Wasteland 2 Preview

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Deep Silver
Developer:inXile Entertainment
Release Date:2014-09-19
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Third-Person
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay

inXile Entertainment's Wasteland 2 is at the forefront of a new generation of CRPGs that promises to bring back the classic styles of gameplay that have largely been missing for the last decade. Crowd-funded on Kickstarter and one of its earliest videogame successes, Wasteland 2 has now reached a state where inXile feel confident enough to release the game to its Kickstarter backers. Of course, if you're here on GameBanshee and haven't heard of Wasteland 2 by now, well, I'd be surprised.

Naturally, just about all of the GameBanshee crew has been able to check out Wasteland 2 over the last few days, but for those of you who didn't pledge or pre-purchase the game on Steam Early Access, we thought we'd share our thoughts on the game so far.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was part of a very limited group given pre-beta access to Wasteland 2 for the purposes of providing feedback to inXile and helping with getting the beta polished up for release. My experiences expressed in this preview only reflect the version that's now available to Kickstarter backers and on Steam, which itself is still not a finished product.

Back to Arizona

Right from the start, it's clear Wasteland 2 is a blend of old and new. Wasteland 2 is obviously heavily inspired by the original 1988 title, but it also draws quite a bit from its spiritual follow-ups, Fallout and Fallout 2. As a result, the game is in an interesting and rather strange position of being expected to appeal to both fans of Wasteland and those who have enjoyed Fallout but never touched the original game.

It's fortunate, then, that this merger has worked out. Many of the basic qualities of Wasteland remain in Wasteland 2 - party-based gameplay with customizable and NPC followers, the character system remains similar, and obviously, much of the world, story and lore is based on the original game's. But at the same time, those traits similar to Fallout - namely, turn-based combat that takes place on a grid, isometric camera perspective, a focus on skill use in the environment, and a reactive game world, also slot perfectly into Wasteland's gameplay as well (though of course, many of those features were part of the first Wasteland too).

You'll start out the game attending the funeral of a Desert Ranger, Ace, who was murdered under highly suspicious circumstances. As new recruits into the Desert Rangers, keepers of order in post-apocalyptic Arizona (whose power has largely faded over the years), your party is tasked with finding Ace's murder site, collecting his log book and some radio repeater units, and then installing those repeater units where they belong in order to triangulate some strange radio transmissions bouncing around the airwaves. Of course, that's just the basics - from there, the story develops in some interesting ways as your mission continues.

It's no secret that in games like Wasteland and Fallout, the story tends to be more of a setup for the adventures and missions you'll be undertaking, and that's also true in Wasteland 2. What's there is certainly functional, but what really makes the game is its well-written characters and the scenarios you'll encounter as you explore the world. Wasteland 2 has plenty of charm, interesting lore and lengthy dialogues to go around.

The beta itself contains about five major locations - Ranger Citadel, Radio Tower, Highpool, Ag Center, and Rail Nomads Camp. The first is your home base, though it's not fully available from the start of the game, and the second is the "tutorial area". Things really get going afterwards, with the game marking Rail Nomads Camp, a non-plot-critical town hub area on your map, and crises at both Highpool and Ag Center flaring up at the same time - without going into spoilers, whichever of those two latter locations you choose to visit first will have a significant impact on the game world.

Actually getting from place to place is done on a world map screen that's similar to that of the original Fallout, but also ties in some simple resource management elements similar to Neverwinter Nights 2: Storm of Zehir. The main resource to pay attention to while travelling is water - run out, and your party is pretty much out of luck - which can be filled at hidden oases across the map or at a few set refill stations inside map locations themselves. Random encounters and radiation clouds will also contribute to attrition as you travel, meaning that you probably won't want to dally or waste time. Right now the world map is a bit sparse, with only the major game locations mentioned above available, along with a collection of hidden caches to find, but I have to assume that the map will become more populated by Wasteland 2's release.

Rangers 4 Lyfe

As Wasteland 2 starts up, you're called on to create a full party of up to four characters, or select from pre-generated ones. You'll assign points to a number of attributes - Coordination, Luck, Awareness, Strength, Speed, Intelligence, and Charisma (or the "CLASSIC system" as some have dubbed it) - as well as a number of skills divided up into Combat Skills, Knowledge Skills and General Skills. All of these operate on a 10-point scale; attributes are fixed at character creation, while skills can be advanced on level-up later on.

The character system of Wasteland 2 is a real strength. Not only does it feature substantially more skills than many other RPGs these days, but somehow the game manages to make almost all of them useful. At the same time, it's just stingy enough with the points at character creation and level-up to make you seriously consider how to build your party. In Wasteland 2, building a character that's good at everything is impossible, and even an entire party is bound to have some weaknesses even if you try to maximize the spread of skills. It's reasonably well balanced even at this early stage, and creating characters under this system is great fun.

What makes Wasteland 2 a bit different from other popular CRPGs, especially those in the Infinity Engine vein, is that it tends to be highly focused on skill use and action rather than on dialogue. Though there are plenty of conversations to be had, the game is more concerned with its world interactivity and reactivity than in giving you a hundred different conversation options to steer the story. Creative or logical skill use, or specific order of actions tends to be rewarded by the game and often leads to different results - Wasteland 2 doesn't always telegraph its choices obviously, but you can count on it usually acknowledging your actions one way or another.

When it comes to matters of honor, Wasteland 2 is already capable even in its beta state. The game uses a turn-based combat system with turn order decided by initiative of the combatants, and it plays out on a square grid that is drawn when battle begins. Use of cover plays a fairly large role in combat, s Wasteland 2 actually features a full cover system that could be positively compared to XCOM: Enemy Unknown's, making positioning and tactics such as flanking viable and often very important.

The combat encounter design is also generally strong, but could still use some work. Although enemy variety is good, and enemies have different types of abilities (such as giant toads that will use their tongues to steal weapons right out of combatants' hands), your foes will rarely use team tactics and usually either settle to bum-rush your party, or hide behind some cover and take pot shots. But, when the game combines several enemy types together and provides some interesting terrain, often battles still end up being quite challenging - cover points are not always immediately accessible, and you'll frequently need to use creative positioning to survive - but it never feels unfair and when you do make mistakes, you tend to learn from them quickly.

Rocky Roads

Wasteland 2 is showing a lot of promise at this stage, but as it's still in active development, there is a lot that can and likely will change. I won't comment on things like the occasional crash or save corruption issue (though in general, the game is pretty stable for me), because those come with the territory and are expected at this stage in development. Rather, I'd like to talk more about where I think Wasteland 2 can be improved... in some places, more substantially than others.

To start, even though I really enjoy the combat, at this stage there is some room for improvement. Right now there is a general lack of unique enemies and special encounters, with a lot of combat that could be described as filler... I think that for a game with this much combat, more needs to be done with the encounter design to avoid unnecessary repetition. Furthermore, things like grenades aren't yet in, and there is no destructible cover in place, so battlefields remain feeling very static and ultimately, battles themselves are a little predictable in how they play out - when the game throws a monkey wrench at you in the form of a sudden instantly-downed party member, it's great, but such events that force you to immediately change gears don't happen often enough. Last, the lack of features like aimed shots and different melee attacks arguably leaves things a bit more simplistic than they should be.

Skill use also needs some work. Although most skills are valuable, several of them are not too well balanced at this stage, and many of them don't get used as often as they should. Combat skills vastly outweigh the benefits of everything else, since combat is mostly unavoidable in Wasteland 2, and therefore either those skills, or ones related to combat like Field Medic and Surgeon, are most important, followed by Lockpicking and Safecracking, which are used very frequently. I'm not saying that every skill needs to be equally valuable, but right now I feel the game rewards some skills too much compared to others. The same can be said of attributes - Coordination is by far the most important, since it affects firearm use, while Charisma fulfils its legacy as a dump stat due to how little use it sees throughout, and because dialogue skill checks seem entirely unaffected by it.

I also have some complaints about how the game's loot is handled. Right now, there appear to be only generic containers, with very little hand-placed loot to be found. The type of loot isn't affected enough by the type of container you find - other games with generated loot lists tend to feature different container categories, like weapon lockers or medicine cabinets, but in Wasteland 2 you find the same old loot distribution over and over. As a result, there's also an over-abundance of containers, with some rooms featuring four or five lootables, but all the loot is distributed across each of them, so looting can feel like busywork (doubly so when the containers are locked and need to be lockpicked or bashed). This could be iterated upon quite a bit, in order to make loot feel more unique and to improve that sense of scavenging for supplies.

My final, and probably nastiest bugbear, is in the lack of free exploration of the world map and the general lack of connective tissue between locations. Right now, most map locations don't open up until the plot has advanced sufficiently, which means that roaming the world in search of adventure just doesn't really exist, and this also diminishes the importance of world map travel. Additionally, although there are multiple solutions to a lot of problems, often the potential for quests and interesting multi-faceted scenarios is not quite realized. It's that question of "what happens after the crisis" that needs to be answered; I would love to see more world-spanning problems appear that require some tough choices, with both possibilities as well as outcomes depending on choices made earlier in the game - that would really help the choice and consequence factor, as well as give some more meaning to the world map travel system.

Closing Thoughts

Even though Wasteland 2 has a long ways to go, at this stage in development I do feel it's very promising. The beta is not perfect by any means - graphics, user interface, and even quests, story and general gameplay are all subject to change - so that could turn some players off who expect a polished and bug-free time right out of the box, but at the same time, if you are interested in seeing a glimpse of what the game will offer as far as its overall gameplay experience goes, the beta is probably worth checking out.

Despite all the positives, it's worth pointing out that as-is, the game is not really in an acceptable state. When I preview titles, usually they are much further on in development, and if I hadn't done any game development myself before, it'd probably be pretty jarring to see a game like this. And, truthfully, there is nothing guaranteeing it will improve, so I'd rather not get too complacent with it and say the game's going to turn out perfect in the end, because that simply would not be honest or realistic. But that said, I do have faith in the talent at inXile and I expect them to make good on their promises as best they can.

All said, even at this fairly early stage, Wasteland 2 still brings back a lot of what I love about CRPGs from the mid-to-late 90s and early 2000s... it just needs more time in development and more suggestions from fans to really get it that final 25% of the way there, and right now that appears to be just what it's getting. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing how the beta evolves, as well as how the final product turns out.