The history of the Wasteland franchise is a complicated one. The original game was a post-apocalyptic RPG game released in 1987 for the Apple II with ports for DOS and Commodore 64 released a year later, to both critical and players’ acclaim, quickly acquiring a fanbase. It was developed by the legendary Interplay Productions (which brought us gems such as the Baldur’s Gate series, the Earthworm Jim series and the Fallout Series among others) and was distributed by Electronic Arts.
In the fictional world of Wasteland, a global nuclear holocaust has taken place in 1998. On the day of the disaster, a company of U.S. Army Engineers were in the desolate south-western desert building bridges in an area populated by a small number of survivalist communities and a newly constructed maximum security prison with industrial capabilities. The soldiers took shelter in the prison after expelling all the prisoners, and invited survivalist families to join them shortly after. Years after the apocalypse, together they formed “the Desert Rangers, in the great tradition of the Texas and Arizona Rangers”, to help other survivors find their way in this crude, post-apocalyptic world.
The game mechanics were lifted directly from tabletop role-playing games Tunnels and Trolls and Mercenaries, Spies and Private Eyes developed by Wasteland designers Ken St. Andre and Michael Stackpole. Characters in Wasteland feature several stats (such as strength, dexterity, and many more) that allow them to use different skills and weaponry. Experience is gained through battle and the use of skills. The game allows players to advance in the story with a variety of tactics: to get through a locked gate, the characters could use their lockpicking skills, their climbing skills, their strength attribute; or they could force their way in through the gate with a crowbar or a RPG rocket.
The game begins by putting the player in charge of a party of four characters, with the ability to increase the number of members in the party to up to seven characters. There are also several NPCs which can be added to the party. Unlike other RPGs of that time, some NPCs would often refuse an order given by the player. The game was also notable for its high difficulty.
Wasteland was one of the first games to feature a persistent world, where changes made to the game world would be stored and maintained. Returning to previously explored areas later in the game, one would find them in the state they were left in, instead of being reset to their original state, as was far more common for games of the time and is still common for some current games.
Another feature of the game was the inclusion of a printed story, which the game would instruct the player to read at the appropriate times. This story described numerous encounters and conversations, contained clues, and added thickness to the plot of the game. This was not only a primitive way to deter game piracy, since someone playing a pirated version of the game would have to make do without this files, but was also incredibly disk-space savvy, having large portions of the story and dialogues printed onto a manual rather than written into the game code, thus saving huge amounts of disk space, which were precious at that time.
A spinoff/sequel called Fountain of Dreams was developed by a different team shortly after but Electronic Arts decided not to market it as a Wasteland sequel. It was released in 1990 without much success. Another sequel called Meantime was in development but cancelled by Electronic Arts when the market for 8 bits games started to falter.
Time passed and the Wasteland name fell into oblivion (except in the hearts of hardcore RPG fans). Interplay attempted to develop another sequel but it failed to secure the naming rights from EA. The project was renamed “Fallout” and was released to much critical acclaim in 1997. Fallout kick started a whole successful franchise by itself, becoming a household name on the RPG and post-apocalyptic genres.
While Fallout and its sequels are considered spiritual successors to the original Wasteland (and are also plagued with pop culture references to the Wasteland universe), fans were appalled that such an innovative and beloved game never got a true sequel and could only dream about getting one.
It took fans more than a quarter of a century to see their dream come true. After founding a new company called inXile Entertainment in 2002 and securing the rights through prescription in 2003 from Konami, Brian Fargo and his team spent nearly a decade without producing further news about Wasteland 2 aside from a few concept artworks featured on inXile’s website. Inspired by Double Fine Productions’ success at using Kickstarter to fund Double Fine Adventure, Interplay founder Brian Fargo (now at the head of inXile Entertainment) decided to start a Kickstarter campaign to produce Wasteland 2. After acquiring the needed amount of funds and managing to bring in a lot of folks from Wasteland’s original crew, Wasteland 2’s development was back on track.
Wasteland 2 was released as an Early Access beta on December 2013. The final version was released in September 2014 to much critical acclaim. As stated before, it was developed by inXile Entertainment, a company founded by Interplay’s original founder Brian Fargo. Distribution rights are handled by Deep Silver, which is famous for distributing the Saints Row series, the Dead Island series and the Metro series.
After playing the original game and the Fallout series, my expectations were sky-high. Would Wasteland 2 be able to deliver or would it be another cheap attempt to easily cash-in from gamers through the use of nostalgia marketing? I was just about to find out.
The game’s story takes place fifteen years after the events of the original Wasteland, with the Desert Rangers now inhabiting the former Guardian Citadel, which had previously been the home of insane tech-idolizing monks called “the Guardians”, but is now fully controlled by the Rangers after the monks had been killed by the Rangers. The veteran ranger Ace is found dead by townsfolk with clear signs of having been violently murdered. This greatly upset Ranger leader General Vargas, as he had personally sent Ace a few days ago to investigate strange radio transmissions speaking of “man and machine becoming one” while threatening to attack and exterminate the Desert Rangers. Putting the player in charge of a squad of four newly recruited Rangers, you will be tasked with finding out who murdered Ace, their motives, and trying to complete Ace’s original mission.
As in the original game, you’re initially given command of a four-man newly recruited Ranger squad which can later be increased by recruiting NPCs to your squad. You can choose from a list of preset characters or make your own characters from scratch. The game encourages you to take time developing each character, their strengths and weaknesses, their skills and their backstories. The mixture of that customizable features is what will make each character unique both in the ways of playability and the way they interact with the storyline and NPCs.
After that we are allowed to jump right into the story. Exploring the wastelands for a bit, getting familiarized with the surroundings and meeting your first NPCs we find out that Rangers are not regarded by everyone as the champions of justice and civilization that themselves deem to be. Every interaction you have in Wasteland 2 has a ton of different consequences, and such consequences may vary depending on your character’s skills, backstories or religion. Those teeny tiny details are what make Wasteland 2 into such a huge game, even if you craft two exactly equal squads and make the same decisions, you’ll never get to play the same quest twice. Wasteland 2 has literally tons of replay value. There is also a little quirk in playability that I couldn’t help but notice. The game frequently requires that I swap party members in-game according to their skills and click to disarm a trap / hack a computer / intimidate a person. While not an issue at the early parts of our gameplay, it tends to get tedious at the later parts gameplay. While these mechanics may have been acceptable in 1990, I get the feeling that they should have been more accessible in Wasteland 2 for the purpose of preventing the game from becoming repetitive. Wasteland 2 also has lots of cleverly written dialogue. Though it may tend to get overlooked by some players who only read the key words in each sentence to help themselves move along in the game, those dialogues provide lost of “winks” to the original Wasteland and beautifully (or should I say “tragically”?) enrich the Wasteland Universe.
Now let’s talk about combat! Following the path of the original Wasteland and Fallout 1, 2 and Tactics, combat is turn based but very (very!) messy. While the preparation for the combats is heavily strategy-based, the combats themselves are full of surprises and you’ll often have to switch strategies mid-fight and improvise. Moving, attacking, reloading, taking cover, unjamming weapons, and performing impromptu surgery are all on the potential action menu. These actions require a certain number of action points based on your characters’ core stats. Well, at least the game leaves room for some improvisation and you don’t have to simply stand still and watch all your characters get killed. While your characters’ stats influence their attacks and the equipment they can handle, there is also luck involved. You can miss a close-range shot with a shotgun and automatic weaponry such as assault rifles and submachine guns tend to jam mid-fight (Darn you, ancient firearms!), costing precious action points to un-jam them. Sometimes simpler, more primitive weapons such as a club are more convenient to use.
The graphics were developed using the ubiquitous, indie-favorite Unity Engine. They look neat and tidy, except for occasional glitches. While they look a little “cartoonish”, they do their job well at providing a visual frame to the story. InXile entertainment never aimed at über realism with Wasteland 2 and they should be respected for that artistic decision. I must also praise the level design, that allows for multiple paths to be taken and portions of the maps to be destroyed during combat. Music was provided by American composer Mark Morgan, a familiar name from early incarnations of the Fallout series and adds perfectly to the post-apocalyptic atmosphere of the game. The sound effects are nothing fancy, but they’re OK overall. The voice acting is also OK.
At seven hours the average gameplay (mine took twelve, but only because I enjoy the sidelines) with all the possible options and paths, all the forty-six achievements, various difficulty levels and a lot of alternate endings, Wasteland 2 could be considered a completionist nightmare or one of their greatest challenges. It’s the kind of game that you learn to enjoy more and more the longer you play.
To sum up, Wasteland 2 is an unholy union of older computer RPG games and modern gaming, although in the good sense of the expression. Sometimes when the industry becomes stagnant, formulaic, a game that shakes things up a little with a classic twist is overly welcome. While it may fail to entice gamers that only enjoy action oriented games such as run n’ gun FPS or hack n’ slash action games, RPG and adventure fans will be completely delighted by the huge amount of dialogues, character customization options, moral choices and possible paths to follow. It had been a while since I last allowed myself to get lost into such a heavily detailed game. Take another journey down the wastelands, get lost in this ravaged post-apocalyptic and learn to love it.