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Early Impressions: Wasteland 2 Beta

That's an unusual spelling of 'alpha'

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Playing games, especially turn-based ones, at fifteen frames per second is alright for a while, but then I started to feel a bit sick, and every blink I took seemed to last an age. The fine art of pixel-flashing really can do funny things to the human brain when it doesn’t work as intended.

Wasteland 2‘s currently appalling performance (for many, but not all, players) is just one of many reasons that its ‘beta’ tag winds up sounding a little too Mission Accomplished. Which makes this another case of an Early Access game I wish I’d waited longer to play, as right now the experience is much more about trying to stomach the problems than it is enjoying what does, pleasingly, seem to be the alternate-universe Fallout 3 that Wasteland 2’s Kickstarter backers so craved.

Other than performance, the other huge bugbear with the current build is that it costs $60 (reflecting the Kickstarter tier necessary to gain beta access), which is a hell of a lot to pay for a game that currently only features 30% of the planned areas, runs like a three-legged dog and is in need of a (planned) UI overhaul. Clearly anyone who buys this version will be automatically updated to new and eventually final builds as they happen, but that price for this content does raise the barrier for entry to ‘only if you really, really, really, really care about turn-based RPGs and enjoy filing bug reports’. Apparently a lower price is planned for later, but they’re trying to sweeten the current deal with some digital books, soundtracks and whatnot. Er, none of which are available yet. So, like betting on a chihuahua cage fight, it’s a high price for what’s currently a short and rough experience. Missus.

OK, that’s out the way. What have we actually got here? Well, it’s a turn-based roleplaying game set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, where bandits, radiation, water shortages, cyborgs, warring tribes and mutated wildlife do their level best to eradicate your gang of travelling lawgivers. Many situations can be resolved multiple ways, for instance by loaded gun or by silver tongue, and character development involves a vast number of stats.

In other words, while it bears the slightly lesser-known Wasteland name, it knows full well that its diehard cRPG audience has arrived looking for the true-blue Fallout threequel that never happened. From combat to perspective to freedom to movement to dialogue that involves everyone being a bit of an arsehole and a lot of cheesy puns and sci-fi references, it tries very hard to deliver both in mechanics and in tone.

Does it work? Well, yeah, so far. I feel suitably timewarped, despite the move to 3D graphics (perhaps the terrible framerate in the current build helps evoke Windows 95 days), which leaves me with mixed feelings. I most certainly enjoy the warm cuddle of nostalgia, and the chance to see what roleplaying games might have become if Bethesda and Bioware hadn’t forcibly dragged them off in more of a BIFF! direction, but there’s a guilt to it too. I call it ‘MOJO-fear’, the anxiety that if I’m not careful I might mire myself in the past and grumpily mutter about kids today, how it’s all just noise and it’ll never get better than when I saw Dylan at the Roundhouse in ’67.

My own old man fears aside, Wasteland 2 doesn’t feel actually archaic, other than in some of its dialogue – 1973 called, it wants it soylent green gags back (and yes, I know there’s sad irony in my using the geriatric ‘year called’ meme to illustrate that, but goddamnit I’ve run out of coffee). In fact, it’s surprisingly… peppy and quietly flashy in many respects. It doesn’t jabber on for too long, it’s quick to offer flexibility, fights feel fairly fast and hard-hitting despite the staccato turn-taking, the camera’s fully-adjustable and the environments are jolly nice, pulling off a fine mix of arid wasteland and detail-packed clutter of post-nuclear civilisation. Also the trees wave in the (presumably deadly) breeze. I do like a waving tree. I also like that I start with a squad, rather than a lone hero, right out of the gate, meaning bigger fights with a broader range of tactics.

Fights are broadly comparable to Fallout 1/2s, but a cover system of sorts both ups the tactical thinking and the animation factor – this is less like a bunch of blokes standing in a line taking turns to shoot each other, as there’s more ducking and diving on show. Only a bit though: when it comes down to it, this is about hit percentages and weapon specialisms, not hiding and twitching. There’s nothing like XCOM’s slo-mo kills or over the shoulder camera switching here, which’ll good news for purists but perhaps a little sterile for anyone hoping for a turn-based game with 21st century whizzbang sensibilities. There also isn’t a huge amount of death-toys to play with, at least not that I’ve found so far, and the fact that character models aren’t visually changed by what they’re wearing is a bit deflating. As every single sentence in this piece should be qualified with though, it’s very early days for Wasteland 2 yet.

Wasteland 2 also requires some creative thinking on occasion – saving a drowning boy, for example, involves realising that a certain skill might affect a certain object. If you don’t establish that quickly enough, or none of your party members have that skill, they will literally watch the boy drown, and the game and relevant NPCs will then reflect that outcome. Clearly I can’t say how much of that sort of thing will abound in the finished game, but I like the idea that if you’re just not enough of a thinker, not enough of a hardbitten wilderness survivor, you’re going to experience very different turns of events to other players. The world also feels reasonably fat with places and people, things to do/kill and options to make an enemy out of almost anyone even at this early stage, which bodes well for the future.

Sadly it really is extremely difficult to play at the moment: the average framerate on my not-inconsiderable PC is 17, dropping to 10 if anything particularly exciting or shadow-y is happening. On top of that, quests keep going wrong – for instance, a tribe plum forgot that I’d saved the aforementioned boy from drowning, and kept angrily accusing me of leaving him to die. Savegame corruptions and crashes to desktop also blighted my attempts to explore and survive.

Whatever ‘Early Access’ really means, the game’s just not yet ready to play comfortably, and in order to save myself from stropping off and giving up on it, I keep telling myself that despite the confident ‘beta’ tag this is just an alpha and I really should come back in a few months rather than try and invest anything in it now. Indeed, apparently savegames will likely be incompatible with the next update, so it really is sheer folly to try and do much at present.

So for now I’m treating it as brief proof that inXile do indeed appear to be making the game they’d promised to make, that it isn’t cheap and nasty and that it doesn’t suffer from the disappointing perfunctoriness of Shadowrun Returns. I think it’s going to pan out how we’d hoped, presuming ‘old school turn-based RPG with a big old lick of paint’ is what we’d hoped for. I’m afraid I do have to recommend against buying it right now though, at least if your primary purpose for doing so is entertainment.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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