Videogame design has changed a great deal since Wasteland’s 1988 release. This makes a sequel—a direct sequel released after nearly 30 years—a difficult proposition. Yet, that’s inXile Entertainment’s Wasteland 2. It’s a game that reaches back through decades, lightly updating the byzantine rules of classic computer role-playing games for a modern audience and hoping to appeal to both old and new fans.
From the live-action introduction to the chunky font used in its menus, Wasteland 2 initially comes across as more than a little dated. This impression isn’t helped much by the overwhelming amount of information presented, with little context, as soon as the player is asked to create their characters—a ragtag squad of post-apocalyptic warriors called Desert Rangers. Though pre-made characters can be picked from the opening menu, Wasteland 2 assumes a base level of knowledge that can’t necessarily be expected from a modern audience. Statistics cover the initial screens. Without prior experience in the genre, the opaque clutter of numbers and role-playing traits is overwhelming. But, press on through the game’s rough opening, and Wasteland 2 begins to establish itself as one of the most inviting throwback titles in recent memory.
This is partially thanks to its turn-based combat system, which distills the game’s wide array of character skills and tactical options into intuitive menus and simple on-screen indicators. Like Firaxis Games’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown, chances to hit an enemy are represented with an alterable percentage and the number of moves available to a character are portrayed through coloured shaders that overlay the environment. This commitment to making complex systems accessible underscores the entirety of Wasteland 2’s design.
While the turn-based combat is enjoyable (it’s marred only slightly by a wonky game camera that often defaults to out-of-bounds level geometry, forcing players to correct its mistakes before starting each new turn) it’s still not as satisfying as what makes up the rest of the game: exploring the environment and talking to the many, many characters who fill it.
Wasteland 2’s overarching plot lacks strong definition, but, like so many role-playing games, it’s the smaller stories making up the journey that have the greatest impact. As the Rangers explore the post-nuclear wastes of Arizona and California, they answer distress calls from beleaguered towns, repair radio towers in order to broadcast their messages, and take down violent gangs. There’s never much of a sense of urgency to the plot, but this doesn’t seem like an issue when every new town and outpost is filled with colourful characters, eager to talk to the Rangers about the strange cultures of their homes. The player may have forgotten the larger reason for venturing into a town controlled by, say, a mayor who believes excessive politeness is the key to reclaiming civilization, but simply chatting with the population living under his rule is engaging enough to maintain interest in the story.
Wasteland 2’s dialogue is largely solid stuff. Characters speak in believable sci-fi vernacular, and descriptive paragraphs of text compensate for the minimally detailed visuals. It’s only let down by the game’s attempts at comedy, which often fall flat. In most cases, the jokes come off feeling like they’ve been written purely to be whacky for whacky’s sake: there’s a disco ball robot whose strobe lights distract characters during combat, there’s an ongoing mission that involves collecting animal feces that can be sold to an explosives expert. At other times, as in an offhand rape joke involving a goat, the humour drifts toward tastelessness.
Wasteland 2 is certainly rough around the edges, but it’s largely charming despite its problems. Though it serves as a resurrection of a videogame style that’s essentially vanished with time, there’s very little to keep modern audiences from enjoying the experience on offer. Despite its confusing introduction and uneven narrative, Wasteland 2 is successful at what it sets out to do. It maintains the spirit of its predecessor without feeling like it’s been designed for pre-existing fans of the genre to enjoy.