Wasteland 3 Review
On familiar grounds
Remember when zombies were at their peak? Between Dead Rising, Black Ops, The Last of Us, The Walking Dead, Dead Island, Resident Evil, and other titles too numerous to count - early 2010’s saw a flood of zombie games of varying quality. The setting rapidly got worn out, but not just because of the shambling undead enemies - players grew tired of the tone, aesthetic, and familiar plot beats. I’m not saying that we’ve hit “peak post-apocalypse” in games, the nuclear wasteland setting isn’t nearly as overdone, but the tone, look, and plot of games set in such a world is starting to become overly familiar. It doesn’t help that Fallout has directly descended from Wasteland, therefore a lot of the quirks and nuances that Wasteland did first, Fallout has made popular. In some ways rebooting Wasteland is similar to making a Flash Gordon movie in that so much media has picked over the bones of the original, that by the time the original comes around it feels like it’s copying, but in reality, it’s the Rosetta stone. That being said, while most of Wasteland 3 feels repetitive, if you’re a fan of the series or RPGs in general, this may be the kind of comfort game you’re content to slide into while we all spend a lot more time at home.
Wasteland 3 continues the story of the Arizona Rangers, a militia group attempting to keep the law in the southwest. On the brink of destruction after the events of Wasteland 2, the Arizona Rangers have traveled to Colorado to seek help from The Patriarch - the ruler of Colorado who, in exchange for hunting down his three children, has agreed to outfit the rangers with enough supplies to stay on their feet. However, upon arriving the Rangers are ambushed and many of them are killed. The survivors set up shop in an old military complex gifted to you by the Patriarch, and begin to search Colorado for his children and a new home.
A lot of the writing is obvious. If you’re guessing the Patriarch rules Colorado through dictator-esque means and military might, or that he has some dark secrets, you’re likely going to guess a lot of what this story offers. Cannibals, crazies, robots that have gone strange, synthetic life-forms that are discriminated against - the gang's all here. Still, with many RPGs, how the story got here is supposed to be as interesting as the story we’ve got. There are curious sects, like a cult devoted to Ronald Reagan or a robot commune, but there aren't a lot of opportunities to dig into their history and learn about how they got here. This is the weak point of Wasteland. It often feels like the quirkiness is being played for laughs because there isn’t enough depth to take these odd-ball people seriously. Conversely, the more mature and darker side of the game also isn’t explored either. The game loves giving us evil characters, like a slaver who became a slave and is looking to return to being a master, or the tyrannical Patriarch, but it doesn't do great in justifying their existence. It’ll make you choose between two evils, but not give them any redeeming qualities. So you’re stuck choosing which despicable psychopath you hate less. But in the end, I kind of just wanted to kill everyone.
It’s also hard to understand the moral compass that every character has. Unlike games such as Divinity: Original Sin 2 where you can see how characters are reacting to your decisions via a meter - you kind of have to guess what everyone is thinking in Wasteland 3 - leading to a disappointing ending where I had to kill off some party members because while I had shown how the Patriarch was corrupt, apparently I was somehow more corrupt even though I had specifically refused to work with such people. It makes a lot of the branching paths in Wasteland 3 confusing.
The game also has a few technical bugs that locked me out of certain quests. After using a dialogue choice to kill a slaver, the quest didn’t fail and wouldn’t let me progress - so it just sat in my queue, unfinished. Another choice made a quest-giver accessible but hid the quest item so I couldn’t retrieve it. These are all pretty normal bugs in an RPG of this size, but they are still annoying.
The gameplay is the standard fare for these kinds of cRPGs. You start by creating two characters that act as your main heroes in the game. The game doesn’t have classes, but the weapons characters use will determine their role in combat. Melee wielders will be used to rush enemies, while people with guns will usually hang back. The game has some two-person teams already created, but I opted for creating my own pair. Then you have to pick two squad members from an assortment of pre-created Rangers (or again create your own). Then the final two slots are for supporting characters you find in the world. I don’t know that extra rangers did much more than fill out my squad, as a team of four probably would have been sufficient. If anything, I would have preferred having more supporting characters to round out the party.
Progression happens early and often in the game; I spent a lot of time leveling characters up and choosing perks for them to use on the battlefield. While weapon skills help in combat, you’ll also need practical skills like Mechanics, Nerd Stuff, and Sneaky Sh*t (actual names) to help find your way through the world and talk with others. What you do in Wasteland 3 (leveling up characters, making dialogue choices, and managing gear) isn’t much different than the many other recent cRPGs, but it’s still fun. RPGs are my comfort food and I enjoyed sinking into the mechanics of this one. Choosing skills, comparing gear, navigating the grid-like maps, it all felt familiar and I enjoyed my time with it.
You can upgrade your characters, but you can also upgrade the Kodiak, a big truck-like vehicle that allows you to traverse Colorado. Using this vehicle brings you to an overworld map where you drive around, discovering locations, picking up radio signals, and determining who you want to help. Honestly, I don’t love traversing overworlds like this. I’d rather just click a location and fast travel, but it’s not bad. I did find myself thinking of the large open-world maps of Original Sin 2 or the detailed city of Disco Elysium. Wasteland 3’s world and traversal can’t quite measure up to that, but it’s still fun to explore and meet the people of Colorado.
While exploring the world, you’re bound to get in lots of fights. Wasteland 3 uses the grid-like combat of many similar titles, as tactical combat is blended with RPG mechanics. It works well, though the difficulty spikes are weird. You can mostly brute-force your way through the game ignoring most of the tactical nuances, though a couple of times my squad was nearly wiped out before ever getting to fire a shot.
There are some nice quality of life things the game does well. All characters share the same inventory and no matter who interacts with a character, the game pools skills from all characters into actions. For instance, if you need a mechanics check of “8” to fix a computer, you don’t have to spend time remembering which character has the mechanics skill; the correct character will just automatically fix the computer.
The most tired trope in Wasteland 3 is the look of the world. While Colorado is snowy, it’s not much else. Decrepit cities, homes being made out of airports, American history being misinterpreted and perverted - these are all post-apocalypse themes and ideas that have been previously explored. Furthermore, the isometric cRPG look doesn’t have the charm it did a few years ago. There is some interesting stuff happening with the music, as hymns and folk songs have been reimagined with darker undertones - still it’s not enough to set Wasteland 3 apart from many other cRPGs which have built more beautiful and interesting worlds.
There is an online co-op mode for Wasteland 3, and it's possibly the main reason for having two main characters. Personally, I don’t see why multiplayer is something that needs to be added to RPGs like Wasteland 3. I never found it fun to chaotically fight with another player in Divinity Original Sin or its sequel, and I don’t find it much fun here either. You can split-up your party of six, dividing control between players and as long as you’re similarly leveled you can run around the world separately, however you’ll have to be close to each other to travel. Part of the joy of these games is discovering and engaging with the world at your leisure and trying to do that while sharing the game with someone else misses the point.
Wasteland 3 is the kind of game that we all longed for years ago, in a pre-Kickstarter world. In many ways, it’s nice to just have another solid outing from inXile who has been offering fine RPGs at a time when the genre is more popular than it’s ever been. And when so many developers are dabbling in the genre, it means the competition is more fierce. There have been some excellent RPGs made in the last few years and while Wasteland 3 is a fun game in its own right, it can’t quite measure up to some of the more exciting offerings we’ve seen.