Blog 824: Wasteland 2

I read recently that was having financial troubles, which is a shame because they’re one of about two places that sells properly DRM-free games (oh well, if they do go bankrupt, at least I have offline back-ups of everything I’ve ever bought there). On the other hand, they keep handing out free games, which seems like a poor strategy for making money.

A while back, they gave out Wasteland 2: Director’s Cut, the Kickstarted sequel to the game that was (apparently) Fallout before Fallout; something in which I had a passing interest but wasn’t in the mood for… until now. After all, didn’t I always like to get a big chunky RPG from Santa?

Wasteland 2: Director’s Cut

Having struggled through it, right to the end, I have complicated feelings about Wasteland 2. On the one hand, it’s a sprawling, compelling RPG full of quests and colourful characters. On the other, it’s utterly infuriating, with sloggy combat and often needlessly opaque failure conditions. Why did I play it all the way through? Good question.

It has a strong premise, even if post-apocalyptic Americana stylings are a little bit done-to-death by now (this time it’s 80s/90s cold war futurism rather than 50s futurism). You are the Desert Rangers, one of the few Actually Nice Groups out there, and you do your best to protect the civilian population eking a living out of the irradiated desert from monsters and raiders. As is tradition, you do so via exploration, violence and conversation with a team of (up to) seven characters.

As you explore, details will be printed out in the log at the bottom-right, meaning you tend to miss them as they are quickly displaced by dialogue barks and character actions. At least the details obtained by Examining an object can be replayed.

I got off to a bad start because I inevitably made a few poor choices during character creation. You get to create four blank slates at the beginning, and then recruit three more actual NPCs from those you meet as you mosey around the titular wasteland. I panicked after making two characters and picked two more from the preset roster, so realistically, my experience could have been a lot worse.

The thing is that there’s a broad selection of weapon skills, from fists to knives to all different types of gun. Which ones will be effective against what enemies? What enemies will I even meet? Who knows! Fine, I’ll put one on knives and one on assault rifles. Turns out my knife-man never used his assault rifle and eventually passed it off, so that was a waste of two points in the early game when I really needed them. You need to specialise hard and fast or you’ll be unable to hit the broad side of a barn. (Even specialising does not guarantee you’ll be able to hit the broad side of a barn.)

The inventory is pleasantly grid-based, but all the best items come with downsides so even the joy of finding new kit is often dampened as you realise its cost.

Combat is turn-based, and it’s that particularly annoying kind of turn-based where each character acts independently and — surprise! — every enemy generally gets to act before even one of your team gets a look in. Each character then has a number of Action Points (based on their character attributes) to spend on attacking, moving and so on, with heavy-hitting weapons like sniper rifles costing more points than knives and pistols. Seems reasonable in theory, but in practice…

I guess in practice it feels like more of an encounter design issue than any actual problem with the system, but most battles are large. You have a team of seven and there are always at least as many enemies, who have twice the number of hit points as any of your peeps. With Action Points always too scarce (because I obviously failed to min-max something else somewhere) it feels pointlessly boring in the early stages where you have to wait for a huge pile of enemies to act, only to miss your one shot and then have to wait again. Needless to say, your enemies are always happy to hit you.

On entry to this section, my NPC friend literally said “this is going to be a slog”. If your writers are calling it out, maybe there’s a problem?

If that was all, it might not have been so bad, but combat has even more fussy elements piled on top of the mundane frustrations. Most melee weapons can only attack in cardinal compass directions, not along diagonals. There are cover mechanics and therefore flanking; firing at somebody over a wall has a much lower chance to hit than flanking them, so you need to keep moving around — but clear line of sight is required to even attempt to shoot somebody, so trying to put your own people in cover often puts them in a blind spot that wasn’t clear from the terrain (sometimes they will step out as part of shooting, sometimes not). There is a friendly fire mechanic, where if there is any other unit in between you and the one you’re aiming at, there’s a good chance you’ll nail them instead. Imagine you have one melee bruiser and one sniper — yep, you’ll spend more time shooting your own person in the back than the enemy.

As the game advances and your characters become more reliably able to hit, this effect lessens, as at least you make visible progress rather than being subjected to a cavalcade of misses and collateral damage. Wasteland 2 definitely has something of an inverse difficulty curve, so yes, if you can struggle through the start, it does get more engaging. Experience points are handed out with wild abandon and level-ups are at least pleasingly regular.

Although shotguns emit a wide cone of damage, they still only have a chance to hit the enemies within the area; making them basically useless as you can now miss SEVERAL people in a single turn.

Of course you can’t truly optimise for combat without missing out on the other half of the game — the exploration and the conversation. There are three different skills to unlock bonus conversation options. There are even more skills associated with breaking into things to get precious loot or quest items. Disarming to get rid of alarm traps, Demolitions to disable landmines, Safecracking to get into safes, Lockpicking to get into locks… Occasionally there is some overlap; a lockbox might be pickable with Lockpicking but also bashable with Brute Force, or a broken machine might be repairable with Mechanical Repair or a special item you could find somewhere.

Okay, fine, you have seven people, you can spread your skills around to cover all the bases. Unfortunately by this point skill checks feel more like busywork than interesting gameplay. As long as you have a non-zero chance to succeed, checks can be repeated indefinitely until you either win through or suffer a Critical Failure. And even then, a Critical Failure doesn’t always stop you; if you break a lock, you can then use Mechanical Repair to fix the lock and try again. As I said: infuriating. I think I prefer systems where you either have enough points in the skill to succeed or not, rather than this faintly bloated waste of time.

And don’t get me started on minefields where you have to disable every single mine lest your wibbly squad wibble its way right over any one of them…

But you CAN get animals to follow you and give them names. You can’t control them in combat so they have a habit of following you into certain death, but they are adorable.

Conversation has its own quirks. It’s topic-based rather than using explicit replies; you speak to somebody, they say stuff, and their dialogue contains keywords which then line up along the bottom of the screen for you to click to delve into.

The fun bit comes in when you realise that you don’t actually have to click the buttons — you can free-type the keywords in. You can use this mechanism to guess topics people might know about but haven’t mentioned explicitly. I have never got this to work, as the secret keywords are either so oblique or so subtle that I’ve simply never been able to guess one… except that one time where I managed to short-circuit a quest by attempting to ask about a character whose name had only been mentioned by somebody else. Oops.

There are plenty of puns at least.

All in all, then, Wasteland 2 is not a game I can recommend. Several times I came very close to giving up on it, raging at its often unforseeable quest failures and incessantly long combat encounters. I don’t drop games lightly, so you as a more normal human being should probably take that proximity as a damning indictment. It takes a long time to get going, and though there is plenty of delight to be had exploring its myriad locations and taking on its quests, I don’t think there’s really enough delight to offset the pain.

As I said: infuriating. All the more infuriating because in principle, in spirit, this is a good, solid RPG that ticks all the boxes. It’s just an arsehole about most of them.

I can totally understand why they handed it out for free.

Not gonna lie, this is the first game I’ve ever played where it truly felt like “a Unity game”. Take from that what you will.

And you tell me...

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