If there’s one thing that’s a given at the moment in gaming, it’s that the isometric turn-based genre is not dead. Whether it’s the combat focused Narcos: Rise of the Cartels, the trial-and-error approach of Desperados III, or even the time-puzzle based shenanigans of Peaky Blinders: Mastermind, there’s a lure to them that doesn’t seem to go out of fashion, even if many of the genre founders have moved on to fully realised 3D worlds. Fallout is one of those that made the transition, not always for the better, but its legacy lives on through inXile Entertainment’s recent Wasteland series. Noted as being the inspiration of the original Fallout series, and whose rights and trademark have at various points been in dispute, Wasteland might languish in the history of the long gone Interplay Entertainment, but with post-apocalyptic RPGs failing to hit the mark in recent years there’s definitely been a gap in the market. Filling that desolate and dangerous void is Wasteland 3, the follow up to 2014’s crowdfunded success. Can it continue to offer something different to Zenimax’s behemoth, or will it forever be known as “that one that’s like Fallout… but isn’t“?
The Desert Rangers are back! Picking up some years after the battle to destroy the AI Cochise in the last game, they’ve found it’s getting harder to survive in the barren lands. Resources are dwindling, bandits are more vicious, and they’re having to move further and further from home to find supplies. Fortunately help is at hand with an offer from The Patriarch in charge of the Colorado region in this bleak future. He needs help putting down an insurrection by his offspring Liberty, Victory and Valor; and has offered to make the Rangers lives much easier if they send some soldiers into the frozen mountains. It’s a great plan to secure the future of the group… right up until the convoy is ambushed out on a frozen lake and most of the contingent are massacred by local militia. It’s here that the story begins in earnest with two survivors making it out of the hot zone and into the safety of the Colorado Springs settlement. With The Patriarch providing manpower and space, it’s time to rebuild the Desert Rangers, bring them up to strength and save the people from invasion. Or is it? In Wasteland 3 there is always more than one way a situation can play out.
Background laid out and basic mechanics explained through the tutorial level, it’s time to get to grips with what’s on offer, aside from a deep story with multiple antagonists, hidden motivations, surprising solutions and various probable endings. It might not be apparent until a few hours in, but the amount of choice available is impressive. Customising characters and creating everything from scratch is pretty much a staple, and Wasteland 3 does feel more thorough right from the first moment, but it’s not often the systems underpinning that build are used to such great effect across the whole game, and in nearly every scripted interaction too. The key point that jumps out is that it’s possible to play (and keep the progression going) in just about any style and the game will react and compensate for it. There are fail states for certain missions, but rarely is there anything that gives a premature story end – and it’s weirdly satisfying if one is actually triggered. It helps somewhat that the story forces choices that are neither black or white, and that drives home that there isn’t really a “good” or “bad” way to behave, meaning that there’s creative license to be a dick for no reason.
Starting with a squad of two, which pretty rapidly gets filled out to six, the game is about roaming the semi-open world engaging with NPCs, finding work, getting sh*t done, and battling with anyone that’s decided they don’t like the face you chose. This being an RPG there’s levelling up that happens based on XP gain and that means points to spend on improving each character. Beating, stabbing or shooting enemies to loot their still warm corpses and ultimately get better at it is the core game loop. Every one in the party earns XP, and that can be spent freely on whatever skills need boosting, and that’s whether it’s a random recruit from the HQ fodder factory, or a unique NPC that joins the gang. There’ll be a base set of stats to start and some core skills, but it’s up to you to find and boost the ones that complement the entire squad. There’s no need to have four high level Lockpicks when one will do the job and the others can specialise in First Aid, Survival or Brawling. Be prepared to have all them able to hold their own in a rumble though, the AI doesn’t discriminate when it comes to trying to wipe everyone out.
Combat is instigated when a character gets spotted in an enemy’s view radius, or when a character attacks first. This means that walking through hostile territory is a bit stealth-like if you’re trying to avoid getting seen, whether that’s in order to sneak past someone or to setup an ambush. Every person in the team can be controlled individually outside combat, or all grouped together, though if one starts an encounter and they’re too far from the rest you better hope they’re carrying enough medkits. Wasteland 3’s dynamic movement a good idea, if a bit clumsy due to the way the AI companions tend to move a little sluggishly. I lost count of the times one of them ran through a booby trap for no reason at all, or stood still in a sight line while the rest of the team were backing off. Get the drop on the enemy though and there’s a full squad’s worth of action points (AP) to play with which can sometimes overwhelm the enemy immediately. Get caught out first and it’s still your turn, but with a reduced number of moves per character, and some being made to sit out the initial salvo. AP is the currency of combat, and it’s pretty clear how far an individual can move and still attack, or how far they can go if movement is the main objective. There are numerous skills and buffs to employ, as well as different weapon and armour loadouts, and there’s no end to the time that can be spent tinkering with each piece to maximise the effectiveness of the Rangers.
Whilst it’s very clearly a turn-based RPG with a huge focus on team building and skill specialisation, and that it drops everyone into a fight pretty regularly, it’s not all about combat. Focusing on some of the non-violent skills can pay dividends, as can carefully choosing your actions with individuals. Hard Ass and Kiss Ass skills both open up dialogue options that can bypass tricky fights, and having high rated skills that align with NPCs can give new ways of getting them onside. Speak the language of a mechanic and they might hand over the object or info you’re after. Use your hacking skills on sentient AI and they might not be too impressed and remember it for a later time. Once the balance of the squad is right there are multiple different ways a scenario can play out and it might be possible to get through missions without firing a shot. That said, heading out of the settlements and into the snowy wilderness means coming up against mutated creatures, cannibals and scavengers that don’t care how fancy your patter is. Good job you’ve got Kodiak, a giant APC with a powerful gun on the roof to keep them at bay.
The driving in Wasteland 3 is mainly for traversing the world map and it’s done in a way that’s easy to navigate and feels larger than it really is. With a few key locations to get to marked on the map, it feels a little sparse on the surface, though it’s not long before it becomes one of the more charming elements of the game. Trundling up to a structure and investigating will usually only trigger some text, yet it’s the way it’s written that pulls you in. It feels like a D&D game, offering up multiple choices of action and describing what’s happening based on that. Get everything right and it’ll move back to the world map and you can continue your journey, but get it wrong and the chances are it’ll be a tough fight. The higher the team’s survival level the more chance there is to get away unscathed and with loot, and it’s that unknown risk of a confrontation that makes the exploration fun. Describing characters, locations and generally what’s going on is in fact one of the best parts of the game. There is loads of detail that has been considered and included, and the characterisation alongside the written work is absolutely fantastic with voiced NPCs getting deserving portrayals that really fit the scenes.
There is however a weight to the amount of content, and there is A LOT of content to support, and it manifests in loading times. Being a semi-open world with interiors and exteriors to rummage through and quite a lot of characters to speak to, it’s expected to not be lightning fast, but it does seem to be split into relatively light sections. Colorado Springs is broken up into 5 sections and getting from the Ranger HQ on one side to The Patriarch’s Palace on the other means 3 loading screens that will take longer than the traversal. Whether this is unique to the PS4 version of Wasteland 3 or not, I saw too many crashes to the XMB during these loading periods too, and even though it mostly saves before an exit, it still meant reloading and redoing a number of actions unnecessarily. It has a high amount of detailing in the environment too which pays off for building atmosphere and a busy world, at the expense of fluidity and framerate. However, I never came across any major bugs or blockers to progress, and that’s mightily impressive given how complex all the potential linking actions can be.
Can you get into Wasteland 3 if you’ve not played 2014’s adventure, or even the 1988 original? Definitely. There are nods to previous characters and events, and usually they explain themselves without seeming out of place. This particular adventure is all about saving Colorado and it leaves all the baggage behind after the first 5 minutes. The vision it portrays of a crumbling future that doesn’t seem like it’ll sustain itself much longer without repeating the genocide of the past hits home through the characters you meet, yet it’s not all brutality and hardship. It’s comedic in its violence and frequently laugh out loud funny with the dialogue and persistent out of context pop culture references. With a rich story that you can shape to your preference through your actions and hours of side missions to get lost in, this is one game that won’t be a waste of your time.
A PS4 copy of Wasteland 3 was provided for the purposes of this review, and the game is available now on PS4, Xbox One and PC for around £45, and is currently on Game Pass.