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Wasteland 2 review: Surviving the apocalypse

Wasteland 2 is a return to an old-school kind of role-playing experience, which means that it isnt' simple or easy, but it grabs your attention nonetheless. See what it takes to survive in a post-nuclear apocalyptic world.


If ever the term, "it's about the journey, not the destination," were applicable to a video game, it would apply to Wasteland 2. Even after putting over thirty hours into the game, I don't get the sense that I'm even halfway through the game's main plot. The game emphasizes exploration and a good amount of backtracking, so it's easy to put in a lot of hours and not feel like you've gotten very far. However, you get a lot out of all that walking. Although it can take a long time to finish one town or outpost, you meet a number interesting characters and get pulled into the deep story and tactical combat along the way.

Welcome to the New Age

Wasteland 2 looks both new and familiar to anyone who has played an old school role-playing game from the late 80s and through the 90s, particularly (of course) the first Wasteland game or the Fallout series, which was largely inspired by Wasteland. Players assemble a party of four adventurers, either using the custom character creator or a pre-made character, and journey through a post-nuclear apocalypse America. Additional characters can be picked up throughout the campaign, and they help round out the main team, but they run the risk of falling out the player's control and running wildly into combat.

According to the story, a group of army engineers were working deep in the desert, and being out in the middle of nowhere is what saved them when the bombs fell on the United States. The group went on to found the Desert Rangers, which acts as a sort of peacekeeping police force against raiders, mutants, and other hazards in the surrounding area. Freshly recruited, your small team is sent into the wastes, under-trained and under-equipped, to discover how and why your fellow ranger died.

Along the way, you'll encounter a myriad of interesting characters and creatures, including goats that have blood curdling screams instead of baaing (they picked it up from all the horrific screaming that happened around them); monks that are willing to blow themselves up with dirty bombs at a moment's notice; tribes that turned American folklore figures like John Henry into a religion, not to mention gun-toting nuns, robotic monstrosities, and raiders that threaten the inhabitants of this world.

The game throws you right into things by presenting a critical choice early on in the game. Players can either save the Agricultural Center (the region's main source of food) from rampaging mutants, or a settlement called Highpool from a raider siege. It's a pretty brutal decision, since whichever facility you decide not to rescue will intermittently radio in, crying out for help, until they finally fall. There might be a way to save both, but I get the sense that doing so would break the game, considering the rest of story depends on one of them being destroyed.

Although the initial decision serves a strong opening for the game, few of the decisions I've encountered thus far manage to live up to it. Unlike games like Fallout, Wasteland 2 doesn't feel like a game that revels in a sense of moral ambiguity. In the end, you're still a Ranger who has to uphold some semblance of order. Although it's possible to cut loose and murder everyone in sight, there's usually little point or satisfaction to it. In one mission, where you're out to broker a peace between two warring tribes, you can kill a leader, steal an object, and give it to the other side, but that's assuming you have the skills and ammunition to get it done. The game currently lacks stealth skills, so non-violent theft is hard to pull off. In the same vein, the dialogue system doesn't include options to lie to get what you want, or demand that the leaders attend a peace accord unarmed. More often than not, solutions to any given situation are found through gun fights, but it also depends on when and how you do it. Talking from experience, killing a leader right before a supposed peace meeting to steal a sacred relic doesn't accomplish anything.

On the bright side, there are multiple solutions to many of the game's puzzles. If you don't have enough skill to pick a crate's lock, you could use one of your strong characters to force the thing open. Observant players can keep an eye out for environmental hazards to exploit, like polls that can be dropped on enemies, to turn a fight around.

Peace by gunpoint

Wasteland 2 features tactical turn-based combat similar to games like XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Each character has a number of action points for movement and shooting. Each shot has a hit percentage, so the XCOM syndrome is alive and well in this game, as low level characters waste all their ammunition on missed shots and fail to stab giant mutant worms that come up three feet high. The enemy AI doesn't seem quite as sophisticated as Enemy Unknown, but they do retreat to cover and gather forces. I also like how there is friendly fire, and enemies (and your party members) have a chance to accidentally shoot their allies. Weapons also have a chance to jam, which could be what saves or dooms your party during a battle.

Characters can reduce incoming damage by taking cover, but objects like crates and plants can be destroyed. Furthermore, cover can be difficult to come by, especially in indoor areas and narrow underground tunnels. So, instead of trying to figure out clever ways to move from cover-to-cover, it feels like the best way to handle combat is to equip heavy armor and make a straight run toward enemies.

I do wish there were more weapon customization options. I found mods that do relatively straightforward things, like increasing a gun's range or accuracy, but nothing that's showy or spectacular so far. Adding explosive area damage to an energy weapon would be a nice start, and I'm hoping that I can improve my bladed weapons with poison or fire later on.

Talking out of your ass

Wasteland 2 features a distinctive and unique dialogue system. Players have to pay attention to what's being said in the text and move with the flow of conversation. Special talk options are available to characters with skills such as Kiss-Ass (charm), Smart-Ass (logic), and Hard-Ass (intimidation), but knowing when to use them is as important as having them. Bringing up a logical point at the wrong time could end just anger the person you're talking to. In addition to the scripted dialogue opens, players can choose type keywords, pulled from observing the conversation, into the dialogue box to bring up hidden options. This is where the game can sort of become a contest between the player and developer. There are some practical solutions that can only be activated by using manual keywords. Although players can often make an educated guess based on the dialogue, it can take a while to figure out what to say and who to say it to first.

The dialogue skill system doesn't use a success/failure percentage as it does with the recent Fallout games. If you don't have enough points in a specific area of ass-pertise, then the option is shown but locked out. I wanted to help a vengeful merchant get his wife back from raiders, but I couldn't because I didn't have enough hard-ass points. I also couldn't stop people from committing suicide, or catch someone in an obvious lie, because I didn't have enough points in other areas. Having choices that you can't execute is pretty much the same as having no choice at all, so it can often feel like I was forced into a particular outcome.

Even with the keyword feature, the system doesn't allow for much out-of-the-box thinking. For example, there's a sequence where I have to make my way through a canyon passage with a kamikaze monk as my escort. As long as the monk is with me, most raiders will respectfully avoid combat with me. Except mine died in a fight with a rogue faction, which meant open season on my band of rangers. As I'm shooting my way through a canyon full of raiders, I couldn't help wondering why I couldn't dress up one of my characters in a fallen monk's clothes. Or, at the very least, try to use my smooth-talking character to convince raiders into leaving me alone.

Wandering the Wasteland

While Wasteland 2 may have a heavy emphasis on exploration, but not so much on direction. When clearing out the Agricultural Center, players are given the vague goal of making their way outside, but must use a good deal of trial and error to finally get there. Afterwards, there's a significant amount of aimless wandering before happening upon where main scientist is. This is partly why missions can take so long to complete. The same applies to wandering the Wasteland at large unless a character gives you a specific map destination. This can be problematic because your party needs to take into account how much water they're carrying, whether or not they can withstand radiation, and they get hit with random encounters.

Wasteland 2 has everything a deep role-playing game should: a large open world, multiple decision paths, and a satisfying mix of serious themes and dark comedy. It can be a long journey, and one where the end is nowhere in sight, but it's an experience that's easy to get lost in.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

This review is based on a downloadable PC code provided by the developer. Wasteland 2 is available now on PC, Mac and Linux for $39.99. The game is rated M.

Managing Editor
From The Chatty
  • reply
    September 22, 2014 1:00 PM

    Steven Wong posted a new article, Wasteland 2 review: Surviving the apocalypse.

    Wasteland 2 is a return to an old-school kind of role-playing experience, which means that it isnt' simple or easy, but it grabs your attention nonetheless. See what it takes to survive in a post-nuclear apocalyptic world.

    • reply
      September 22, 2014 3:57 PM

      Is it possible to use actual screenshots of your play through? This goes for your other reviews too.

    • reply
      September 23, 2014 9:49 AM

      This is a really weird review. It reads like you thought the game was bad to ok, and then you give it an 8 out of 10. The review is almost all negatives.

      • reply
        September 23, 2014 10:34 PM

        Well, I take it as meaning that aside from the specific issues he mentioned, it's a great game at the core.

        • reply
          September 24, 2014 8:20 AM

          Then he should have stated what made it a great game.

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