When Brian Fargo released the original Fallout in 1997, the CRPG genre was all but dead. To those in command of the hobby, the CRPG was seen as the kiss of death, and including one of them in your yearly release schedule was guaranteed to kill your quarterly report.
With high-budget roleplaying games like Betrayal in Antara and Lands of Lore 2 flopping spectacularly after having been said to be the PC’s equivalent of Final Fantasy 7, there weren’t many publishers willing to take a chance on a dead genre.
Unless you were willing to make an action hack-‘n-slash game like Blizzard’s Diablo or an MMO like Ultima Online, you were urged to back away from the RPG genre entirely if you valued your company’s continued health.
After Fallout’s release? Well, that changed.
We went from developers publicly stating that RPGs don’t sell to just about everyone scrambling to replicate Fallout’s monumental success. Fargo’s masterpiece was followed by a steady stream of PC RPGs that broke barriers as well as sales records, all of them furthering the genre in one way or another.
Fallout became the gaming era equivalent of that plastic bar you put down on the conveyor belt at a grocery store; a divider that stood between two completely different sections of a greater whole. On one side, the lean years of the early ’90s, and on the other an RPG-filled 21st century where the genre grew so big that it bled over into others, too.
Fallout laid the modern ground rules for the CRPG. The supreme non-linearity, the large worlds, the grey morality, the multiple endings, the no-kill options, the multiple quest resolutions … It’s basically the whole reason sites like RPG Codex exist. It was to our modern incarnation of the genre what Ultima 4 was to the previous era. It wrote the rules. It became the standard.
After Interplay folded, Fargo faded into the background and Fallout’s name floated in the ether until it was picked up by Bethesda. We all know how that developed. While the newer games were fine in their own right, they were a bit too mass-market for some folks. The bleakness, strategic combat, and non-linearity didn’t quite make the jump to the series’ FPS sequels.
Then, with Wasteland’s trademark finally up for grabs, Fargo decided to make thunder strike twice.
And boy did it ever.
Wasteland 2 is more than just a sequel to a DOS game from 1989. Wasteland is the dream game of an entire generation; an RPG meant to recapture the fun and flair of Fallout while adding sharper visuals and a much bigger plateful of content. That’s what you can expect from Fargo’s Kickstartered baby.
Wasteland 2 continues the story of the first game. That RPG’s default characters, Snake Vargas, Angela Deth, and Hell Razor, are now the leaders of a successful, extended society of desert lawmen that protect the weak and punish the wicked.
The defenders of post-apocalyptic justice find their existence threatened by a new enemy and request the player’s help in locating and removing it before it gains enough power to threaten their new world’s fragile peace. Alliances are made, pacts are broken, old foes revisited and famous landmarks coated in blood, all the while your enemy becomes clearer and clearer with each area conquered.
Story-wise, a lot of what made Fargo’s previous games so unique is what makes this latest one just as special. From the very beginning, everywhere is open to you: although you are told where you can go, you are in no way forced to go there. The game allows you to take as much time exploring the wasteland as you want, never once penalizing you for taking detours or skipping ahead.
Throughout the game, this idea of aimless wandering, discovering new settlements and hidden caches, unraveling tiny bits of the main storyline’s secrets as you go, is encouraged. This open world aspect isn’t new, but with no time limits and no annoying instances of being locked out of areas due to completing quests out of order, it gives Wasteland 2 an edge over other games that claim to be “free roam”.
I’d even go as far to say that perhaps the game gives you too much freedom. The abundance of quests at the start of the second chapter was enough to send me into an OCD-fueled fit. Every single one of them had multiple pathways you could take at the start that depended on your three speech abilities, and certain key mechanical skills, all of which altered the course of the story from that point on.
This was a theme throughout the 60+ hours I spent on my first trip and resulted in more “save scumming” than I’ll admit. Just missing out on a speech skill trigger or neglecting a small step in the lead-up to a boss fight results in drastic changes to the game world. Take the “Canyon of Titan”, for example: one tiny decision you make there can irrevocably change the entire area, resulting in three very distinct scenarios taking place once you return to it.
Reading the forums and seeing how other people’s faction relations looked after each quest filled me with equal parts awe and envy. I don’t even know how one team could come up with such convoluted scenarios.
Which brings me to the skill list, another aspect of the game that made me dizzy.
Yes, there are a lot of skills … and yes, they’re all used. From Animal Whisperer to Weaponsmith, each has several applications, even applications that are not immediately obvious. You pick the surgeon skill, thinking it’s just for resurrecting comrades, but you find out it can be used to carefully snip away vines in the Ag Center. Your Outdoorsman skill, which you used to navigate the overworld, is instead used to slide open a glass case that contains a fragile and rare healing herb. I found myself using skills in unconventional ways quite often, a design decision that wasn’t present in many of Fallout‘s copycats, and one which I’d missed.
Speaking of copycats, a lot of CRPGs are now being developed with the Unity Engine, and they share a plasticky feeling. Lack of interactive environments, repeated assets and colors, unimaginative locales that fit like Lego bricks … I haven’t had much luck finding a Unity game that looks good.
Unlike the majority of Unity engine games (I’m looking at you, Shadowrun), Wasteland 2 doesn’t have that plasticky feeling. It doesn’t fall prey to washed-out, flat textures. In fact, Wasteland 2 looks better than even Divinity Original Sin, thanks especially to the variety in its combat areas and the way the field reacts to your bullets: cacti explode, boxes crumble, car hoods flap when dinged by gunfire … it looks great during large gunfights, and even better when grenades explode.
Wasteland’s combat isn’t just a rehash of Fallout. Borrowing from other turn based games, Wasteland takes some of the features that worked in other titles and puts them in its own systems. The “overwatch” mode from Xcom, crouching behind cover, the effect nighttime has on hit chance; Wasteland 2 takes what works and makes it into a cohesive whole.
As a result, Wasteland’s combat isn’t so new and terrifying that it would turn off newer gamers, and isn’t so plain and derivative that it alienates experienced players, either. Combat feels “crunchy”. It’s satisfyingly deep enough that it comfortably holds the attention of this cranky D&D nerd.
I noted that Wasteland 2’s combat doesn’t progress too fast or get too far away from the player, difficulty-wise. As much as I liked Divinity OS, its combat got away from me at times. I spent large swaths of the game stuck in areas where enemies were too difficult and my party was simply too weak to reasonably deal with them.
This isn’t the case with WL2, since even some of the harder quests, like clearing the prison or saving the boy from Preacher Jinto, are very doable with slight tweaks in equipment or a different approach. This was refreshing, since I’m getting to a point where overly-frustrating battles are starting to make the jump from my “pro” list to the “con” one.
While I love the return to old-school combat mechanics typical of Kickstarter RPGs, I don’t like the unbalanced difficulty. Thankfully, Wasteland 2’s developers took the time to balance things—or at least weren’t so concerned with pleasing the ultra-hardcore crowd that they forgot about those of us who don’t want to reload the same saved game twenty times.
As short as the development time was, Wasteland 2 flows over with content. Even missing a good slice of the game’s quests (mostly due to not knowing they were there), I spent 70 hours exploring the overworld. It’s easily as big as both of the first two Fallout games combined, if not a smidgen more.
There are so many NPCs to recruit, side quests to undertake and hidden pre-war caches to find that if you have the spare time, you can spend a couple of months playing this game alone. They crammed an impressive amount of content into a game that only took a few years to develop. Bethesda can’t match this level of content diversity, and they have one of the largest and best-funded teams in the industry.
Wasteland 2 is the only true Fallout clone since 1998. It has the humor*, the colorful NPCs, the snappy dialog, the hyper-non-linearity, the numerous multiple endings and the finely-balanced-never-frustrating combat that endeared ’90s PC gamers to Fargo’s original masterpiece.
The familiar feeling of spending five minutes trying to decide if you want to take a different path with the quest you just “solved”, the thrill of randomly slaying everyone in a faction and seeing how it alters the game, the hunger for more play time that causes you to stay up past midnight, the joy of discovering weird nonsense laying in s post-apocalyptic desert … Wasteland 2 is a Fallout fan’s dream come true. No amount of hyperbole I insert into this review is enough to underscore this point.
The Fallout magic is especially evident in the small touches. Random radio broadcasts slowly give up tidbits of info about each faction, and spooky sounds get picked up when you start to walk into the barrens of the map. There’s a real feeling here that the people who made this game were having genuine fun while doing so, and it shows.
Religious zealots sing while you walk by their church, merchants trying to entice you as you get closer to their settlements … The squawking from your Ranger-issued radio is one of the coolest aspects of the game, and the one that most makes the world around you feel alive.
However, there are a few gripes I have with the game. Namely, the extremely poor map.
First of all, quests, even when tracked via the journal, are never shown on the map. What’s even worse is that you can’t manually make map notes either.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wandered around an already visited area trying to remember where an important quest NPC, merchant, or un-opened treasure cache was, only to give up and leave it behind. Nothing is marked on any of the game’s maps, which make navigation a pain in the rear, to put it mildly.
There are also a few glitches in movement, with my characters sometimes becoming immobile after a fight. This is cleared up with a simple save-and-load, but it’s annoying and shows that they still have a few kinks to work out.
Wasteland 2 was one of the few games I supported on Kickstarter when it was first announced, and I gave it $60 for one reason and one reason only: Because Brian Fargo was getting his team together and would be able to create his preferred type of CRPG without publishers forcing him to compromise.
As much negativity as Kickstarter has been saddled with over the past year, I feel reassured that good things can come of it thanks to this game here. Though Divinity and Shadowrun were also big successes that were funded through Kickstarter, it almost felt for a while there that Wasteland would get lost in their shadow.
That thankfully isn’t the case, since in this gamer’s opinion, Wasteland 2 is a much bigger and more varied CRPG than either of those two titles. Fargo & Co should be proud of what they have here, and I sincerely hope that the market allows them to make a Wasteland 3.
Wasteland 2 was reviewed using a Kickstarter-reward code purchased by Niche Gamer. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s reviews/ethics policy here.
* You find Fallout’s water chip, by the way.