Wasteland 2 review: The toxic adventure

It looks like mankind finally did it. After decades of nuclear-armed nation states flaunting their atomic might, somebody took things a step too far, pressed the big red button and the entire world was reduced to cinders in an apocalyptic hail of ballistic missiles. After the dust settled and the gloom of the nuclear tundra set in, tiny pockets of survivors clamored up from the rubble and banded together like dirty, irradiated meerkats. Most were just in it for the chance to eke out some kind of existence under the new status quo, but those kind souls were constantly harried by bands of raiders, cannibals, mutants and jerks who somehow thought the apocalypse would be an appropriate time to shout, "Blaster Master rules Bartertown!" at every opportunity.

All of this is a pretty big bummer for humanity, but for players of Wasteland 2, the end of the world as we know it is just the beginning of a role-playing game that, through a combination of clever writing, daunting attention to detail and phenomenal post-apocalyptic world building, legitimately earns the oft-hyperbolic descriptor of "epic." It's just too bad that these strengths are so often overshadowed by technical problems.

Wasteland 2 tells the story of the Desert Rangers, a group of post-nuclear toughs dedicated to upholding some semblance of law amid the ruins of humanity. As in the romanticized American West, this involves lots of cowboy hats and gunfights, but all of those familiar genre tropes stand in contrast to the game's futuristic setting. That dusty drunk with the handlebar mustache of a Vaudevillian boxer? He's actually a synthetic humanoid carrying a plasma rifle that could incinerate you in a single blast of super-heated gas. This duality might not be unique, but it is a satisfying setting for an adventure and lays a framework on which developer InXile has crafted a deeply intricate, believable world.

One of the game's first missions sees players fending off huge mutant bugs and humans who've been turned into "pod people" (essentially zombies). That's a pretty rote scenario, but the attention to detail present in this relatively tiny portion of the game will keep players exploring the area for hours. One of the first things you see in this mission is a sizable field full of giant, mutated plants. You click one and the game responds with a pithy blurb of flavor text. "Stupendous! A rabbit's wet dream!" reads the carrot, while a nearby head of cabbage is said to require a "size 99 hat." If you keep clicking, however, you'll quickly realize that every single vegetable, plant, creature and person in the game (and a number of background objects) feature their own unique flavor text. During our Wasteland 2 stream earlier this year, creator Brian Fargo told us that the game features more text than all the Harry Potter books combined. Not only does this lend the world of Wasteland 2 immense, engrossing detail, it also never grows stale – a testament to the talented writing team at InXile.

As the original Wasteland was the spiritual predecessor of the Fallout series, it should come as no surprise that Wasteland 2 will seem immediately familiar to fans of the first two Fallout entries. Players navigate the post-apocalypse in third-person, and all combat plays out in turn-based, tactical fashion. The characters themselves – players control a squad of up to four Desert Rangers who may be joined at times by various non-player companions – are each a collection of attributes and skills, ranging from the typical (lock picking) to the futuristic (energy weapon proficiency) to the bewildering (toaster repair). While some skills are inherently more practical than others, developer InXile has done an excellent job ensuring that no skill is totally useless, and it's actively difficult to create a character incapable of finding some sort of useful niche out there in the irradiated wastes.

Combat, while potentially a rare occurrence, is the crux of Wasteland 2. Once a member of your Desert Ranger squad encounters an enemy, the screen will flash a bit of static before shifting into a turn-based, tactical mode. From there, characters gradually deplete their own individual pool of action points by moving, firing weapons or performing any other in-combat actions. Enemies generally follow these same rules, and in practice, combat turns into a strategic battle for position, with characters seeking cover and returning fire when the opportunity arises. Despite a few areas that are a bit too rife with enemies, combat never grows dull, and the tactical options present offer players a variety of ways to tackle each encounter, depending on their play style.

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All of the above praise only makes it that much more frustrating each time my cursor disappears. Or the camera inexplicably dips into nearby architecture. Or Wasteland 2 simply ignores my request to load a new area and instead crashes to desktop. During my most recent session alone I witnessed three hard crashes and watched as an explosion trap caused one of my squadmates to vanish from reality. Wasteland 2 is a classic role-playing game not just because it's rife with esoteric plot details and intricate mechanics, but also because it's launching with a broad range of technical glitches.

Wasteland 2 is exactly the sort of game the industry should be making. It's a clear labor of love featuring clever mechanics, novel design ideas and lovely, if sparse aesthetic design. Wasteland 2 is so packed with stuff to do and things to see that the game demands multiple plays, yet its story options are so intricate that replaying the plot never seems like a chore. But all of that is overshadowed by omnipresent bugs. Most often they're benign and understandable, but when you've forgotten to save for two hours then attempt to travel back to the Ranger Citadel only to have the game crash and lose your progress, it's hard to feel anything but rage. I hold out hope that InXile will be able to patch the game in rapid fashion, but until those bugs are squashed fans of the post-apocalypse are better off spending their time in New Vegas.

Addendum and a note from the Editor-in-Chief:

Several comments appended to this review suggest that it is based on "beta" code, or that the author did not play the game. Here are the facts: The review is based on a "pre-release" version of Wasteland 2, which we demarcated as such because it was distributed prior to the public launch of the game, not because it was considered so unfinished as to be unfit for review. Joystiq wouldn't have the game if its developers did not consider it ready to be shared, and we frequently review complete games prior to their retail or digital release (that's why you can learn about a game's quality on the day you want to buy it).

The reviewed code, approved by Brian Fargo, was enabled on the evening of September 9. "My only comments on this version to keep in mind is that we will be adjusting some of the combats for difficulty and to lessen ones that drag on longer than we think is right," Fargo said in an email. "One other small issue is that the SFX don't play when using a skill but expect an automatic update to address that in a few days. Also localization will be worked on until the last moments so best to evaluate it in English as there are localized lines missing and extra grammar and consistency passes that need to be completed.

"Lastly, this version will not have been code locked as long as the final so there could be some bug that popped up that won't be in the final. The final version is code locked for a week to ensure we catch the small things. But with all that said I think you will find a solid experience as we have all finished the game multiple times and in multiple ways."

As you can tell by the review above, the author encountered several major technical issues with the game as offered for review. There may be other critics out there who describe a smoother experience or who feel less disturbed by problematic elements. This review hinges on an honest description of what it was like for the author playing the game, written – to be frank – without regards to the developer's feelings. How that information helps in the breadth of your reading about Wasteland 2 is up to you.

Update (10/14/2014): If you've been having any issues with Wasteland 2, be sure to scroll through the patch release notes here and here.

This review is based on a pre-release Steam download of Wasteland 2, provided by InXile. Both the PC and Mac versions were tested. Images: InXile.

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