InXile's Wasteland 2 is the long-awaited sequel to the original Wasteland. How long-awaited? Well, the first Wasteland hit the gaming world in 1988, meaning that even George R. R. Martin has the right to balk at the quarter-century delay.
But 26 years later, the game is finally here, thanks to a very successful Kickstarter campaign throwing just under $3 million InXile's way.
The game is a turn-based RPG with a focus on squad management and tactical combat. If the name didn't give it away, it's set in the post-apocalyptic future of 2102, the aftermath of a nuclear war back in 1998. Your squad is a pack of newly minted Desert Rangers -- one of the few factions or gangs actually dedicated to making life better for the survivors living in the titular Wasteland.
I've been losing a frightening number of hours to Wasteland 2, first during the early access beta and more recently after the final release, which is a genuinely more polished and enjoyable version.
Wasteland 2 ticks a lot of the boxes when it comes to what I look for in a good RPG. I'm a big fan of Fallout, and the Wasteland series is often regarded as a spiritual stablemate to Fallout, but Wasteland 2 made me a little nostalgic for, of all things, 2001's Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura.
First and foremost for any RPG is character creation. While the low-fi isometric look of Wasteland 2 doesn't lend itself to having you fuss over the distance between your characters eyes or how deep their chin cleft is, there's still plenty to work on. Ethnicity, religion and -- bizarrely -- preferred cigarette brand are all there, along with a dizzying array of skills.
I found the character creation a little challenging: without a single main character, I initially ended up with a squad of 'generalists' -- characters who were passably competent at a variety of things. It was a disaster. With four squad members, I highly recommend specialisation.
On my next -- far more successful -- attempt I ended up with the charismatic leader, the enormous heavy weapons fan, a surgeon/sniper and Sprocket, my tech gal. Along with space for two NPCs, it's proven a solid combination. Basically, there are too many skills and not enough skill points per level for you to waste time on a jack-of-all-trades.
Aside from combat (which we'll get to) exploration and discovery is the real name of the game here. Wasteland 2 is a big, sprawling environment, heavy with background lore and chatty NPCs who'll occasionally overwhelm you with backstory and dialogue options. There's also buried treasure to dig up, safes to crack, crates to open and locks to pick.
It means that your choices about skills really impact your journey through the world, even when it comes to conversations. Case in point: there are actually three skills that will influence the conversations you can have. These are Smart Ass, Hard Ass and Kiss Ass. Occasionally, one or two will appear as options in a conversation. But if you've concentrated on Kissing Ass, then anyone who needs a bit of intimidation from a Hard Ass won't be revealing any secrets to you.
Same with the safes you find. Some will be a tumbler needing a Safecracking skill, some a lock requiring a Lockpick, and some might have a keypad, meaning you use Computer Science. And that's not even taking into account the possible of a trap or an alarm, both of which require different skills to disengage.
It's all deeply complex and, counter-intuitively, intensely satisfying.
Combat is equally detailed. It's turn-based with action points dictating your movement and attack, similar to the first few Fallout titles. There are bonuses for sticking to cover, visibility, chances of your weapon jamming, what firing mode options your weapon offers -- even if you're crouching or specifically looking for headshots. Again, it's detailed, complex and requires some careful thought.
Thanks to the turn-based nature, I found myself agonising over some combat decisions, especially early in the game when ammunition is likely to be very scarce. There's nothing quite worse than watching your sniper miss with his last round, knowing that his back up weapon is a .38 Saturday Night Special that wasn't worth stripping down to parts.
(And yes, inventory management and weapon smithing is a big part of Wasteland 2. And yes, it's fun and frustrating in equal measure.)
It's also not a game that holds your hand -- you won't find quest-givers and important areas marked on your mini-map in each zone. Even your world-map -- the mechanic you'll use to travel the wastes between zones -- is updated sparingly, meaning you'll spend a bit of time backtracking to a nearby oasis to fill your canteens before trying to find a new way through dangerous radiation zones.
More importantly, all of these mechanics wrap around an engaging and entertaining world. There's humour to be found in spades -- but some surprising moments of pathos as well. It's been the story as much as anything else that's seen me lose so much sleep to Wasteland 2.
The main driving story has you tracking down whatever killed your fellow Desert Ranger, Ace. This leads you on a remarkable journey of robots, machine cults, gangs-turned-militia-for-hire, slavers, railway dynasties and -- depending on a choice you make quite early on -- exploding pod people. All while trying to bring a little frontier justice to a wild Wasteland. (And yes, this is one very Western-influenced game.)
That's not to say it's not with some flaws. During conversations, for example, you have the option to type in your own keyword questions -- some NPCs will have hidden keyword to spark off new conversation arcs. I found that these a little hit and miss on whether you got a response or not.
You'll also find yourself becoming a master of clicking things, often against your will. To head back to opening a safe for example, you'll need to examine the safe to see while skill is required, selected the character with the correct skill, then use the mouse or hotkey to activate the skill then click on a rather precise part of the safe to get it all working. It's far from hard, but it's definitely fiddly.
CNET Verdict: A time-consuming chunk of fun
For me, Wasteland 2 managed to make me feel nostalgic for 'old-school' RPGs, while still feeling like a fresh and well-made game that made me want to keep playing long after I should have been doing something else. You're getting a lot of bang for your forty bucks (or 30 quid) of game and one that I think may have a decent level of replay value. It certainly bodes well for anyone waiting for InXile's next project, Torment: Tides of Numenera.