Thursday, February 25, 2021

Console Corner: Review of Wasteland 2

Mad Max without the spiky cars? Radioactive cowboys and robots? Cyberpunk in a nuclear wasteland? Somewhere in the middle of all of these ideas is the nexus which encapsulates inXile Entertainment’s Wasteland 2: Director’s Cut (2015). A mix of sci-fi and western tropes which produces something standing on its own, the game is a deep, story-based rpg experience that is by turns futuristic and historical (at least from the perennial perspective).

It is decades in the future after a nuclear war has left humanity scattered with varying degrees of technology functioning and not functioning. Some old school and some new, things like water and electricity are hard to come by even as there are new albeit rare forms of science that twist anything resembling John Wayne into science fiction. Reduced to tribes and communities, people try to survive in the desert of Arizona as best they can, scrabbling for supplies while dealing with warlords, cults, bandits and raiders. Life isn’t easy in the desert wastelands, if it ever was.

A turn-based rpg for one person, in Wasteland 2 the player creates and controls a squad of Desert Rangers who act as de facto police for the desert communities. In the opening scene, the squad is tasked with locating a nearby radio tower and investigating the murder of a fellow Ranger named Ace. Witnesses describing the murder as not entirely human, a plastic-metal leg is found on the scene, which leads to further questions. Who did this? Where did it come from? And who is delivering these strange messages over the radio? The deeper the squad gets into the desert, the deeper the mystery—and threat.

A mix of exploration, combat, and social interaction, the player guides their squad of Desert Rangers through a variety of scenarios. From firefights to electricity restoration, rescue missions to message delivery, and many others, the squad has their mettle tested, and in the process their experience increased. The player not only able to fully customize their characters and choose weapons at the start of the game, skills and other attributes are fully upgradable by spending the experience gained—the classic rpg setup. Weapons, ammo, and medicine likewise upgradable, the weak guns the squad begins with are slowly enhanced as new weapons are found or purchased and modded. There was a moment in the first couple of hours of play that I accidentally tried to pick up something from the museum at the Ranger’s base, after which a group of elite Rangers descended upon and kicked my squad’s ass in a matter of seconds. By the end of the game, the player will have built and equipped a squad of proportional strength.

Wasteland 2 was the first turn-based rpg I ever played. I had to learn that by design the game is slower, more deliberate than others I’ve played. I feel as though I spent roughly 20 of the 90-100 hours needed to complete the game in menus, tweaking points, transferring possessions, comparing metrics, and otherwise adjusting my squad’s stats to be maxed out for whatever situations the wastelands threw at me. Another 40 or so hours were spent walking around, exploring, and interacting with people. The remainder was combat. The second major point I had to adjust my video game thinking was to the variety of gameplay and story options. Wasteland 2 is anything by linear. There are multiple ways to tackle most situations, and story choices have consequences—good, bad, and morally transcendent. I can only imagine designing the trees and branches of narrative and player choice were what occupied the lion’s share of development. All in all I was not happy with the 90-100 hours (too long), but the general game experience was satisfying.

I played Wasteland 2 on the PS4, and while most things went smoothly, there were definitely moments the controls were wonky. During combat, the highlight marker would disappear, options would not display correctly or be usable, and a few screens outright glitched. Response times were also slow; almost always there was a half-second or second’s delay pushing a button. In turn-based combat this is meaningless, but it nevertheless detracts from the satisfaction of, for example, firing a rocket—wait, wait, and finally whoosh.

Beyond technicalities, there are a few issues with game design. For one, the random combat scenarios traversing the wasteland are annoying. While I understand the occasional, randomized scenario heightens tension and adds a degree of engagement, having one every three seconds on the world map was everything from bothersome to aggravating. Not only was it a roadblock to passage omward to the next marker or story point, it was also a roadblock to enjoyment given how often it occurred. Allowing the player to clear these out as they uncover the map (and not pop back up randomly again traversing the same ground) would have been the better option.

A personal quibble with the game is that it felt overly long. I spent somewhere between 90-100 hours doing the main storyline and probably half or more of the side content. Looking back at what I accomplished, it doesn’t feel like I should have needed to spend such an amount of time. I understand developers are trying to offer players a rich, complex, replayable experience (aka: bang for their buck), and this game certainly does that—as long as the player is generally enjoying themselves. For me, “enjoyment” was a mixed bag. There were really engaging scenes and scenarios. I thought the choices and layout of the Valley of the Titans, for example, was great—good story beats, player agency, the introduction of new devices and enemies, etc., etc. At the same time, these and other areas were also quite large. Exploring, having encounters, searching for loot, testing solutions to the quests, etc. could take ten hours for one map location—a long time to spend in one place, toing and froing and min/maxing in the menus. Again, I understand some players get off on this degree of content, but for me tightening the story and offering an overall gameplay length of 30-40 hours would have provided a denser, more focused experience that likely would also have been more enjoyable for it. And the humor? Well, sometimes good, others quite juvenile. (Poop, ha ha. Dildo, ha ha.)

There are several books I have read in the vicinity of Wasteland 2: Director’s Cut, including Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley, Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, Dan Simmon’s Flashback, and others. But none exactly like it. It combines these ideas into its own, and makes something positive of it. Cyberpunk Mad Max is a great motif. Thus, what the developers set out to do with the game I feel was accomplished: provide a unique, engaging main story and setting, give the player multiple options for building out their squad and handling encounters, offer interesting puzzles/quests to solve, and deliver a matrix of stats for players to min/max to their hearts’ content in an effort to be most efficient yet powerful. Overall, for people who like turn-based rpgs and the possibility to immerse themselves for tons of hours, this seems an excellent place to invest time. But for players like myself for whom this would be a first such experience, or who like tighter, more focused experiences, think twice.

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