An unpolished gem
When approaching this review, the first thought that popped in my head was “This is really an NCR Trooper’s dream come true”. The obvious joke about patrolling the Mojave and wishing for a nuclear winter really comes true in Wasteland 3, a post apocalyptic role playing tactical squad game. That car crash of game description does little to explain what Wasteland 3 really is so to simplify matters just imagine Fallout and XCOM: Enemy Unknown had a baby and it was written by actually competent writers instead of whatever monkeys on a typewriter Bethesda actually employs.
In a way we’ve come a full circle, since the original Wasteland game inspired much of the Fallout series and Wasteland 3 is an actual spiritual successor of the original Fallout games, more so than Fallout 3, 4 and whatever 76 is supposed to be. In fact, in various points in the story I found myself wishing I had actually played Wasteland 3 first instead of Fallout 3.
So what is the setting of Wasteland 3? Its the 22nd century, a century after the day the Soviet Union and NATO decided to settle their differences in a very peaceful manner – That is nuking each other. Mutants and murderous robots now prowl the ruins of metropolises, as much of the Earth has been rendered an irradiated wasteland. The few remaining humans have either reverted into full barbarism or gone mental, as one would after seeing the destruction of the world.
Into this world the Desert Rangers step, descendants of the United States Army. They are trying to somehow uphold their original oath of serving and protecting people. In the events of previous games they lost their home base and are hurting for food and supplies. Things look grim for the Rangers until they receive an offer from the Patriarch of Colorado. He is in need of military assistance from the Rangers and is willing to provide aid in the form of food and provisions.
Thus, a convoy of Rangers is sent forth from boiling Arizona to frigid Colorado. Of course, things go wrong from the start when the convoy gets ambushed, most of the Rangers are killed and the player is left as the highest ranking officer, now forced to rebuild the expedition while fulfilling its original promise. Should they fail, the people of Arizona will starve, but what does success mean?
I’d rather leave the story for later so let’s focus on mechanics first. The game is neatly divided between role playing and combat. In the role playing portion, the player character mainly interacts with other characters and factions, manages the party and levels up. Its quite easy and straightforward, especially to anyone with a bit of experience with CRPGs.
A party can have up to six members of varying levels and each character can be leveled up separately and according to the player’s wishes. All characters earn experience points which allow them to level up and unlock points for attributes, skills and perks.
Attributes can give a character more Action Points (AP for short), damage multiplier with ranged weapons, health and so forth. Skills allow characters to lockpick, lie, intimidate, use melee or certain ranged weapons and so forth. Perks are either a handful of general ones every character has access to, or specific for their chosen skills (like being able to move more squares when holding a melee weapon, gain evasion for using sub-machine guns without cover or access to special abilities such as rally).
The party management is quite easy, as you can easily switch between characters in most inventory/character menus and they all have a common party inventory that is limitless (no weight restrictions!). Experience is primarily gained by killing enemies, finishing quests and doing various sneaky stuff like disarming traps, hacking computers and picking locks. There is no hard level cap and by the game’s end you can specialize most characters into 2-3 skills. Considering there is no huge amount of skills and you have six party slots, you can create a well balanced party that can face most challenges.
As far as the party itself goes, the player gains access to a pool of premade characters, as well as unique companions throughout the game. If none of them are appealing the player can create their own custom Rangers to use in the party. That said I found most of the unique companions more than satisfying and far more interesting.
In terms of equipment and armor the game has a wide variety that can be either found, scavenged or bought from vendors. Weapons vary wildly, even within the same weapon group in terms of ammunition and effects. You can have revolvers that fire giant spikes, flamethrowers, laser sniper rifles that can penetrate several targets, tesla coils and so forth. Weapons can be further enhanced using mods which can be found by either recycling older weapons and scavenging or buying from vendors.
Armor in contrast is divided into three parts (head, torso and legs) with pre-made sets. The player can find parts of a set in the various ways detailed before for weapons. Certain armor sets however can only be worn if characters fulfill certain attributes and skill levels (they can be still be worn but incur huge penalties). Like weapons, armor pieces can be modified, but unlike weapons they cannot be recycled for parts. Thus armor modifications can only be found or bought
Combat is the other half of the game. As far as it goes its the bog standard tactical squad gameplay. The player and the enemy take turns executing their moves on a grid map (of the current location, there are no level transitions). The player decides when to end their turn, and the turn order usually favors the player (unless the party is surprised or due to a scripted event). There is no initiative order within the squad, thus the player can switch freely between characters to execute maneuvers and synergize moves (such as remove cover with some LMG shredding to let the sniper or trooper have a better chance of hitting targets and the like).
There really isn’t much to write on the combat aspect itself. Different weapons require different APs, characters can carry two active weapons and freely switch between them as well as carry between 2-4 utility items. Characters taken out during combat can be revived during the battle or will recover afterwards. Friendly fire is possible (though the option can be turned off). Overall nothing exciting, just serviceable.
While there were a few challenging fights, they never felt unfair or unwinnable and only rarely did I resort to save scumming. The battles themselves never dragged on, or felt too tedious or repetitive. There is quite a bit of enemy variety, different enemy classes and enemies that can count as boss battles that are fairly uncommon. It just felt okay for both story progression and filler between story bits..
Travel and Survival
If there is one thing I truly like in the game is its survival management. In the early to middle game, the player often encounters a lack of resources. Good weapons and armor are hard to come by, but the same goes for medicine, utility items and ammunition. I often found myself using money to buy ammunition and using survival skills to keep away from fights on the overmap so as not to waste valuable resources.
Scavenging is a must and each trip I’d hit the vendors to make sure I had enough bullets for all my weapons. The fact characters can carry and seamlessly switch between two weapons meant I usually kept backup weapons that used different ammunition types in case I’d run out in a firefight, which happened a few times in my first playthrough.This never felt forced or bad. Rather it helped me feel more immersed in the setting.
The map itself is divided between the usual CRPG maps of hub locations, and an overworld in which the party travels in a specialized truck. The overmap isn’t too big and has a fair number of locations to explore for side content and other rewards. That said travel is restricted due to radiation and only by advancing the plot and upgrading the truck does the world open up more. There are also random encounters during exploration, some good some bad. Survival skills really help with those.
I wanted to get the mechanics out of the way so I could write about the story in length. That at least was my original intention but I really don’t want to spoil too much. The game does a very good job at both presenting to and allowing the player to interact with the story that I really wish people would approach it without any spoilers. Thus I’ll give only a small primer without spoiling too much and also showing why its the real meat of the game.
The story of Wasteland 3 is a very simple one. The Patriarch of Colorado has three children who rebelled against him and are running amok in the state sowing chaos and destruction. Not trusting his own people not to turn sides, the Patriarch reached out to the Desert Rangers, outsiders, to help him capture his kids. In return for the help the Patriarch will give the Rangers their much needed supplies as well as a base of operations in Colorado.
Of course, from the setting’s description you know that things don’t start on the right track. Regardless, the main objective of the story remains the same. Capture the Patriarch’s wayward children at any cost. Of course the more you play the game, the more you uncover Colorado’s history following the Deluge (their name for the nuclear apocalypse) and the part the Patriarch played in it. This raises more and more questions for the player.
Its a simple family drama played in the post apocalypse. However this simple framework allows the writers to truly shine. Through its lens the player gets to see and judge Colorado and the myriad of factions that reside and survive in its hellish snowy landscape. It also brings to the forefront the theme of duty versus idealism. The game asks you repeatedly to what and to whom your allegiances are, and how far are you willing to go for them while at the same time presenting you with the ideals the Rangers are supposed to uphold. Can you reconcile the two? Are the two in constant war with each other or can both be accommodated? These are not simple questions the game asks of you, and it doesn’t give you any answers.
In truth, the player is given the cruelest freedom a game can give: Freedom of choice. Wasteland 3 does away with morality systems. Instead it embraces a faction reputation system. The story and side quests will have the player interact with the many factions in the game and the choices made will impact relations with each and every one of them. Helping slavers will cause the people of the wasteland to despise you. Working with the families that rule Colorado Springs may lead the player to clash with the Patriarch and so forth. These choices will also affect the game’s finale and test the player’s morality far better than any karma system could. What kind of Ranger you are is reflected in those choices.
I mentioned side quests and there are plenty of them. Some of the side quests relate to the main story while others trigger during exploration. I found all of them interesting as they flesh out more of the politics and world of post apocalypse Colorado. Quite a few expose the horrific reality of the apocalypse. Not for the faint of heart.
Having done two playthroughs (though sadly not timed them) I believe the main story and the side content amount to around 20-30 hours of gameplay. Am certain that it could be trimmed a tad by more experienced players but overall the story’s pace, side content included, doesn’t feel too slow or rushed. It manages to hit that sweet spot of never outstaying its welcome, a rare feat for many story driven games.
Graphics, Art, Sound and Soundtrack
Graphically the game is not groundbreaking. CRPGs are rarely breathtaking and Wasteland 3 is by no means an exception. It looks as much as you’d expect a modern post apocalyptic CRPG to look. Like many things in the game, its serviceable. That said, by the end of it you would hope to revisit Fallout: New Vegas just to warm up a bit. The endless winter of Colorado can be quite cold and depressing.
Art wise there is quite a bit of character to the game. Though it is somewhat realistic, it does lean, like the original Fallout games, to the comedic. This is reflected in some of the gun, armor and faction designs. The Scar Collectors, slavers who modify their bodies, have thralls with giant bombs for heads. The Payasos are literal clowns who use colorful decor while viewing the entire world as a joke. You got the hypernationalistic Reaganite worshiping Gippers who have a giant mecha Ronald Reagan in their base and so forth. It is a tad absurd but never going overboard, striking a fine balance not seen since Red Alert 2.
Sound is okay. Weapons make satisfying pew pew noises. The voice work itself is top notch with all characters having fitting voices. There is not much to say for or against it really. Once again, it is simply serviceable.
The Soundtrack is where Wasteland 3 truly excels. There are several real bangers which help give more gravitas to certain fights. Their lyrics, often old religious or patriotic songs, clashing with the tortured chords of a post apocalyptic world. Certain songs in particular are used as progress markers for major fights, and truly help transform those battles into something epic and memorable. Of course this is without discounting the travel music of various radio stations in the overmap, helping to give more character to Colorado.
So far, reading this review you’d get the impression that Wasteland 3 is a serviceable CRPG with tactical squad combat and a very good yet simple story about duty and ideals in a post apocalyptic United States of America. While all of this is true, the game also has an unfortunate side it shares with the Bethesda Fallout series – bugs, loads of them.
Funnily enough, in my first playthrough I haven’t experienced any bugs aside from one hard crash. However in my second playthrough it seemed like all the bugs had been lying an ambush, waiting for that second run. There hasn’t been a day in which I didn’t experience one or two game breaking bugs that caused me to get stuck for nearly an hour looking for workarounds. To the game’s credit, it has a good autosave system that can be further tweaked so as not to lose too much progress. On the downside, sometimes it can save when you experience a game breaking bug and then its rage inducing.
I experienced graphical glitches, characters “falling” under the map, camera glitches and dialogue breaking scripted events. It shows how much I love the story of the game that I was willing, on a second playthrough, to actually soldier on and even roll back progress just to complete the story. That said, if I had to give scores, the amount of bugs and their impact would have caused me to deduct a full point. The game, in my eyes, needs at least another 1-2 months of bug fixing, no question about it.
Talking about the bad side of the game, I find the UI itself to be clunky, in particular for use in combat. Add to it the horrible AI pathing, that leads friendly/enemy units to move through clear environmental hazards. Worse yet is outside of combat, when the party moves through the map. Sometimes the characters bunch up and sometimes they get separated, and god help you if you stumble into combat at such times. Other times they walk through spotted tripwires or frag mines, triggering them. It can be quite exasperating.
Last but not least is the stealth mechanic which on paper sounds good but in reality is just… Meaningless. I rarely if ever found any good use for it outside of a damage multiplier for the first shot, usually targeting the most dangerous unit on the field to get rid of it while starting combat. I really feel an opportunity was missed there.
Wasteland 3 is CRPG with tactical squad combat. While mostly competent, it does not excel or innovate any of its core mechanics. What it does have is a compelling story that allows players to immerse themselves in a fascinating, post apocalyptic world and the drama of one of its ruling families. It allows players to role play while asking poignant questions about duty and morality without giving easy answers. It looks good, has plenty of character and a rocking soundtrack. It also has a fair amount of bugs and some annoyances. Overall I’d recommend it to anyone who wants a good modern CRPG, or has been craving a good Fallout experience now that the series turned to microtransactions.