When you live in the post-nuclear-apocalyptic wasteland of Arizona, life is tough. Most of the trappings of civilisation are gone; violence is rife; rabbits are now large, angry carnivores (thanks for that, radiation). It’s hard to keep it together. So when two towns nominally under your protection as are simultaneously attacked, you know you have to make a hard call: as you can only save one, which one will you choose? Oh, by the way, one of the towns produces most of the food the wastelanders eat, and the other one produces most of the water they drink. Pick.
Welcome to Kickstarter success story Wasteland 2, inXile’s 20-plus-years-later sequel to the original seminal RPG. The game demands players make these tough choices as a member of the Desert Rangers, a group that the delightfully throwback opening cinematic (live video! Actors in costumes!) explains is essentially the last pseudo military/law enforcement agency remaining after The Bomb, striving to protect what’s left.
Players create four characters for their ranger squad, and far-reaching decisions start early – each of the wide range of combat and non-combat skills available are assuredly all called upon at some time or another, so it’s a good idea for your medic to have a sideline in lockpicking, and your sniper to be a dab hand at Toaster Repair (yes, really). Crew assembled, it’s off to start an investigation into the death of a fellow ranger, which takes you out into the world map of the wastes and your adventure proper.
Save the food or save the water is merely the first major decision you have to make in Wasteland 2, which starts as it means to go in demanding the player make a choice and then having them live with the consequences. Not every decision is of such society-wide importance – many come down to a more individual level – but they all have weight, and the game isn’t afraid to remind you about the results of your decisions.
One neat game feature is your squad’s radio, which issues directives from Ranger HQ as well as picking up other transmissions from around the wastes – and it’s impossible not to feel guilty as even as the Rangers save that first town, the inhabitants of the neglected town plead desperately over the airwaves for help that isn’t coming. The radio continues to chirp away as the game goes on, setting the mood with updates from other ranger squads, mysterious mechanical transmissions, and haunting slices of post-apocalyptic life, such as a desperately sick woman calling for her missing husband to come home to help her die. Mention must be made here of the game’s voice acting, which manages to be consistently excellent without calling in any big showbiz names (Peter Dinklage, take note).
Unsurprisingly for a post-nuclear-war scenario, much of the audio and (much, much more) text information paints a grim picture of a horrid world, although there’s still plenty of the gallows humour for which spiritual successor series Fallout became famous – necessary if only to lighten the mood, as some nasty and heavy things are afoot in the wastes. The result is a game where winking references to “The A-Team” sit alongside some genuinely unsettling text descriptions. It's nn occasionally jarring contrast, but one that does a good job of portraying a world where nearly every kind of system and sense of normalcy or restraint has been broken down. As a player, it’s easy to feel the urge to help the people stuck in this nightmare situation, and feel the pangs of conscience whenever you fail them.
When time does come to drop the hammer and deal Ranger justice to murdering raider scum – or, er, bunnies – the game drops into turn-based squad combat of the sort that will be familiar to players of earlier Fallout titles or the X-Com series. Each of your squad members (perhaps joined by companion squad members found around the wastes) receives a number of points per turn to spend on actions, and the game’s maths goes into effect to calculate factors like skill levels, range and so on into chance-to-hit percentages and damage numbers. It’s a solid version of a now tried-and-tested system that adds familiar tactical variety with factors like cover, height advantage, and a varied weapon mix, although there’s nothing too innovative on show.
A loss-of-consciousness mechanic whereby severely wounded Rangers bleed out unless they receive urgent medical help can add tension though, as does heading into a battle under-resourced or pre-battered – with ammo and medical supplies scarce or expensive in the wastes, and no automatic hit point recovery between combats, often the Rangers need to not only win a fight, but win it well. The majority of fights are potentially deadly encounters, which helps to keep things interesting.
Graphically, Wasteland 2 is very much serviceable, with plenty of care and detail in the crumbling ruins of our civilisation and more varied terrain types and environments than have typically been found in the comparable Fallout series, but it reveals its (relatively) cheaper budget with a more low-def look than we’re used to from today’s AAA titles – a few fuzzy-gory-death animations and scenes of vague carnage in particular are reminiscent of the Diablo II era. Containers containing potentially crucial supplies can also be easy to miss, and swinging the camera to a different angle on the way back through an already-explored area sometimes turns up something important you’ve previously walked right past. The game’s perhaps consciously old-fashioned approach to non-combat activities like picking a lock - amounting to what are effectively stat-based dice rolls to check for success – could also perhaps have been left in the games of the past.
It’s really the story and atmosphere we’re here for though, and here Wasteland 2 shines with a number of memorable encounters and characters, and in the way that all those choices start adding up. The game is huge – this reviewer is still some way from the end – and the paths not taken first time around are clearly waiting for repeat playthroughs. Saving humanity is a big job, but someone’s got to do it – top up that canteen and get out there, Ranger.