Even the best of us have died a lot in video games over the years, and it can bring out a range of emotions. Frustration, when a badly-designed boss encounter defeats you for the umpteenth time. Sadness, when a main character bites the bullet unexpectedly. Disgust mixed with amusement, when you get your noggin lopped off by some space-zombie, and embarrassment, which in the case of Wasteland 2, comes about from being murdered by a giant bunny rabbit twenty minutes in. It feels shameful to be bested by such a ridiculous thing, but it’s something that delivers the message that Wasteland 2 is as punishing as its post-apocalyptic setting should be. Anything can kill you if you don’t prepare, and you best prepare if you don’t want to suffer more humiliating demises like that one.
Wasteland 2 is an old-school western RPG and fiercely proud of the fact. It’s a sequel to the 1988 Commodore 64 original, and came about after Brian Fargo and several of the original team at Interplay who successfully crowdfunded the project. Widely acknowledged as the forefather of Interplay’s early Fallout games, it’s played from an isometric viewpoint a la Diablo III or XCOM, which is fitting, as it ascribes to both those games’ philosophies, using Diablo’s looting and XCOM’s strategic turn-based battle system to fairly impressive effect. It released on PC last year, twenty six years after the previous entry, and after some tweaking to allow its complex systems to fit a controller, it’s finally on PS4. The main question anyone should ask is ‘’does it work on consoles?’’ and the answer is mostly yes, but there are some things that don’t quite fit. First though, you’ll want to know what it is you’re getting into.
Wasteland 2 puts you in control of up to four of the newest members of the Desert Rangers; a peace-keeping team that try to help their fellow man in what remains of the dusty wastes of Arizona post-nuclear war. That ‘help’ usually involves a lot of bloodshed and gunfights, but there are plenty of ways to handle situations if you get the right balance in your squad’s skill sets and your own moral compass. You’ll come across the usual fare as you go about the map dealing with jobs as varied as delivering a letter to taking out an entire gang of bandits. You can attempt to complete tasks how you see fit. Say you need to retrieve something from an encampment for someone who won’t let you have some valuable piece of equipment until you bring back the thing they’ve requested, you could choose to sneak in the back of that encampment by hacking their security panel, letting you take what you need on the quiet.
That’s fine, but you could just as easily blast the padlock off the front gate and aggressively wipe them all out with brute force. Or maybe you’ll try to intimidate the guard into letting you in so you can steal the item you require. Then there’s the other option, you could just shoot the guy who has the equipment you want and hope that he’s left it on his person. Missions can seem so routine after a while until you try something a little different and that final option is so in keeping with the increasingly lawless world your Rangers inhabit. You can play your squad as the stand-up protectors of the realm or corrupt, despicable human beings who double cross anyone who dares trust them; and there’s no ‘’morality meter’’ blaring at you for good and bad decisions, it just means some folk don’t much care for your Rangers, while others might fear them or even worship them as saviours. Largely though, no matter how you play it, there will always be ungrateful sods who ask impossible things of you, such is life in the wasteland.
The flexibility of how you tackle missions and people is essential as it makes up the core of the entertainment the game gives you. The main story itself is straightforward and a bit humdrum, but the NPCs you meet along the way share tales of woe (and there are some deeply disturbing tales in there), stories of legendary treasures, warriors and creatures. These interactions build a world that feels alive even though the visual representation of it doesn’t quite capture that in the same way. Wasteland 2’s roots as a heavily text-based RPG shine through in this regard. The great writing sells you on this being a place as bleak and deadly as it is absurd and darkly comic. It’s an unstable place to survive in and the fact that the game let’s you reflect that with your own actions is commendable.
Much has been made of Fallout 3’s wasteland being a bit soft tonally when compared to the original Wasteland game and the preceding Fallout titles. In those there were some tragically bleak and horrific decisions to be made and Wasteland 2 carries on that tradition. Early on an NPC begs you to end their suffering as they’ve lost their partner. They offer you a few trinkets from their desk in return and, should you choose to do the deed, you end up being caught in the act by a child, who you can sweet talk into not blabbing should you have the requisite skill. If not, they go tell their family and they all flee to the safety of the sadistic militia believing you to be a worse evil than they. From here many things could happen, you could take out the child before they warn anyone, but that could have further consequences if you’re too close to the family home. Or ignore them fleeing so you can ransack their farm for some pigshit (it’s valuable, don’t judge). Luckily I’d already wiped out the militia so they just ran off to nothing.
Wasteland 2’s world is already a grim challenge, but it could have done without some additional help from the UI. Text is a bit on the small side, as are the character status bars. That’s fine for a PC game as you’d generally be closer to the screen. On a console you’re usually a few feet away from the telly, so this becomes an issue. Even on a 40" screen you end up craning your neck forward to see what the latest wall of text says or what effect has affected your party. It’s certainly an oversight that could put people off. There’s already so much to keep an eye on in terms of menus -as expected for a stat-heavy RPG- so it would have been hugely beneficial to scale up certain sections of the UI just a tad. I can understand why it’d be difficult to implement without a complete overhaul, as it would take away more of the screen and leave you open to danger. As it is there are points where sub menus block your view of what hit chance percentage you have against enemies in combat. It’s a shame that this part of the game feels neglected for a console release, because the work that’s gone into mapping the colossal amount of keyboard controls to a controller shows that thought and care has gone into this port. Like the game itself, there’s a lot to comprehend, and it’s a daunting task trying to remember what does what, but InXile has still done a grand job of simplifying the complexity of a PC-centric system.
The UI may be problematic, but it still isn’t quite enough to prevent ardent RPG fans from getting wrapped up in the wondrous spectacle of desolation and despair. I mentioned the similarities to XCOM in terms of combat, and anyone who has spent significant time with that game will click with Wasteland 2 on this level. There are differences of course, as combat here appears like it would in any older RPG, both as you traverse the world map and when you encounter enemies in the various locations strewn throughout it. You still have to take distance, angle of attack, weapon type, enemy type and the like into account, but the constant fear of death that accompanies any skirmish in that game is largely absent here as Rangers will faint, slowly bleed out, and slowly recuperate rather than die from injuries. This works just fine in the context of a turn-based RPG because you’d lose far too much far too often if death was the game’s finality.
What doesn’t work so well in the game’s combat -and probably the only major drawback of it- is the cover system. At best it feels like pot luck, at worst, grossly unbalanced, inconsistent and meaningless. At times, enemies seem to have no trouble hitting you despite good cover and distance being on your side, yet when the tables are turned your own chances tend to be dramatically smaller. It’s not something that occurs every time, but it is enough to aggravate when it needlessly costs you resources. Despite that flaw, combat in Wasteland 2 is satisfying and deep when compared to its modern RPG contemporaries, it just stops short of being as tightly designed as I’d hoped for.
There’s a certain something about the game that feels special. It may well be down to how unique it is in the realms of console games (at least until Divinity: Original Sin releases). Even with the adaptations for the PS4 it remains very much a PC game in design (and a delightfully old school one at that) and that contributes to the uniqueness of it. I found I could embrace Wasteland 2’s quirks and flaws as part of its character, but there is absolutely no denying this won’t be the case for others. As stressed before, this is already far removed from your usual console fare so further obstacles aren’t going to help those curious to try a different style of RPG. That would be unfortunate, as the seedy hell that is the world of Wasteland 2 is easily one of the more interesting and intriguing ones to grace this generation.
NOTE: The review score was updated to 8.5 from 8, and the review itself amended, upon discovering a perceived bug concerning the inability to equip radiaton suits that rendered continued play seemingly impossible was in fact no more than a quirk of the equipping system in the game where radiation suits are concerned (one suit icon equips entire party, but does not visibly show it as equipped). Upon testing the saved game I’d had issue with again I was able to progress normally.
My original score reflected the perceived problem I’d had and with there not actually being a problem of this nature with the game, I decided to correct the score to better reflect the game.