The original inspiration for Fallout returns with a new sequel that portrays a worryingly plausible post-apocalyptic future.
When Microsoft started buying up studios to bolster their in-house development many were surprised at some of the choices. Forza Horizon creators Playground Games and State Of Decay developer Undead Labs made sense but the likes of Compulsion Games (We Happy Few) and inXile were developers most people had never even heard of. We’re still yet to discover what attracted Microsoft to Compulsion but Wasteland 3 offers a pretty good explanation for why they snapped up inXile.
One thing that was obvious from the various acquisitions is that Microsoft wants more first party role-playing games, as they now have Playground working on a new Fable and Obsidian making Avowed. It’s not known what inXile are making for them, but they’ve already been talking about how they want to use Microsoft’s money to make bigger budget titles and become a fully-fledged AAA developer.
That will be in stark contrast to Wasteland 3, which has to make do with some outdated visuals and an obviously low budget. And yet despite all that it’s one of the best role-playing games of the year, with a huge game world and an impressive amount of freedom of choice. If inXile can do all this on a shoestring, then we definitely want to see what they’ll come up with when they have access to Microsoft’s coffers.
The first Wasteland was released in 1988 and was to all intents and purposes the original Fallout. Because of rights issues the actual Fallout was a spiritual sequel and it wasn’t until 2015 that an official Wasteland 2 was made. You don’t need to have played that to enjoy this though, especially if you’re a Fallout fan, as the post-apocalyptic setting is very similar. In any case, the set-up is pretty straightforward, in that you’re in control of a pair of Rangers who were originally part of a larger group that’s ambushed at the start of the game.
Despite losing all your backup, your goal remains the same: to help the leader of Colorado, the self-style Patriarch, so that he will provide food supplies to get you through the nuclear winter that grips the American Midwest. He’s having trouble with his unruly children, each of whom wants to overthrow him, but it’s up to you how you tackle them, as you also take the time to set up a base of operations and attract new recruits.
The combat hasn’t changed much from the previous games (although turns now alternate between whole teams instead of just individual characters) and still works similarly to XCOM, except with a more complicated action point system that determines exactly what your characters do beyond just moving and shooting. Like the rest of the game, it’s all clearly been designed with the PC in mind, in terms of both the controls and user interface, but the tutorials are good enough to get you through any early confusion.
As with much of the game, the combat is reminiscent of a Mad Max version of Divinity: Original Sin 2, including the fact that this new sequel features a co-op mode. It’s online-only though, with no split-screen option, and prone to some serious technical issues, including crash bugs. The rest of the game isn’t exactly glitch free but the co-op is much worse, often confusing computer-controlled enemies and not sharing map information properly between players.
Perhaps the co-op mode is more stable on the PC but there are other improvements over the previous game, including a giant tank for travelling long distances and which you can use as artillery during combat. The graphics are also better than last time, especially in terms of the destructible scenery, even if some things, such as character faces, are still quite rudimentary.
In gameplay terms most of what Wasteland 3 is trying to do has already been done better by Original Sin 2 but what makes it interesting is the setting and the characters, which are obviously completely different. The game starts with a tragicomic disclaimer pointing out that work began on it years ago, as a purposefully exaggerated pastiche of modern politics, and the fact that so much of it has ‘been mirrored by our current reality’ was not originally planned for.
Although Wasteland 3 features a cult that worships Ronald Reagan and a band of killer clowns it also includes a corrupt paramilitary police force that rules through fear and misinformation and has a refugee crisis that illuminates just how cruel and fascistic the Patriarch’s leadership really is. A lot of this was presumably meant to be fairly subtle satire but the state of the world has got so bad this year that it’s depressing how predictable it all apparently was.
Or at least it would be depressing if Wasteland 3 wasn’t so damn funny. The situation in Wasteland’s world is despairingly awful, just as it was in the early Fallout games, but both are tempered by a pitch-black sense of humour that for some reason Bethesda’s games have always lacked. This takes the edge off many of the more horrific situations and is supported by strong writing and voice-acting throughout.
No matter who it is you’re dealing with every decision you make has repercussions, even if they’re not obvious at first. In most cases you can try and talk your way out of a fight but even that is rarely straightforward, as enemies you let go end up killing someone else or setting up an ambush later. Help one set of strangers and you often lose the chance to help another, as you constantly have to make the choice between aiding individuals or making decisions for the greater good.
In terms of the freedom of your actions, and the consequences they bring, Wasteland 3 is right up there with Original Sin 2 and any other game that features complex moral decisions. And that’s all the more impressive when you consider just how huge Wasteland 3 is, given it lasts for at least 60 hours for anything but the most rushed playthrough.
From a story perspective the only disappointment is that your initial two Rangers have no personality of any kind, despite the game providing little potted backstories for its pre-made duos. These are never referenced in-game though and there’s no reason not to just customise your own instead, which is a shame.
There’s little in Wasteland 3 that is entirely original but while that is to the detriment of the combat the storytelling and decision making is amongst the best in the genre. If this was a big budget adventure in the style of Fallout, and not a weedy-looking isometric role-player, then it would have already found itself a massive audience. As it is the physical release didn’t even crack the UK top 40.
That’s hopefully something Microsoft can help with when it comes to future games but for now this really is the best Fallout game never made and, while it clearly never expected to be this prophetic, one of the best examples of how putting politics into video games can make them a considerably more interesting storytelling experience.
Wasteland 3 review summary
In Short: A terrifying vision of future America, that already seems worryingly accurate, and also one of the most open-ended role-playing games of recent years, with a smart line in dark comedy.
Pros: The decision-making is some of the best gaming has ever seen in terms of the amount of choice and the clear consequences of your actions. Good script and voice-acting. Powerful character creator.
Cons: The combat and other gameplay elements are competent but unoriginal. Lack of personality for the two leads is a disappointment. Co-op has some major technical issues.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Publisher: Deep Silver
Developer: inXile Entertainment
Release Date: 27th August 2020
Age Rating: 18
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