Wasteland 3 Review
Wasteland 3 is a game that I wanted to get excited about for a long time, but couldn't ever really muster up any genuine enthusiasm for one reason or another. I don't have any nostalgia for the series, the pre-release showcases for the game didn't really grip me, and I never really found the setting compelling. A post-apocalyptic wasteland (no doubt) with an extra emphasis on the capacity of human depravity, with servings of over-embellished political satire, bleak and dark humor, and a tactical flavor reminiscent of XCOM. It was a melting pot of things I wasn't sure I was altogether keen on.
Good word of mouth alongside a major patch to fix some of the initial technical issues, and I finally figured I would dive in and educate myself a little bit about exactly what sort of game this was and experience it firsthand. I had recently played the original two Fallout games and wanted to play something similar, at least on a surface level. What I found was a weirdly confident, unique experience that is undoubtedly a hard sell to players who weren't already on board, but also one of the most interesting and distinctive RPGs I've played in the last couple years.
The general premise is that a group of soldiers known as the Desert Rangers have traveled from Arizona to neighboring Colorado in order to retrieve supplies to support the struggling families back home. In this interpretation of post-apocalyptic America, however, Colorado might as well be a separate country instead of just another state a kitty-corner across. Here you'll meet up with a long-entrenched ruler of the region known as The Patriarch, who's been in charge for about the last 50 years. He promises to provide the necessary supplies as long as you help him reestablish power in the region from a trio of children that have gone rogue.
It's here where you'll start to realize what was likely obvious -- that no one holds power for so long without utilizing some underhanded tactics. You'll come across some factions that revere everything the Patriarch has done to stabilize the region, but others have fallen by the wayside and see him as nothing more than a tyrant. Between balancing the end goal of earning the Patriarch's support for Arizona and trying to support the people of Colorado, it became uncomfortably difficult to be sure that what I was doing was really the best possible option. Being a truly good person in this place is an engagingly frustrating game of concessions and acceptable losses.
Or you'll just stomp around the wasteland without much regard for human life and decency at all. Wasteland 3 managed to blur the lines more effectively than most other games I've played.
On a gameplay front, Wasteland 3 doesn't do anything extravagant, but uses a simple set of familiar tools in a way that works just fine. After picking a pair of complementary Rangers with distinct abilities, you'll be able to recruit squad mates up to a full complement of six soldiers to carry out battle encounters and undertake quests across Colorado. You'll be able to fill out your squad with a set of generic soldiers that simply act as a portrait and stat loadout, while slowly filtering in more fleshed out Companions as you come across them.
Combat occurs in phases, where your team of six soldiers will all be able to move and act in whatever order you choose, using action points to determine both how far they can travel, how many items they can use, or how many times they can fire. By using a fixed resource pool for any action, you'll have to carefully consider which turns to focus mostly on preparing for the enemy in terms of positioning and buffs, and which to focus on dealing damage.
By being able to move any character on your phase in any order, you'll also be able to take advantage of some natural synergies, such as having a flamethrower user set an enemy on fire before having a melee character move in with an ability that takes advantage of that status ailment. It's a system that really allows for long-term planning -- knowing how abilities sync together and having a diverse set of specialized soldiers will go a long way.
My biggest issue with the phase-based battles occurred when the roster or battlefield simply became too large for the systems in place to handle it in a way that remains engaging. For instance, one mid-game battle in Denver places three major factions at odds in a fight that involved easily over two dozen characters. This meant that after I had moved my six squadmates, I would have to sit passively by for a lengthy period of time as every other character on the field carried out their movements.
A similar issue is also true once you earn a sizable number of allied companions, such as animal followers -- allies you don't control directly. These partners act in their own phase, and when your roster of allies grows in the late game, it becomes a repeated nuisance to have to endure that phase slowly play out in every battle without your input. I think simply scaling the number of units down in a given fight and the number of allies available (or giving you the ability to directly control them) would have alleviated this a fair bit.
I did also have a few bugs that still managed to persist even after a month of patches and updates, such as UI elements not properly updating to indicate how many action points I had left or how much damage I would deal. Loading times remained lengthy even when installing to a reasonably fast SSD, and I did encounter two crashes. These sorts of things don't frustrate me too much, but they are present for those still waiting for such issues to be ironed out.
There's also a lot of smart itemization, economy, and general mechanics-heavy systems underneath that RPG gearheads should fully enjoy tinkering with. Characters will be able to upgrade Attributes, which determines how fast and far they can move in battle, how much AP they have, and what sorts of armor they can wear. They'll also be able to improve skills such as Mechanics or Explosives which will detemine which sorts of weapons they can use and, more importantly, become the critical factor in clearing various skill checks both for completing quests, alongside convincing NPCs and accessing specific locations.
I constantly found myself having to keep my whole squad's diversity of skills and abilities in mind whenever I found myself with points to spend or more gear to equip. No one character can even become close to a jack of all trades -- at best you might be able to squeeze out three very specific skills for each character. This ends up meaning that I often found myself short in specific areas of know-how, particularly 'Nerd Stuff' in my case. Even by the very late regions of the game, I found myself eager to slot new abilities, upgrade gear, and shift around with my squad's composition and capabilities.
Companion characters do more than just play a role in combat, however. They'll have their own questlines, dialogue branches, and ideas about how best to handle the uncertainties in Colorado. Unfortunately, I found myself less-than enthused about a good chunk of the characters available to team up with. Kwon is a no-nonsense hardline cop who basically carries out the Patriarch's wishes without question. Scotchmo is an absolute drunk that pukes offscreen when you first meet up -- I think he's supposed to be humorous but I benched him without looking back. Also available to recruit are a cannibal, psychopath, and former slaver. If you want to roam the wastes, you'll likely have to team up with some unsavory people in one way or another.
As someone who typically plays RPGs rather heroically, I found myself less-than eager to really spend a lot of time with these characters. Luckily, earnest characters like Jodie, Lucia, and Pizepi do mange to round out the cast with some wonderful voice-acting and some gripping personal questlines, even though I found a few of the companions such as Pizepi don't have much to say once they join up with you.
Wasteland 3 in a lot of ways, in unshamedly the very game that I was so unsure of going into finally playing it. Most every faction you come across, whether it's the zealous Reagan worshiping cult, the corrupt police force serving as the Patriarch's boot, the entrenched oligarchy of families based in Colorado Springs, or the various factions of cannibals (you'll meet a fair few), mutilators, and slavers, carry an atmosphere of depravity and dread that manages to permeate through much of the game. There are some sprinkled in moments of levity peppered throughout, such as the hipster greeter of the machine commune, and I appreciated these moments more than I believe I would in a game that was tuned a bit differently.
Certain story beats are often simply offputting or weird, such as a merchant boss who speaks like a vampire for some reason or a young woman you rescue who resorted to eating the fingers off of corpses and refers to them as 'candy'. Some are legitimately hilarious, such as when I met an NPC who decided to fake a (terrible) Scottish accident and sticks to it even when I called him out on it. Wasteland 3 is a uniquely weird game in many ways.
I often found myself uneasy due to the combination of these weird (sometimes funny) characters, the overbearing presences of a rather dire world, alongside having to try to navigate the story is a way that compromised the fewest number of characters. A lot of Wasteland 3 centers around making the best of a series of bad situations involving honestly awful people, long-held beliefs, and uncertain positions of power. This all comes to a head when in the back half of the experience, you'll have to make a clear choice between two families of outcomes where neither is clearly better.
It's a bit hokey, but I truthfully hovered over a major late game decision for quite some time, one that would drastically affect the ending because I did not know which was the 'right' thing to do. This is where despite its unique flavor of storytelling and characterization, Wasteland 3 truly shines.
Wasteland 3 has a certain attitude that isn't really like most other games I've played. It's often irreverent and sarcastic and frequently bleak, but it still manages to be one of the funniest games I've played this year. At the same time, it has weird moments where I find myself baffled, completely unsure at what the intended response was ever expected to be. At its core is are some absolutely robust systems that RPG fans should love to tinker with, and while the storytelling is often a mixed bag, I found myself appreciative of how Wasteland 3 sets itself apart in a setting that it would be so easy to play it safe in.
Versions tested: PC (Xbox Game Pass)