Wasteland 3 is hoping to be one of 2020's prominent RPG releases, but it has some tough competition with titles like Final Fantasy VII Remake, Cyberpunk 2077, or the upcoming early access release of Baldur's Gate III. I had a chance to play through an early beta demo build of the game, which lasted for about 4 hours from the game's opening. I believe this is also the same beta that will be available to backers this week.
I personally have not played the earlier Wasteland games, nor the classic Fallout games of a similar style, so other than knowing it was generally a 'computer-style' RPG, I didn't quite know what I was in for, both mechanically and narratively. From what was shown in the preview's opening cutscene, your squad is a group known as the Rangers who have come to Colorado from Arizona to obtain a valuable supply source in a post-apocalyptic world. However, while en route to Colorado, your squad is attacked by a band of raiders known as the Dorseys.
Much like most RPGs in this style, you can either create a character from scratch or use one of the preset characters already made for you. However, rather than choosing a single unit to be your main character, you instead choose a pair of units. Some of the pre-built examples include a pair of young lovers, or a mentor and student. I decided to go with a father-daughter pair: the father being a quiet in-your-face attack type, and the daughter being a sniper unit with mechanical capabilities. To note, the game also supports online co-operative play with the two characters you picked or created, so you can play through Wasteland 3 with a friend.
Right off the bat, I was thrown into a combat situation against the Dorseys, and immediately I realized the game was much more tactical than I expected it to be. Gridlines appeared on the battlefield, my units went into position on the grid, and I started seeing percentages above all the enemy units indicating my chance to hit. The opening tutorial section only has you playing with the two characters, but it works well enough as a way to ease the player into the gameplay without being overwhelming. Considering the duo I selected, I mostly had the daughter character snipe enemies from afar while the father character got in close.
As is fairly common in tactical RPGs, your characters each are given a set of Action Points that can be used to either move or perform an action such as an attack. The game UI is even helpful enough to let you know how far your character can move while still being able to attack afterward, or simply how far they can move total without attacking. Combat has a lot of focus on ranged weaponry, so you often have to consider things like places to cover, line of sight, distance, and of course ammunition available.
For what it's worth, I played the demo entirely with mouse and keyboard, which felt intuitive enough for someone with some experience with this style of game. The mouse could be used for most actions by selecting buttons on the user interface, with some keyboard shortcuts in place for conveniently loading menus such as your character inventory. The game will support controllers too, as the game is releasing for consoles in addition to PC, but I didn't test out the configuration.
Generally, the intro section is mostly a linear section of scripted battles and tutorial explanations, but soon enough your characters make their way to the Patriarch, who has apparently placed himself in charge of Colorado for a half-decade or so. This is the guy who can provide much-needed supplies back to Arizona, so it looks like he's someone you want to cozy up to even if you don't find him the most agreeable person.
This is where the meat of the game really kicks in. The Patriarch sets you up with a newfound base that you need to work to get into top shape. One of your first quests is to recruit people to staff your base with new additions such as a doctor or a scientist. You also get to fill out the rest of your squad with other members from a list. Being a full-fledged RPG, there is more than just combat you have to worry about. Each character possesses certain skills that can help both in and out of battle, and these skills can be improved when they level up. Skills such as Barter will help you dealing with shop owners, while skills like Nerd Stuff will affect how much you can do with computers, Lockpicking to pick locks, and so on. So, you generally want to make a balanced squad of characters that not only is capable in combat, but well-balanced for non-combat opportunities too. The Patriarch also gives you what seems to be the larger game overarching questline - to stop his three children for various reasons - though these quests were not a part of the preview demo.
At this point, I feel like I should mention Wasteland 3's tone. Despite all of the things that I did enjoy early on in my time with the demo, the overall presentation never sat well with me. As can somewhat be seen in the game's E3 2019 trailer, Wasteland 3 often incorporates this over-the-top gofy zaniness as part of the game's flavor and overall tonality. But it's not just silly wacko craziness in places, the game can often also feel snarky or edgy too. One of the game's tutorial messages warned me to watch out for the "big ass robot" up ahead and how it was going to "fuck me up" and if I tried to fight it, I would get "wrecked". Many of the game characters also exhibit overdone stereotypical southern or hillbilly style accents, often used for comedic effect, which I also never quite gelled with.
Perhaps Wasteland has always been this way and fans will be happy the tone is still there, but personally, I find it to all be a bit distracting and even lessens my enthusiasm to try out the full title when it launches.
In any case, once you are introduced to the base, then you can explore the nearby city of Colorado Springs. This seems to be your typical RPG town area, with numerous NPCs to speak with, shops to buy your squad new equipment and weapons, as well a handful of quests to undertake. One quest involved freeing a boy from a death sentence for a minor crime. Another mini-quest involved getting rogues to leave a shop alone. A third involved helping a doctor treat some patients. As you would hope to find in a game like this, these quests seemed to have multiple avenues to completion, with some violent and some non-violent depending on the playstyle you are going for or what skills you have available within your current squad.
Wasteland 3 also has a faction system in place, where decisions made during quests and dialogue sequences can raise or lower your standing with various groups. In the preview, the three main factions I encountered were the Patriarch's Marshals, the Hundred Families - supposedly high-class citizens in Colorado Springs, and the Ranger Allegiance - effectively your native faction.
One thing that is inevitably difficult to show in a short demo for a long RPG is exactly how player choice and consequence will unfold throughout the game's storyline. In the preview demo, one of the quests I found myself doing was a mission to locate and eliminate a group of dangerous Dorseys from an area within Colorado Springs. On the way, an NPC, Lucia, wanted to come along to save her family from the Dorseys in the region. Once we reached the target area and eliminated the Dorsey raiders, we learned that a group of youths that Lucia once knew helped in the murder of her family.
The Rangers were not asked to eliminate these youths. Here I had the option to let the understandably distressed Lucia retaliate by killing the youths herself. There were also options to show some restraint and detain them instead, or just let them go free entirely. I decided to let Lucia kill in cold blood. The game implied this might lead to some further tension with the Colorado Springs Marshals and Hundred Families, but unfortunately, the demo ended before I could see the ramifications of my actions.
I always find it hard to preview any RPG with a short vertical slice. So much of what makes a good RPG, in my mind, are the bigger-picture things in how the game progresses over time: things like how characters are built, how combat/mechanics evolve, progression systems, resource management, and the like. After my time with the preview demo, I feel like what was shown Wasteland 3's tactical combat and flexible RPG systems seemed solid enough for starters, but it's difficult to know how well it holds up in the long run. I also don't know if I can acquiesce to the game's tryhard tone and presentation. Hopefully, it's not as prevalent at the preview made it out to be.
Wasteland 3 is set to release on May 19 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.