(Wasteland 3 is out now for PC, PS4, Xbox One, Linux, and Mac. Distributor provided review copy.)
Arriving six years after a long development and rocky journey through the Kickstarter dumping grounds, WASTELAND 3 finally continues the irreverent and dark adventures through post-apocalypse America. With a team of old school FALLOUT veterans at the helm, WASTELAND 3 is both a throwback and reinvention of the things that distinguished the classic isometric RPG from others back in the day. While certain quality of life changes are definitely for the better, the wildly erratic tone will definitely put off some, making this particular journey an acquired taste.
Set in the frozen wilds of Colorado Springs, WASTELAND 3 begins with the November Squad, members of the law keeping Rangers, ambushed and mostly wiped out. Only two members of the team survive, both controlled by the player, and in their hands rests the very future of the new world.
How the world is saved, if it’s saved at all, is entirely up to the player. For better or worse, WASTELAND 3 is a multi-branching RPG with endless opportunities for the story to change. Every decision makes a difference and according to developer InXile there are at least a dozen of conclusions to choose from, including epilogues that dictate what happens to your friends and foes in the end.
It’s that story which is the meat and potatoes of the experience, as the actual combat brings very little to write home about. Much of the fighting is still based entirely on action points and taking turns on shooting one another, but unlike other games of its type, WASTELAND lets the parties go all at once instead of scattering them into randomized slots. While it does make things relatively easy compared to other games of its type, it also cuts down on annoyingly unfair fights where a single overpowered enemy can wipe out everyone in a single turn.
Combat allows players to fine tune their characters for both melee and ranged options, complete with power weapons, explosives, and even specialty comedy guns with unexpected consequences, but I found that in the end most fights played out exactly the same way. Maybe that’s just how I play, but it rarely felt like the landscape or weaponry actually changed the experience in any major way. Except for the times that the game bugged out, like when it at one point decided that throwables were not allowed indoors anymore, making half my party completely useless.
The game is designed to be played in co-op or, at the very least, by controlling the remaining duo of survivors at once. This allows for some truly satisfying pincer moves and tactical elements to the fights, where a sniper/heavy duo can unleash some true devastation in mere moments. Sadly, it also means that the characters themselves have very little in the way of personality, as they’re designed entirely to be vessels for the players. Even the archetypes that you can choose from the beginning are merely disguises for different stats. I found that it was far more rewarding in building your own character entirely. At least that way any choices you made were far easier to write off as logical – especially when they weren’t.
This two player experience continues in the non-combat portions, where both players can wander the map and interact with others on their own. Each player is their own person, so choices don’t require the presence of the other at any point – which means you better have a companion you can trust on the road with you.
I only got to try out the multiplayer with a stranger for a limited amount of time, meaning that the majority of my experiences are entirely based on the single player campaign. Which is nothing to scoff at, just completing the main story alone takes an estimated 60+ hours without completing the multitude of side missions.
Additionally, the consequences to your choices don’t become readily apparent as quickly as you’d think. While some of the lesser mechanics are still very easily gameable (help someone now or get a quick item or boost is an oft repeated variant found here as well), the bigger crossroads will sometimes take hours before you reap or sow whatever comes next. I found this to be a welcome addition to the game, something that felt very similar to one of the best RPGs ever made, DISCO ELYSIUM, where your long term planning was far more important than the short term.
But where the game does stumble is the humor and the writing, both which feel almost hysterically paradoxical at times. Much of the main story is reasonably grounded and mature (for post-apocalypse standards anyway), dealing with turf wars, nationalism, and politics in a satiric, but biting and effective way. One of the many highlights is the unsubtle, but deliriously brilliant tribe of men who worship Ronald Reagan, an icon of boomer politics that helped ruin the world for millions.
Then, as if to quickly backpedal and appease a wider, more broader audience, the game throws in BORDERLANDS style dick and fart humor, complete with your typical yuk-yuk’s about assault and abuse. It’s tonal whiplash of the highest order and it always feels like a step back from something truly special.
The series (which gave birth to FALLOUT) has always danced the line between serious and seriously demented, yet for the first time it feels like the two sides are actively engaged in combat with one another. Singular elements stand out as great examples of how both could work separately (a playroom for lunatics is both disturbing and hilarious), but for some reason or another they rarely work at once. This could potentially change when the game is played in co-op as the massive branching story can truly go everywhere, but for a solo game I feel that some reigning in would have helped immensely.
Even with complaints, WASTELAND 3 is an expansive, time consuming, and hugely exciting installment in the series. It very much does its own thing entirely, sometimes for the better and many times for its own detriment, but it’s never uninteresting or dull. The massive main campaign may take some time to get going, but once the story picks up it rarely lets go until one of the multiple conclusions.
For fans of the series (or even newcomers as the game is entirely standalone), WASTELAND 3 is an easy recommendation to make. While it may not achieve the kind of mainstream stature as FALLOUT, it comfortably finds its own tribe in those who’re willing to overlook the rough edges to uncover the gem within.