent but unremarkable, which is possibly an outcome of having the freedom to write almost limitless lines of dialogue without having to budget in voice acting. In terms of narrative structure, the quests are also standard RPG fare – many consist of tedious footwork interspersed with combat. There are few puzzles in the way of Divinity: Original Sin – the core gameplay is a constant loop of walking (exploring), talking, killing and looting.

So far, so conventional. So what sets Wasteland 2 apart, if anything?

I’d say that the one element that keeps Wasteland 2 engaging is not the linear plot or gameplay, but its worldbuilding. I’ve always considered worldbuilding to be essential in games – after all, why make a whole digital world to be just a bland backdrop for performing the same Skinner-box actions over and over? When playing a game, I want to be immersed – to feel like I’m really there, that my actions matter, even if only in a small way.

Wasteland 2 constructs a brilliantly realized world. It’s post-apocalyptic, radiation-blasted and largely hostile, but this is a place that has adapted to the new paradigm – a world that has been rebuilding for a while, rather than a few wretched bands hiding in a hole in the desert. The game is set up so that you feel that, as a Desert Ranger, you have a duty to do the best you can to set things right for the sake of the brave new world. The world feels believable. People depend on water and agriculture to survive. They need protection from the multitude of horrors that roam the wastes. They trade in scrap and salvage what they can to survive. They are not pathless savages, but people with agendas and purpose. As a Desert Ranger, you feel the strong urge to protect that flame, made real by the verisimilitude conferred by the visual presentation of the game space and the colorful characters that inhabit it.

The game is divided into two areas, Arizona and Los Angeles. Arizona is the fiefdom of the Desert Rangers and features many locations from the first game. Of the two areas, LA is by far the most interesting. Left to their own devices, the denizens of the LA wasteland have evolved into a variety of fascinating subcultures rich with potential for satire. There are the Mannerites, a cult that prizes good manners above all while indulging in ritual cannibalism. There is God’s Militia, a hyper-violent neo-Christian organization inspired by the messages promulgated by an extremist evangelist preacher’s video recording, that enslave and murder everyone who goes against them with an army of minigun-wielding nuns (from whom the player can loot dildos). The pathologies of these human ideologies run amok as a result of their privation in the post-apocalyptic world is not a new idea, but it is executed well and with much comic aplomb here in Wasteland 2. Exploring the LA area and coming into contact with these loons was one of the highlights of the game – especially because unlike what you might expect – these factions aren’t just fodder for your assault rifles – they are portrayed as complex and conflicted societies in their own right.

Apart from that, what sets Wasteland 2 apart is its odd mix of seriousness and humor. Unlike the Fallout series, which is distinguished by the incongruity of its post-apocalyptic setting with the echoes of its optimistic 1950s aesthetic, Wasteland 2’s apocalypse is mostly played straight. Its humor stems more from dialogue, flavor text, and the absurd items you come across on your travels, which are not integral to the game’s sense of place the way vintage 1940s tunes were for Fallout. This is a game where you can repair broken toasters hidden around the map to obtain special items, where you can tame goats to get them to follow you around and attack your enemies, and where there is an achievement for having one player character complete the game in a gorilla suit. Then there is Hollywood, where everyone – and I do mean everyone – wears pink tutus. Surprisingly, the game handles these comic absurdities well, and they do little to detract from the verisimilitude of the world.

The worldbuilding and humor, alas, cannot mask the game’s flaws, which stem to some extent from its adherence to old-school mechanics. Some skills are much more relevant than others – a fact that isn’t immediately apparent until you’ve played for a few hours and realized that your melee swordsman keeps getting killed by snipers. The game has some tedious unskippable cutscenes at some places. Some quests have illogical narrative paths. Combat is visceral and fun, but also disappointingly one-note – after a while, there are only so many ways to position your party, after which it becomes a clickfest where you relentlessly take potshots at the enemy until they’re all dead. There is no way to exit combat, which means that going against a foe against whom you’re outmatched is grounds for a reload. The NPC combat AI is mindbogglingly stupid: they never take cover and rush blindly to the nearest enemy. Every. Damn. Loot. Crate. Is. Wired. With. Explosives. I don’t much like the random skillcheck system that determines if you manage to execute a skill-based action or not – it makes it tempting to just keep reloading until you get the result you want, which should not be an incentive for you to upgrade your skills. The utter lack of a stealth system means that every encounter is a straight-up firefight. The same 10 character avatars are recycled for nearly every NPC in the game. The endgame fight is a chore.

But these aren’t game-breaking flaws, just ones of legacy. Wasteland 2 isn’t interested in holding your hand. It can be brutal at times – especially some early narrative choices that leave players between a rock and a hard place. Your party members can die – permanently, and replacements are limited. Some of these flaws may not be flaws – but the artifacts of a game in which the experience is deliberately hard core. After all, there are two types of satisfaction that can be gleaned from the completion of a game. One is a skills payoff – where the player triumphs through overcoming the game through skill, whether by strategizing or min-maxing. The other is experiential – where the player derives satisfaction through the payoff of narrative closure and immersion.

Well – Wasteland 2 tries, and largely succeeds – in catering to both types – even if the excess of the former might dampen the enjoyment of the latter at times.

I give this game: 4 out of 5 tactical nukes

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