You could be forgiven if you were unfamiliar with the Wasteland series of games. The original game came out way back in the late ‘80s and was largely the pre-cursor to the Fallout franchise, in the same way that System Shock is a precursor to Bioshock. Basically, Wasteland is Fallout’s grouchy older brother that was more enamoured about post-apocalyptic cowboys looking for justice than the whole retro-futurism shtick. We did get a sequel back in 2014, thanks to a successful crowd funding campaign, and now, following another campaign, we can finally call this sucker a trilogy.
Wasteland 3 has come a long way from its roots on the Commodore 64, but it certainly delivers on the series’ post-nuclear Wild West themes. Players take control of a pair of Arizona Rangers ages after a world ending nuclear event, answering a call for help in the frozen mountains of Colorado, tempted by the promise of supplies by a mysterious man known as The Patriarch. Things get choppy pretty quickly leaving the player to establish a forward operating base, recruit new rangers to fill their diminished ranks, and navigate the perilous and political Coloradan wastes to return the Patriarch’s erstwhile progeny. The way you do any of that, however, is completely up to the player.
Player choice is huge and far reaching in Wasteland 3, and every detail feels like it was built to allow players to approach problems however they see fit. Additionally, the world will reflect those choices back in, what feels like, natural and sometimes devastating ways. Named npcs can leave or die, commercial hubs can be decimated, people can be marginally happier, all stemming from how the player goes about their business. Now, this isn’t a new idea, games have been banging the “Your decisions matter,” drum for eons now, but in some games that implementation feels more like a clunky afterthought than something core to the experience, so it is liable to give a player pause as they ponder what to do about the vagrants living in their kitchen or the madman subsiding on hallucinogenic mushrooms locked up in the brig.
That’s not to say that Wasteland 3 isn’t clunky, however. No, Wasteland sports a huge number of interwoven systems at any given time like armor ratings and health pools, penetrative power and vaguely defined status effects, and sometimes the sheer force of these numbers butting up against each other can feel like a square peg in a round hole. It is the ever present curse of that massive player freedom coming to bear at any given time, and this certainly isn’t the first time a game has suffered for it.
The game plays in the same isometric style that came to define crpgs like Fallout or Baldur’s Gate in the early 2000’s, though, surprisingly, more like the latter than the former. However, it has certainly been slicked up a fair amount to show that those games are all old hat by now. Once things getting cooking properly, the player will command up to six characters at any given time, four of which can be player created and the remaining two will come from the colourful characters met along the way. This really lets you cover all of your bases nearly from the start, ensuring that you can fiddle around with any of the vital skills, like explosives and toaster repair, or eclectic quirks, like goat killer, until you really find your groove.
Visually speaking, Wasteland 3 never really felt like a powerhouse. Some of the locations were lovely to behold, but most were another avalanche of snow and ruins. To make matters worse, I always felt like I couldn’t quite zoom my camera out far enough to really get a comfortable lay of the land. Conversely the soundtrack is varied and lovely, with some real talent behind the compositions and some strong voice acting to boot.
I found that the combat, while janky at times, was an overall delight. Once the player and any malicious mobs have consigned to engage in glorious combat, a tactical grid blooms out across the landscape and you all take turns whacking each other. From here, it’s all action point fueled, turn based violence with combatants making use of varying levels of cover and copious requisite explosive red barrels. The combat encounters often felt tactical and thought provoking rather than the standard spectacle of blood and bullets.
I missed the original Wasteland game and never got around to its sequel a few years back, but, if this game is any indication, I might need to go and revisit those nuclear blasted landscapes. Well, at least the sequel; nobody wants to try to revive an old Commodore 64.