After successfully kickstarting development on Wasteland 2 in 2012, InXile Entertainment are back with a third, similarly crowd-funded instalment of the iconic CRPG series, swapping the dusty wastes of Arizona for a Colorado blanketed in irradiated snow.
It’s fair to say that Wasteland 3 and I did not get off to the best of starts. After investing three hours in the game, which was spent acclimatising to turn-based combat and learning the ins-and-outs of its stats system, I returned to find my save files had been erased. I’m still not sure what went wrong. For a game that develops piecemeal, this was upsetting.
I briefly considered whether the snafu had dealt a fatal blow to my objectivity, but reasoning that it had not I resolved to start afresh and move quickly through the opening sections. Unlike my first play-through I was able to save a young Ranger – Pvt. Jodie Bell – from the murderous goon who had taken her hostage, setting me on an altogether different path to the one I had previously embarked upon.
It’s a path that has proven to be one of the richest gaming experiences I’ve had in some time. Which is to say, folks, that Wasteland 3 is very good indeed.
The series began in 1988, a year before I was born and at a time when the world’s foremost superpowers were less surreptitious about pointing nuclear warheads at one another. Wasteland gave rise to Fallout, and with them the post-apocalyptic role-playing game was born. These were tales of a broken humanity eking out a living in a harsh, unforgiving landscape largely of their own making.
Today’s world is less tormented with visions of nuclear wastelands, even if its arsenal of doomsday devices remains frighteningly intact. It doesn’t make those visions any less compelling, but Wasteland 3 arrives on the back of a hefty post-apocalyptic lineage in video games. So it’s fair to ask: what’s left to say?
The game begins with a disclaimer that its story was conceived before our ‘current reality’ took on a post-apocalyptic flavour of its own – a hint as to the game’s dark streak of humour. But it also points to the heavily politicised nature of our shifting cultural landscape (and the potential legal pitfalls associated with using real world locations). I was curious as to what, if anything, Wasteland 3 had to be cagey about it.
We’re then introduced to the Desert Rangers, the series’ hero faction, travelling to the aid of Colorado’s head honcho, the Patriarch. In exchange for their help in quelling the mutinous ambitions of his three children, the Patriarch agrees to supply the Rangers with the resources needed to rebuild their home. Attacked on arrival, the Rangers embark on a journey to unravel the web of lies binding this supposedly stable region together.
Honestly, the ‘fictional events’ disclaimer could cover just about anything in this game – but an ageing white dude resistant to democratic change presiding over a grotesquely unjust America? Whose two adult sons are, respectively, a psychopath and a moron? With a ruthlessly ambitious daughter seeking to eventually take his place? Look, I just call it as I see it! Coincidences all, I’m sure, but it’s a boon for the post-apocalyptic premise to have at least one foot planted in our present reality. It makes it that much scarier.
Whatever the case, Colorado is in desperate need of justice, and the Rangers are just the folks to bring it (if you’re so inclined). You’re given a squad of six, each of which you can tailor to your own specifications: there’s your attributes (strength, luck, etc.), your skills (lock picking, brawling, etc.) and your perks (abilities), the latter of which are tied to the former. You acquire points to level up by gaining experience as you play, and careful management is the key to victory.
I was gratified to discover that the game avoids finicky character switching in order to complete a task. If you have your entire party selected and there’s a computer that requires a ‘nerd stuff’ rating of x only one of the party has, the game will automatically dispatch that character to complete the interaction.
The bulk of your time will be spent travelling between locations, getting to know their inhabitants, and picking up quests that tie each of them together. The world map is huge, with a wealth of different sub-locations – exotic marketplaces, haunted bunkers and abandoned ski resorts-turned-human abattoirs are just a tiny selection of what’s on offer.
The sheer size of it all is impressive – and daunting. With so many characters in play and multiple skill branches to learn it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Wasteland 3 understands this, pulling you in slowly and drip-feeding combat encounters until you feel ready to explore and actively engage the world in whatever manner you see fit.
I experienced that world like I’d accidentally stepped in quicksand. As the hours went by I found myself sinking ever deeper, losing myself to the thrill of exploration and connecting plot threads separated by stretches of blizzard-swept wilderness.
As you’d hope from an open-world RPG, the core gameplay – explore, interact, fight, repeat – is richly rewarding. That it remains so even as you crack open the hundredth ammo box or excavate yet more junk from a snow pile is a testament to its success. I’ve poured over forty hours into Wasteland 3 and I still find myself sucked into its orbit whenever I boot up Steam.
That isn’t a beneficial result of its story, though. As a tale of nepotism and the intractability of power, the narrative Wasteland 3 weaves is fine, but it’s never more than that. Its characters aren’t very notable – if you think someone’s got a few skeletons in their closet, well, they do – and I actually lost track of what was going partway through mostly because so little was actually happening. So, as to whether or not Wasteland 3 has anything to say, I think the answer is not a whole lot. Your mileage is going to vary on how much this matters.
Fortunately the tale you wind up telling of your own accord is much more compelling. It’s all about choice – about who you want to be in this cold, bloodthirsty nightmare of an imagined future Earth. The Rangers are a symbol of justice, but it’s up to you how far that extends, if at all.
Crafting a narrative with multiple choices and branching paths is a difficult endeavour. I don’t mean that just in terms of ensuring a baseline continuity is maintained across all possible routes players may take, depending on what decision they have made and where, although that too is immensely challenging. No, I’m talking about drama.
The linear narrative is attractive by virtue of being simpler to pace, as you control the individual beats and map them to each character’s arc. It’s that level of control that allows writers and designers to convey theme and tone in highly specific and nuanced ways, leading, I think, to better narratives (most of the time, anyway). It’s about having the power to control the flow of drama.
In the non-linear narrative that gets a whole lot trickier, because it means ensuring each path taken leads to dramatically rich places whilst still exploring the core themes. The main benefit here is that choice, rooted in cause and effect, is an essential engine of drama. Empowering players with the ability to carve their own path means making the agonising responsibility of deciding right from wrong theirs, and it’s seldom clear cut in the vestiges of civilization that survive the likes of nuclear holocausts.
Wasteland 3 does a stellar job of this, giving each choice a sense of weight and consequence. For the most part I felt driven by my own ethical code, but that only manifested over time. In the early stages of the game I wasn’t sure what my place was and I made a bunch of decisions that I later regretted – condemning some bad people to a grisly demise in the pillories instead of locking them up, for instance. They informed my approach to similar encounters further on, allowing me to craft a unique legacy for my Rangers in this, if neither united nor states, America.
Indeed, one particular moment of high drama came when a two-way quest lapsed due to time, and something kind of shocking came about as a consequence of my not acting sooner. I was unhappy about it, madly roaming the wasteland for the man responsible. It’s moments like these that every good story needs – moments of no return, when something precious has been lost and at least part of the responsibility rests upon the shoulders of the protagonist.
The game’s problems, aside from its story, reside in its poor optimization, occasional bugs, and clunky inventory. There are times during combat or dialogue sequences when the game’s framerate slows to a crawl, requiring a restart. Similarly I had a few occasions in which my characters would get locked in a state of inertia, seemingly prepared for combat but unable to actually do anything. This, too, required a restart. I hope a future patch will iron these problems out, because combat can be lengthy, and it’s really no fun having to start it all over.
I think the inventory is in need of an overhaul, too. There’s no quick and easy way of comparing stats on weapons and items (very annoying when you’re buying and can’t remember what ammo your character’s weapon needs because they’ve got it equipped) and even with multiple tabs it somehow still feels cumbersome. Switching between these tabs is also inexcusably slow. The interface feel so heavy, which is tedious because there’s a ton to navigate.
But even with these issues in mind, Wasteland 3 was almost always a delight to play. It took hold of me in a way few games of its type do.
If you’re concerned about the opening remarks on deleted save files, I can report that the issue never came up again. It might be something you want to keep in mind, though, as Wasteland 3 demands hours and hours of your time. Sure, I was annoyed by the initial setback, but looking back now, I can’t ever imagine traipsing the frozen wastes of Colorado without one Pvt. Jodie Bell, whose wit is as sharp as her aim with a sniper rifle.
It stands to reason, then, that I’ve missed out on a whole lot more in keeping her – and others – by my side. There are many possible versions of Wasteland 3 of which this is only one. It’s well worth the time finding your own.
The Verdict – Head Shot
Platforms Available – PC, PlayStation 4 & Xbox One
Platform Reviewed – PC
Review based on Steam media account copy. Please read this post for more on our scoring policy.