Bringing the Wasteland to the Masses
Wasteland 3 trades the desert locales of the first two titles for the snowcapped mountains of Colorado in a title that brings both the series and the genre forward. Developed by inXile Studios and published by Deep Silver, Wasteland 3 has been in development since its crowdfunding campaign on Fig launched in October of 2016. At XO18 it was revealed that inXile has been purchased by Microsoft and the increase to the game’s funding is clear in a beautifully crafted, and now fully voiced, Isometric-RPG that stands at the top of the genre.
The Birth of a Genre
The Wasteland series originated in 1988 and was developed by Interplay entertainment. The game’s director was Brian Fargo who would use the crowdfunding service Kickstarter to create a sequel in 2012 which would go on to raise just under 3 million dollars. The Wasteland series gave birth to the post-apocalyptic video game genre and has been beloved for its stellar writing and deep gameplay systems.
The series takes place in an alternate history where the cold war led to worldwide nuclear destruction during the Reagan administration. Originally set for a Q1 2019 release, the additional budget, which is said to be three times that of Wasteland 2, was used to hire more developers to work on the game and add in full voice acting. Wasteland 2 suffered on consoles from the text on screen being difficult to read, thankfully this is much improved in 3 as text is both larger and more clearly defined against the background.
Running on the Unity engine Wasteland 3 is a beautiful game with stunning art direction which conveys the brutal and icy nature of its landscape. It is clear that the extra time and budget has been put to good use as the graphical package on show is a step above what was shown before the acquisition. Character models are richly detailed with solid animation work for movement, combat, and conversations. The backgrounds are diverse and convey the sadistic nature of 22nd century post apocalyptic Colorado. Combat is full of over the top gore and colorful energy weapon-based attacks that light up their surroundings. During key conversations the camera will zoom in to show the well animated faces of the games main characters, shifting to a perspective reminiscent of the Fallout series. This effect is not overused and serves to emphasize important moments.
Performance on PC is well optimized as I was able to maintain 60fps at High settings on a relatively average laptop that was my main platform for this review. On console I was able to test it out on Xbox One X where the 4k 30 fps picture and HDR really help the game shine. Performance on the One X was solid, but the picture clarity and frame rate were wanting on the One S. Slowdown rarely occurred on PC and the One X but cropped up frequently in bigger fights on the One S. As it is turn based combat it was not a deal breaker, but the 2013 hardware is really showing its mobile level CPU here.
New to the series is full voice acting for all lines of spoken dialogue and the quality is superb. The voice actors mostly steer clear of playing up tropes for their characters and lend the feeling of authenticity to the writing that it deserves. The music is composed by series veteran Mark Morgan who worked on Wasteland 2 as well as Fallout 1 and 2. Mary Ramos who has been the music director on various Quentin Tarantino films was hired to provide a bizarre mix of cover songs, gospel hymns, and patriot songs that range from Welcome Back Kotter and WKRP in Cincinnati to Down in the Valley and Everybody Have Fun Tonight in a haunting folksy style that matches well with the games dark humor.
Sound effects are above average in their quality and diversity. The fresh thwack of a blade to a mutant’s noggin or the crack and thud of a .50 caliber sniper shot leaving the barrel and ending up embedded into the skull of an unaware cult member is always satisfying.
Have You Seen Teddy?
Speaking of cults, the writing in the game is top notch. At times it was so genuinely funny that I would stop playing until I could catch my breath. Early on you are introduced the Gippers, a cult devoted to “God-President Reagan” whose mind has seemingly been preserved in the digital realm through which he is both a Max Headroom like avatar on CRT TV screens and also a giant eye laser beam shooting statue at the front of the base.
When you start the game you are prompted to use one of 6 pairs of pre-made characters who come with their own set of voice lines, starting weapons, and initial skill tree selections. Or, you can create your own characters in the highly customizable character creation menu. From there your crew is ambushed in a CGI cut-scene as you’re making your way from your Ranger home base in Arizona to Colorado.
The state’s leader The Patriarch has offered you desperately needed resources in exchange for your help in stopping his children’s uprising against him. The Patriarch and his children are the impetus for your rebuilding efforts as you take over an old air force base which you will fill over time with various new recruits based on your choices. Replayability is high as choices that can completely alter the shape of your play through are made early and often.
Tensions are also high between the various factions and you will be forced to do your best if you intend on keeping them all happy. It is hard to get into too much more without delving into spoilers, but I can say that your choices really do matter and can take the narrative in wildly different directions.
The writing is able to hit the mark on its dark sense of humor in a way that games like Borderlands can only dream of. The mix of serious and absurd never delves into the typical areas of low rent that video games generally land. It is a step up in quality. One where characters you may initially despise can you win you back with their complicated histories and motives in a natural and at times unsettling way. I found myself sympathetic to characters I had initially hated and hating characters I had initially liked as their true motivations and backstories became evident through the choices I made.
A Myriad of Brutal Options
Choice is one of the main themes of the game. You begin as your party of two rangers and quickly grow to a full 6-man team not long into the playthrough. The game is filled with skill checks covering things like lockpicking (known as sneaky shit), trap disarming (explosives), conversation checks for intimidation (bad ass) and flattering (kiss ass), and multiple others.
There are no classes, and instead every time you level up you are given one attribute point for things such as strength, luck, health, melee damage and so on. You get 3 skill points which feed into the trees for your weapons, dialogue checks, and survival which I will get to in a bit. Every two levels you are given a perk point. These are used to power up the skills you have unlocked with a mix of passive and special move perks available to you along with 6 basic perks which give you more survivability.
Combat is turn based, with those turns being determined at first by a roll for initiative. Depending on how many attribute points you have placed into the speed skill your team members may not get to take a turn first if you are caught by an enemy. New to the series is that each team goes one at a time instead of every individual member of combat’s turn being determined by the initiative roll. If you ambush an enemy and catch them unaware with your first attack your team will get to go first, and your speed skill determines how many action points you have available on your first turn.
You fight on a grid with movement, item use, and abilities all tied to the same small pool of points. Even on normal difficulty you will quickly be overwhelmed if you do not take your time to think out each move for your crew beforehand. The grid will show blue squares for everywhere you can move to and still have enough points left to attack. There is a heavy focus on cover, and you will need to plan your movement while making sure to always end up behind it. Ammo is sparse and expensive to refill so having at least a few melee attacks went a long way towards upping my survivability.
Melee comes in two main forms, weapon focused and brawlers. Melee weapon users focus on big single hit attacks and de-buffing your opponents, while brawlers use fist weapons to build up combos that lead to devastating finishers. For ranged attacks there are a wide variety of weapons and ammo types from pistols to rocket launchers, sniper rifles, laser guns and more. You will, however, need to focus leveling character skills on them if you want to have any chance of hitting things routinely.
In a X-com like fashion you get a hit % above your targets head which takes in various factors such as your own stats, your line of site to the target, and if they are in cover or not. Combat is brutal but fair, and I found myself having quite a few reloads when a catastrophic 95% chance to hit shot missed. This occasionally led to my team being wiped by a bunch of flamethrower wielding cannibal clowns who felt their best course of action was to strap TNT to a bunch of giant hogs, set them on fire, and them point them in my team’s direction.
The UI is clean and conveys everything you need to know without any clutter. Inventory management is easy with a mouse and keyboard and ok with a controller, but I did find exploration and combat to be a bit more of a chore to start with the latter initially. After an hour of playing that way though the shortcuts clicked, and things started to feel great. Accessibility features consist mainly of a colorblind mode to help with recognition of the battlefield and being able to resize various UI elements.
Bring Some Company to the Frozen Wastes
The entirety of the game is playable in online 2 player co-op during which you can each control up to 3 party members yourself, share an inventory, and can explore and do side missions fully independent of one another. For major narrative beats you must be together, and you can jump in and out of the save files at your own pace. I have been unable to test this myself as of this review but based on the trailer they released last week, I can tell that this will be the way I play through the game immediately after launch.
As you start, the game has a familiar sense of size and scale for the genre, as each area varies between medium to large with only a few small tile-sets here and there. It may be showing my age, but it reminded me of Neverwinter Nights 2, though larger and far prettier. You can run from one end of most large maps to the other in less than a minute once everything is cleared. Playing on a laptop with an NVME SSD was a godsend as load screens are frequent. This was more of an issue on console where load times could be fairly long.
Not too far in you are granted your Kodiak, a rugged truck with a top mounted cannon and plenty of armor. It serves as your means of transportation in the over world map. The over world map itself being a real time system with a mix of main locations, hidden areas, and side quests to be found. There are random encounters that take place on it, but you can either skip them entirely with the survival skill or gain an advantage thanks to skills you may have leveled. Sections are gated off by radiation and you will need to save up your Colorado Dollars, the Patriarchs own form of legal tender, to buy better shielding.
Wasteland 3 shines with clear dedication to crafting the best game its genre has ever seen. Excellent visuals are matched by top notch voice work and some of the best and most natural writing I have seen in a video game not made by Naughty Dog. The combat is a brutal dance where one wrong move can spell disaster, but victory is an exhilarating rush that never becomes old. Wasteland 3 cements inXile as one of the best in the business in the RPG genre and affirms that Xbox has something truly special on their hands.
Wasteland 3 is available on August 28th on Xbox, PS4, and PC. It is available on Xbox Game Pass for console and PC as well. It retails for $59.99 USD
A copy of the game was provided to Xbox Era by Deep Silver for review on Xbox One and PC.
Reviewed on Xbox One X and Windows 10 PC
Update: inXile Entertainment was announced as being acquired by Microsoft at XO18, not E3.