RPG Codex Review: Wasteland 2
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RPG Codex Review: Wasteland 2
Review - posted by Infinitron on Wed 19 November 2014, 18:25:47Tags: InXile Entertainment; Wasteland 2
[Review by Vault Dweller and Eric S]
In 1988, Brian Fargo and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat known in those glorious 386-powered days as Interplay released an innovative gem called Wasteland. The game had it all: persistent world, non-linearity, multiple solutions, moral dilemmas, quirky characters and unique style. The game was praised… and soon forgotten by the gaming industry because there was no money in RPGs.
In the late 90s, Blizzard and Bioware made RPGs cool and hip, starting the long awaited renaissance. Suddenly, everyone was busy making RPGs and trying to jump on the Diablo bandwagon. In 1997, Interplay invited gamers to roam wastelands once again, this time in a sleeper hit called Fallout. It was praised, slam-dunked, milked for nearly all its worth into a lifeless husk, and eventually passed on to Bethesda to be reimagined and milked again.
Interplay fell on hard times long before that; a dastardly, mustache-twirling rogue managed to seize its castle and sent Brian Fargo into inXile where he labored day and night, struggling to make ends meet making mediocre action titles, for such was the custom of those troubling years. Somewhere along that ride, Fargo managed to snatch the Wasteland license from the cold hands of one of the many publishing corpses, giving the gaming world a tiny glimmer of hope.
It was kind of exciting, but in an abstract way, like reclaiming some ancient war-torn standard to keep it safe from being shat on and reimagined, which is a fate far worse than noble death. The license was gathering dust for years as all attempts to pitch it to publishers had proven to be futile, until Kickstarter changed the playing field forever, making possible what was once taken for granted – making fun games.
Thus, the story of Wasteland 2 is a story of rebirth and a second chance, not just for Wasteland and Brian Fargo, but for the RPG genre and the gaming industry in general. Without further ado:
Setting & Atmosphere
Wasteland takes places in an over-the-top post-apocalyptic universe that doesn’t concern itself with realism. Think Fallout 2 with all the over-the-top stuff like fedora-clad gangsters with tommy guns running rival casinos, talking deathclaws, aliens, scientologists, giant robots, etc. What was out of place in a more serious Fallout universe is perfectly at home in the Wonderful World of Wasteland. If Fallout was about exploring the ethics of a post-apocalyptic world, Wasteland is all about having fun.
It’s a Philip K. Dick-esque version of post-apocalypse, governed not by the most likely survival scenarios but rather by “but what if…” possibilities; weird, strange, yet undeniably fun.
M.A.D. monks that blow themselves up at the first sign of trouble, purging themselves in a pint-sized nuclear fire? Sure! A faction of Mannerites, utterly convinced that good manners are the key to everything, hanging people for ‘bad manners’, leaving cute ‘sorry for making a mess’ notes on the corpses? Throw it in! Pistol Packing Priests who feel that they must finish what God didn’t when he tried to end the world? Why the hell not?!
It’s hard not to smile when you hear a choir singing “James King foresaw the doom of all, His book predicting man's great fall, And bade brave men to light the way, For those who lived through judgment day…” on the radio while traveling.
I’d say it’s this attention to detail, the well-presented moral dilemmas and the reactivity that make this world interesting and definitely worth exploring.
The world ended in 1998. Eventually a small group of soldiers and survivalists formed a paramilitary outfit called the Desert Rangers and went on bringing order and frontier justice to nearby communities. In the first game, Snake Vargas, Hell Razor, Angela Deth and Thrasher stopped a pre-war AI computer from destroying what was left of humanity.
15 years later Vargas is a general, Thrasher is a cartographer, while Ace and Hell Razor are dead, killed by a mysterious new menace. You start the game by attending Ace’s funeral and getting your first orders from Vargas.
The first half of the game takes place in Arizona and does a good job showing many of the locations you visited back in ’88 and how the world has changed while the gaming industry was making shitty action RPGs. It’s a grand tour that will surely be appreciated by those who still remember the first game.
The second half takes place in California, and that’s where the game truly shines.
The radio communications are fairly frequent and fully voiced, adding quite a lot to the atmosphere. On my first playthrough, I decided to save Highpool instead of the Agricultural Center. The increasingly desperate, then angry, and finally chilling messages were extremely well done, making me feel that people died because of my decision, and that this world is real to these people.
Well done, inXile! Hats off!
Character System & Skill Use
You start by creating 4 characters (or selecting 4 pre-made characters if you have better things to do than tinker with stats and skills and create the most awesome party of rangers ever). You’ll be able to add 3 more party members (some humans, some not so much) you’ll undoubtedly meet in your travels.
The goal of this metagame is to get the highest AP, SP/level, and Initiative, without crippling your character too much. inXile is stingy with stat points, so prepare to make hard choices. Every 10 levels you get a bonus stat point for your effort, which isn’t much (which is good).
Overall, the stats work in the following way:
Strength, Coordination, and Speed influence your melee, ranged, initiative, health, and action points. Intelligence and Charisma influence SP per level and bonus SP respectively. A charismatic leader will be 2-3 levels ahead of his low CHA comrades by the end of the game. If he’s ‘smart’ too, he’ll be swimming in skill points.
Luck governs all things, from bonus AP in the middle of a fight and HP on leveling up to lucky critical strikes. The most important stat, however, is that humble-looking Awareness, which helps you attack first and often.
On occasion, Charisma adds dialogue options and even changes the initial reaction of NPCs, but its role is mainly to keep your skill points flowing in, which will please those who want to excel at many things (without having to rely on the recruitable party members that could be replaced at any time by more interesting candidates).
It’s a fairly good setup that offers many interesting opportunities, unless all you care about is the max damage output, in which case pump Awareness, grab an assault rifle and off you go.
When you’re done with the stats, you distribute 12 skill points (which means the maximum of 6 skills at level 1 or 3-4 skills at higher levels) among 3 groups of skills: Weapon, General and Knowledge Skills.
Despite the fact that the system has a number of issues, it’s one of the most enjoyable systems in recent memory (if not the most). The foundation is rock solid; it just needs more fine-tuning and balance.
For instance, the main issue I have with it is that the skills are completely disconnected from the stats. The stats don’t determine the starting values of skills (which would have made the stats more useful), don’t give bonuses to skills and don’t play any role in non-combat activities.
Instead of using Strength to break things that are, well, breakable, you use the Brute Force skill. It doesn’t matter if your Strength is 1 or 10. If you have enough points in Brute Force, you’ll get the job done. Instead of using Awareness to spot things, you have to use a proper skill - Perception.
Another issue is that not all stats are created equally. For example, Coordination isn’t really that useful. Its only purpose is to get you to the desirable number of action points, which is a task shared by two more stats: Strength and Speed. Both provide far more valuable benefits than Coordination, which gives you a modest 1% ranged THC increase per skill level - a negligible amount that is far more efficiently raised with skills and gadgets.
Had Coordination provided bonuses to skills like Lockpicking, Safecracking and Demolition, it would have been far more useful. This brings us to Skill Use.
Most skills are useful, used often, and require constant investing, which is a good thing. I split my skills between 4 characters, creating a leader/talker, scientist/healer, container opener (lockpicking, safecracking, alarm disarming, trap removing) and a ‘significant other’ (perception, weaponsmithing, toaster repair). Originally, I was planning to put a couple of points in non-combat skills and focus on weapon skills, but I had to keep all skills as high as I could and ended up leaving many unopened containers, unexplored dialogue options and various untouched items of interest.
Going into the game without knowing what your future companions will excel at might cause you to spread your points too thin. Had I known that Ralphy starts as a competent toaster repairman, or that Rose is a brilliant surgeon and scientist from the get-go, I would have reconsidered my starting skill point investments, potentially lowering the amount of uncracked safes or unused dialogue options. A minor issue that ultimately detracted little from my experience.
Each object you can ply your skill on (locks, safes, traps, alarms, broken mechanisms, electronic devices and toasters) has a chance to succeed and a chance to fail critically and spectacularly. The lower the first chance, the higher the other chance is.
Click on an object that has a 12% chance to succeed and 40-50% chance to score a critical failure and odds are you won’t have to click more than twice to jam the lock or set off the bomb or alarm. You’re welcome to reload, but that’s your choice, not a design flaw.
Overall, it discourages reloads (unless you have way too much time) and draws a line if your skill is too low, yet gives you a chance if your skill is in the ballpark.
One of the issues I have with the game is random loot. Every time you open a trapped strongbox, a well-locked safe protected by a state-of-the-wasteland-art alarm system or dig out someone’s stash, invisible dice will be rolled, determining which pile of crap to reward you with this time.
In Fallout, a container or a row of lockers meant hitting payday. In Wasteland 2, it means getting more useless crap to carry and sell. Considering that keeping your 4 container opening skills high is a significant investment (and for those who simply can’t leave a stone unturned, it means reloading the game 10-20 times), the reward simply isn’t there. If you want some junk, pump your weapon skills and barter and go cruise the wasteland looking for random encounters – you’ll get more skill points and the same random crap, but with a higher chance of getting weapons and ammo.
Basically, it’s a good example of a minor decision undermining the character system instead of strengthening it the way everything else does. Regardless of intention, random loot systems always encourage NRS (Neurotic Reloading Syndrome), which is never a good design choice.
The combat system is fairly straightforward: attack until you run out of action points, which roughly translates into 1-4 attacks per turn (1-2 with most weapons, 3-4 for fast attack weapons).
It also features a cover system, which adds a fair amount of strategic depth to battles. Positional cover gives characters bonuses to hit and dodge, potentially the difference between life and death. Quite a few battles begin by both sides making a mad dash towards cover in the middle of a battlefield and duking it out over who gets to use it.
If your weapon has a burst mode, you can switch to burst, which is better by default. You can also crouch to increase your to-hit chance and make yourself harder to hit, as well as perform headshots, which give you more damage but cost 2 extra AP and have a THC penalty.
Thus, your choices are limited to positioning and weapons. While on the surface it’s very simple, it works well because:
- You control 6-7 characters, and if you had to make important decisions 6-7 times a turn it would get tedious fast.
- There are a lot of different guns with different stats in the game, so most of your characters will have secondary weapons, allowing them to take advantage of the unspent AP (or carry them over) .
- Earning XP is never an issue, not in a game with frequent random encounters and things to do; unlocking a skill costs you 2 points, which sets the THC to 60%. While it will take 40 extra skill points to max a skill, buying a few ranks isn’t very expensive (I see your hobo with a shotgun and raise you a hobo with a machine gun).
Thus, the system relies more on handcrafted design rather than complex mechanics, which works well in Wasteland 2. My only disappointment is that different types of ammo have the same stats and are thus flavor only. Since many weapons of the same type use different ammo, it’s somewhat of a missed opportunity to include it just for ammo management purposes.
There is a fairly large variety of enemies in the game, so you won’t be disappointed. Human enemies have different roles assigned to them: sharpshooters, sprayers, heavy gunners, lobbers (throw grenades at you – let them live longer than a turn and you’ll regret it), gunslingers, suicidal, etc.
My first ‘hard’ encounter was against the Red Skorpions. Two heavy gunners, two sprayers, two sharpshooters, two gunners and a lobber. My party’s Awareness was low as I underestimated the importance of Initiative (I underestimated the pain my enemies would be able to dish out and overestimated my party’s ability to soak it), and my party got slaughtered, several attempts in a row. I had to try different tactics in order to have a chance, which was very refreshing and entertaining.
Considering that at that point we saved Highpool, put the Wrecking Crew out of business, brought peace to the Rail Nomads and kept the plague from spreading, I expected to steamroll through the Prison. Instead, I got my ass handed back to me and was taught a valuable lesson – there is always a bigger fish.
Design-wise, the true power comes not from skills (they boost your accuracy and critical chance) but from better weapons and having enough hit points to match the ever-increasing damage coming your way. For example, my 30-40 hit points starting party, barely capable of killing 3 enemies with 125 hit point each, wouldn’t stand a chance against early California enemies with 200-300 hit points, each capable of dishing out 50-150 damage per attack (the very definition of old school design).
While you always have several weapons to choose from, ascending to the next level requires battling tough foes that outnumber and outgun you. Once you get good weapons and level up a few times, the challenge disappears, but you rarely have to wait for that next big challenge to come along and splatter your brains out.
You can upgrade your weapons to increase different stats (max range, optimal range, jamming chance, magazine capacity, reload speed, spread, to-hit chance, etc). Just as with the weapons themselves, here you have options too: for example, you can pick between a magazine that will completely eliminate the jamming chance and a magazine that will cut the chance in half but increase your ammo; a barrel that will increase your range or critical chance.
Once again, a solid foundation that can use some fine-tuning and balancing.
It’s worth noting that the battlegrounds themselves are cleverly designed, many with choke points, varying levels of height, areas perfect for ambushes and strategically placed cover. The problem is that the AI is not always clever enough to use these features and often can't commit itself to any one strategy. Despite battlegrounds that are built around the enemies that inhabit them, most battles will devolve into enemies abandoning their advantageous positions to charge you.
The biggest problem is that the AI is often at odds with itself – enemies act as (suicidal) individuals rather than as a group. It cannot form cohesive strategies, like maintaining positions or targeting individuals, which means that the game needs to rely on increasingly larger numbers – more damage, more hit points, more enemies – instead of smarter strategies.
Dialogues & Writing
The writing ranges from good to great, although the 12 year old responsible for ‘You suck!’ (the dying curse of a certain monk in a certain scenario) should be crucified in front of inXile's office to ward off evil spirits and similarly ‘creative’ writing enthusiasts seeking employment. Overall, it’s definitely a breath of fresh air.
The dialogue system is a dialogue tree system masquerading as a keyword system to keep the window neat and small. When an NPC says something, you get a list of keywords. Hovering above them displays full statements or questions.
You have 3 dialogue skills: Hard Ass, Smart Ass and Kiss Ass. You’ll need all 3 if you want to be able to solve problems with words and explore all options. While many options are flavor only, “diplomacy” is the only way to achieve certain outcomes or dig deep enough to understand what’s really going on in certain cases.
It’s implemented in a fairly logical way (i.e. not “I could kill you, which is more fun, but I’d rather pass a check and rob myself of sweet victory and loot” way), giving you a reason to keep your dialogue skills high, even at the expense of other skills.
Unfortunately, the skill checks are fairly sporadic and stat checks are extremely rare.
When you start playing the game, two things become obvious: the abundance of choices and remarkable, even unprecedented reactivity.
NPCs comment on everything, making quips about quests you've completed and things you’ve done. Radio chatter scolds or congratulates you on your failures and successes. Even when the choices you've made don't have major consequences, everyone always has something to say about it. The game tracks and acknowledges every single thing you do down to the equipment you're using, which can be mind-boggling at times. As crazy as it sounds, it is deeply satisfying to have General Vargas chide you for wearing a spiked dog collar.
The choices and consequences (both obvious and hidden to the point of surprising people when they learn that a different way of handling something was possible) put you in the driving seat, giving you that rare feeling that it is *your* adventure, not a cutscene-to-cutscene ride a-la Bioshock 3.
Unfortunately, quite often, the quests feel like uncomplicated, post-apocalyptic versions of the TV show Cops. You're instructed to do something – save the AG Center, set up the radio, clean up the prison, save the L'eve Lupe Mines (nobody needed this pun FYI). You do it. Delivering the letter to Kate has several different outcomes, but the act of delivering the letter itself is as old (and in need of revitalization) as RPGs.
Killing the infected pod people in three different locations felt like filler. Quest structure in a non-linear, open-world game is as important as the main narrative because it is the foremost engine of exploration and participation in the game world. Doing rehashed versions of things you've already done gets old.
In many cases, these well-worn formulas aren’t used in new or interesting ways, but merely occupy game space, giving you ‘stuff to do’. The contrast with truly exceptional areas couldn’t be starker.
The first time I was truly impressed with quest and scenario design was Titan Canyon, which had a far more complex structure, morally nebulous series of choices and interesting narrative than any previous part. Even after digging deep into the histories and motives of each participating faction, I still couldn't make heads or tails of what was actually going on, which was both fantastic and a drastic change in narrative structure from any previous part, including the conflict between the Rail Nomads. When quests and content are presented as human conflicts that you participate in, as opposed to tasks to be completed, they are far more enjoyable, even when their structure is as simple as delivering a letter.
This probably sounds like a pretty negative evaluation, but it's not. The game does world building, reactivity, choices and characters exceptionally well. I just wish that more of the quests felt unique, as opposed to errands on a checklist.
And In Conclusion
We can analyze the design to death and rejoice finding various shortcomings, but here is a simple and honest-to-God reason why I really liked Wasteland 2.
Like most people here, I play a lot of RPGs. Recently I played 4-5 games that shall not be named and couldn’t really get into them. Naturally, I suspected that maybe I lost my ability to enjoy games and get immersed due to age/kids/stress/etc.
Then I tried Wasteland 2 and couldn’t stop playing. The more I played, the more I wanted to. It’s a wonderful yet rare feeling that every gamer can relate to.
Does it mean that you’re going to like it? It depends entirely on your expectations. If you expected a long overdue sequel or a game that allows you to chart your own course, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. If you expected a game like [Fallout / Jagged Alliance / ‘best game evar’], you might be disappointed.
Fallout was a game where you explored the setting and could kick some ass if you chose to. WL2 is a game where you kick ass (i.e. combat heavy, which is the very definition of old-school design) and can explore the setting if you choose to. If you don’t, your mileage will vary.
Lastly, it's important to understand the context of Wasteland 2. RPGs have essentially been dead since 2005. Wasteland 2 is the second game and the instigator of what is probably an RPG renaissance. Wasteland 2 isn't just important for being a good game, it's important for being the first stepping stone on the way to Wasteland 3, Pillars of Eternity, Torment 2, countless other RPGs that would have never been made if inXile hadn't taken the risk to show that people still care about this genre. Wasteland 2 is the game that reopened the floodgates for RPG development.
Now, bring on that Red Boots DLC!