Wasteland 2 is formidable. The word 'sprawling' comes to mind but it's not quite right. There's a bit of sprawl, if such a thing as sprawl can happen in bits, but the game's density is a more distinctive feature than its actual size. InXile's Kickstarted RPG is a large game and rewards repeated playthroughs with previously unseen content, but it's the sheer quantity of stuff that has astonished and occasionally overwhelmed me. As to whether the effort of seeing it all (or most of it) has been worthwhile? Here's wot I think.
Before digging beneath the radiated topsoil, let's be clear that I've enjoyed my time with Wasteland 2. I've been playing for three weeks, which surprises me every time I reflect on it. Astounds me, really, considering the rush to the finish line and the frantic search for talking points that can be an unfortunate aspect of reviewing such a gargantuan game.
It's a game that demands your time, not only because it's packed with things to see and do, but because it eventually creates a compelling momentum. There are aspects that frustrated me from beginning to end, but nothing that made me consider walking away. The worst of my complaints are directed at features or process that I quietly tolerated rather than cursing, and Wasteland 2's biggest problem is one that would seep into almost any commitment that lasts so long - there's a seven hour itch and, for the dedicated ranger, there might also be a seventy hour itch and a few more in between.
Whatever corner of the world you might be exploring and whatever mission might currently occupy your rangers, Wasteland 2 has you reading lots of text, sorting through lots of loot and engaging in lots of turn-based combat. Oh, and using skills set to hotkeys to access or activate almost every bloody thing you find. To be fair, there isn't an 'open' skill that needs to be levelled up lest hapless rangers break their arms while trying to take the lid off a crate, but there's far more clicking on lockpicking, then clicking on a lock than I'd like.
I don't mind spending a lot of time clicking on things but in Wasteland 2 I feel like I spend far too much time clicking on the same things for exactly the same reasons. If I intend to hack into a computer, clearly I'll want Digital Ian, my super-geek IT guy, to handle things. He has the highest computer skill - in fact he's the only one in my gang of dunderheads with a computer skill at all - so if I right click on the computer, I'd be happy for him to take charge by default.
Instead, I have to select him, select the skill and then select the computer. That's fine the first time, maybe even the first ten times, but you might end up selecting your own version of Digital Ian a hundred times or more. Like I said, it's a big wasteland out there.
The obvious advantage of the system is that it allows for silliness. In Fallout, it was possible to pick an NPC's pocket and plant a primed bomb in their trousers rather than take anything. That's what happens when players have the freedom to apply skills in an unusual fashion and it certainly wouldn't be possible if everything was driven by context sensitive commands. Wasteland 2 does allow for creative solutions and improvisations on occasion, but most of the time a computer requires computer skills and a door requires a lockpick skill.
Finicky is a good word to describe the interface and the majority of interactions with it. In fact, if Wasteland 2 was a tabletop RPG, the gamesmaster would probably be quite finicky. The sort who enjoys watching you and your chums sorting through yet another pile of ammunition and reckons every area should have at least six boobytrapped doors or chests. It's hard work sometimes, slogging through another of his scenarios, but you stick with it because the stories are entertaining and there's an occasional gem of a location.
Structurally, the game is as recognisable as any backer of the Kickstarter might hope. Wasteland 2 is not only a sequel to Wasteland, as the name suggest, it's also the Fallout 3 that could have been, and its relationship with CRPGs past is clear. Those arriving in this new post-nuclear America directly from the Fallout games of the nineties will encounter the first unfamiliar element during character creation - Wasteland 2 isn't about the lone wanderer, it's a party-based game about a team of rangers and the party system, integral though it may be, is the source of the majority of frustrations.
Despite the brilliant character creation, which can provide as diverse a group of oddballs as you might hope for, I always felt that my party was like a Swiss Army knife. Example - during conversations, the three persuasive skills come into play for specific choices, which are clearly marked. It's possible to switch between characters mid-chat in order to utilise a specific skill, which feels more like flicking the necessary tool into play rather than engaging in tricksy dialogue.
The same is true during the majority of exploration. Most obstacles or optional caches have a hole of a certain shape and your task is to select the appropriate peg to hammer into that hole. I'm aware that the party went from Swiss Army knife to box of assorted toy pegs at some point, but that's fine. It could also be a ring, with various keys attached. It feels more like any of those three than a group of people, which is such a shame given how attached I became while making my teams and dressing them up.
Combat is the exception to all of the above and is the point when party members have a life of their own. Yes, they're still a collection of skills and equipment, but they're not interchangeable parts of the same menu system. As with the Fallouts before it, Wasteland 2's combat is absolutely ridiculous (point blank shotgun blasts missing because of the percentages, giant frogs absorbing four or five bullets, enemies leading the entire party on glacial races around the map) but it's damn fine entertainment.
It operates on a simple turn-based setup, with the order of play shown at the top of the screen, and action points and costs detailed when required. Like Fallout, action points are limited on each turn which cuts down on intricate tactics and means that many scraps play out like a two-way slugfest. A lot of the work toward victory occurs during preparation - having the right equipment and the skills to use it is more important than the actual approach once the bullets and blades start to fly.
Killing things is satisfying though, which is handy because there are so many things to kill. Combat is clean and just about complicated enough - it's never too demanding but has just enough room for error to create tension. It's also the area of the game in which skills are most sensibly applied, even if some (unarmed, I'm looking at you) seem underpowered due to the equipment available.
But it's fun to have a blademaster, a sniper and an angry giant with a club full of nails. Not an actual giant, you understand, but a massive bruiser, with a cig in her mouth and a Buddhist chant on her lips. Smoking habits, ethnicity, religion and size are all part of the delightful character building before the game even begins. That's when starting skills are chosen as well and while it's easy enough to dish out combat skill evenly, selecting the rest is troublesome**.
Wasteland 2 is one of those games in which some parties will have more life in them than others. Returning briefly to the Swiss Army knife analogy - it's possible to construct a knife without a single blade on it, or one without a corkscrew, which is a nightmare when you stumble across a crate of wine.
Certain skills are necessary and while they can be developed as characters level up. beginning without them is a recipe for a restart. Medical capabilties are essential, which might seem as obvious as remembering to pack a cleric, but I'd hoped that items might work where skills were lacking - that's not the case and I had to watch my charismatic leader bleeding out an hour into the game.
Despite all of that - and it feels like a lot of negativity about a game I've enjoyed - Wasteland 2 is an accomplished piece of work. The story has more of an American frontier feel than the Fallout games, as the rangers attempt to impose their (and your) idea of law on an untamed wilderness. There's humour, usually developed scattershot through characters and situations rather than in the form of gags, and the tone covers broad bases, mostly successfully. The writing never particularly excited me, as it's so often telling stories I've already heard, but it's solid and occasionally draws out a chuckle or a nod of appreciation*.
I can't help but wonder what I would have made of Wasteland 2 if it had come out just before, after or between Fallout 1 and 2. Chances are I would have loved it a little bit more than I do now because my tolerance for the more fiddly elements was higher in past lives. Even then, there's a cumbersome quality that isn't entirely down to the size of the thing. Partly, that's due to a lack of obvious direction for long stretches of play and partly it's probably due to the bland and dusty appearance of many areas and the maps themselves.
Thematically justified, yes, but not particularly stimulating for hours at a time.
Negativity creeping in again. I don't have any major complaints about Wasteland 2 and I'm planning to play through it again, but all of the minor quibbles have coalesced. It's a game that has started to feel like a burden and even though I enjoy unwrapping it and mucking about with what's inside, there's an awful lot to unpack every time.
To end on a positive, it's a surprisingly pleasant game, despite the inherent grimness of the setting. Violent it may be and the humour is often dark, but there's an offbeat and jocular heart in the beast. For all its mechanical similarities to the RPGs of yesteryear, it's that character, wit and playfulness that most capably satisfied my nostalgia and made me look forward to whatever InXile put their minds to next. I've criticised all of Wasteland 2's foibles, but that's because my relationship with it is complicated. I wish it were just a little more sharply dressed and not quite as fussy, but I do love it most of the time, although not necessarily from one hour to the next.
* There's an assumption that everyone playing will have played and remembered details of the first Wasteland, which seems unlikely. The knowledge isn't necessary but I was surprised by the flurry of references, which often provide a fair amount of detail.
** Companions are available to join the original party of four. An early recruit is almost indispensable, which is peculiar considering she can be entirely bypassed if you don't search a dead-end in the starting area. I often felt like I should be digging up every loose patch of dirt and exploring every nook and cranny - the amount of interactive hotspots, trapped doors and seemingly barren areas makes the game a completionist's nightmare, as does the fact that certain locations and missions will be locked off as choices are made. I'm OK with that. Gives me a reason to go back in and act like my own evil twin.