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Wasteland 2 Beta Preview: Into the Desert

Platform: Windows PC
Release Date: August


Thanks to the power of hindsight we can look at the multimillion dollar Kickstarter projects of 2012 as the original explosion of crowdsourcing – The Old Guard, Those Who Made Bank, etc. Broken Age, Shadowrun Returns, Wasteland 2, Planetary Annihilation, Pillars of Eternity, all of them capitalized on recognizable game developers or companies, nostalgic PC-centric genres that have waned in popularity, and the general excitement surrounding the possibilities of Kickstarter and what it could mean to independent developers.

But games take a long time to make. Fast forward two years later and we’ve seen the release of the first half of Broken Age (which we loved) and Shadowrun Returns (which was also great). The chief complaint with both titles has been one of length and scope, something that Wasteland 2 is planning on diving in boots first, with an estimated length of 50 hours that will rival many a PC gamer’s favorite tactical RPGs.

The beta, which has been available since December under Steam’s Early Access program, offers the entire map of the Arizona desert, home to the Desert Rangers, and compromises about half the game.

Wasteland 2 prison valley

Welcome to the wasteland.

Gameplay begins right after the live action intro presiding over the funeral of one of the heroes from the original 1988 Wasteland (which I never played). Familiarity with the story line isn’t necessary but the writing does a great job easing you into the major players and situations of the world without relying on massive info dumps. Once you’re given entrance into Rangers HQ you can tour a museum of artifacts to catch up on past adventures of the original Rangers.

As has been mentioned to death in countless previews, you can grab a tantalizing nearby shovel and immediately get your grave robbing on, resulting in General Vargas turning hostile and gunning your party down. It’s a funny moment that telegraphs how your actions will have consequences – and that quicksave is your best friend.

With any RPG I like to dig deep into character creation, exploring skill options and party combinations. In Wasteland 2 you create four Rangers as your primary party – though you can also enlist up to three more party members scattered around the wasteland to join your cause. Characters are entirely skill-based with stat and skill systems similar to Fallout’s SPECIAL system as well as weapon and utility skills that you put ranks into, not unlike Mass Effect.

Wasteland 2 skills

The robust skill system should be a wet dream for cRPG fans.

There are no umbrella combat paths like ‘small guns’ or ‘two-handed,’ instead characters need specialize in individual weapon types like SMGs or sniper rifles (pro-tip: sniper rifles are incredibly powerful but their ammo is expensive and rare, especially in the early game). With several different types of ammo (think Fallout) it pays to have your weapon skills spread out amongst your party.

Some skills should be familiar to any cRPG fan – lockpicking, demolitions, medic, while others provide some more unique abilities to solve certain situations. Animal Whisperer lets you essentially charm animals in combat, making them run away, and solve certain quests. Perception highlights traps and secret caches that you can dig up with your trusty shovel. Leadership provides a small but valuable buff to the rest of your teammates, and more importantly keeps any additional party members you acquire from entering an out of control Rambo state.

For my playthrough I perused the premade characters and found some delightful choices amongst the dozen options. Knowing a balanced party would be key, I selected Bear, an intelligent hunter with high ranks in outdoorsman and field medic, Cold-Eye, a deadly sniper, Slick, a charismatic smart ass, and Fade, an expert in safecracking and lockpicking.

The initial main quest follows the murder investigation of the veteran Ranger Ace (what’s up with murder mysteries as a sudden popular initial main quest – both Shadowrun Returns and Divinity: Original Sin feature them as well), and like any good initial plot hook takes you to all corners of the wasteland. You don’t get access to Rangers HQ until you complete your first major story mission, and it comes with a choice. While venturing East you get distress calls from both the Agricultural Center and the small mining town of Highpool. You have to choose whether to rescue Highpool from an attack by some local organized bandits, or quell a sudden mutated plant uprising at the Ag Center.

Rescue a random kid from drowning and he could be a potential party member.

Rescue a random kid from drowning and he could be a potential party member.

In other games this would simply entail choosing which one you wish to tackle first, but here you’re making a real choice. About halfway through my exploits in Highpool I received a rather nasty call from the last survivor in Ag Center condemning my party for not coming to her rescue. I was shocked and intrigued at the same time. The Rangers understood the situation, but the woman’s cries would haunt my team forever, even as I repelled the Wrecking Crew from Highpool and took the fight to their base.

At Highpool I rescued a captured Native American woman named Vulture’s Cry who joined my party. Unfortunately her skills were a mix of my hunter and sniper, and keeping two sniper rifles stocked with .308 ammo was tough going for a while. I wondered at which potential party member I missed out on at the Ag Center. I was free to journey there and get some story tidbits, but the place was completely overrun with giant bugs and zombies, and their radio tower I needed to complete the quest was rendered useless.

An RPG full of wonderful writing and cool story consequences could easily be brought down by mediocre combat (unless you’re Planescape: Torment), but thankfully the turn-based, action point system in Wasteland 2 is not only fantastic, it’s one of the best I’ve ever played.

Wasteland 2 shotgun

Shotguns offer a nifty area of effect that you can manually aim.

Fans of Fallout 1 and 2’s AP system (and most recently, Divinity: Original Sin) will be overjoyed here as Wasteland 2 employs the same system. Moving, firing, reloading and couching all cost action points, as does using skills in combat like healing teammates. You can equip two weapons to switch between, and each weapon type has its own damage penetration, rate of fire, and AP cost – you can swing a crowbar far more often than fire a rifle. All the information is presented in the clean and attractively thematic UI (that dot matrix printer-style text window), which has undergone significant updates over the course of the beta.

While I didn’t have any problems with the interface, I did find the tooltips lacking. Hovering over each skill gives a description and some explanations, but for a system with numbers pumping out of each character and assigning skill points, more information would be appreciated. Like what exactly does Rank 4 in Assault Rifles get me? The dialogue skills are more spelled out, hovering over an option will say you need at least a Rank 3 in Kiss Ass, but lockpicking doesn’t mention how much better you improve with each rank. Thankfully levels come fast and easy and spreading out to multiple skills isn’t a problem.

My other major complaint was a lack of in-game map, which is apparently coming back according to a recent Kickstarter update. Some of the areas, like the Rail Nomads Camp and Prison Valley are quite large and easy to get lost in, especially with the fully rotational camera. A map would not only alleviate this problem completely but hopefully allow for some fast travel once individual locations been discovered a la Fallout.

The Unity engine looks great here, and like Shadowrun the art evokes its unique setting nicely. You’ll wander through half-destroyed overpasses filled with the rusting bodies of cars, journey across rudimentary farm land and fight through a bandit camp constructed entirely out of junk heaps. The outdoor areas look fantastic, though I found most indoor locations to be lacking in detail. Many of the random one-room shacks you’ll enter might only have a handful of objects. While this could fit the apocalyptic nature of the world, it also makes things feel quite empty and less filled in. I hope that in expanding to such a huge amount of content, InXile didn’t skimp over filling out each piece of the world. Although Shadowrun Returns’ main campaign was relatively short, it was packed with its unique cyberpunk style in every room.

wasteland 2 overpass

Many of the outdoor locations contain some cool set pieces.

Wasteland 2 is shaping up to be the Fallout 3 sequel fans of the first two never got, which would be a dream come true. Its combat and dialogue systems are decidedly old-school (you can even type words in instead of clicking the buttons), while modern features like a log book, quick bar, and nifty topographical overland map are welcome additions. I’ve been very impressed with the amount of updates and improvements that Wasteland has received from its long beta period; InXile has done a fantastic job utilizing feedback from backers and Early Access adopters. For fans of a certain genre of tactical RPGs Wasteland 2 will fill a very nice niche, a space that’s suddenly (and joyously) exploding with the amazing Divinity: Original Sin and upcoming Pillars of Eternity.

Wasteland 2 is set to release in August, though an exact date has yet to be announced.