The rotund leader of the Monster Army is festooned in a Dracula costume and thanks me for killing Charlie in a very poor, vaguely Eastern European accent. I take my reward and wave his compliments away — I didn’t want the gangsters to become too powerful anyway. I signal to my squad, my goat and my cyborg chicken, that it is time to leave — I have some movie reels to deliver to the local strip club.
Wasteland 3 can be a goofy game and it is chock full of bizarre encounters and juxtapositions like the one above, and while some of the writing is eye-rolling, it did make me chuckle more often than not. Aside from some tonal whiffs and at times corny humor, Wasteland 3 is well worth the wait.
It’s been six years since we last saw the brave Desert Rangers and things are far from peachy with the boys and gals from Arizona. Being forced to nuke their homeland at the end of Wasteland 2, they are on the brink of starvation and death. To avoid this grim fate, the Rangers have sent emissaries to Colorado to secure a supply of food and other provisions. The only caveat is that they need to help the local dictator, The Patriarch, with a small family matter. His sons and daughters are plotting to overthrow him and he wants you to bring them in. A simple enough task it would seem at first, but the more you uncover, the more complicated the situation will become.
The writing and quests in Wasteland 3 are, for the most part, great and avoid the most moralistic pitfalls of the genre. The Patriarch is a fascist dictator who lets his loyal marshals play fast and loose with the law, and has a ton of skeletons hidden in his closet (quite literally). At the same time, though, he is not portrayed as a mustache-twirling and genocidal maniac — you mat actually find yourself agreeing with him more often than you might feel comfortable with. The world of Wasteland is full of difficult choices and by the end of the game, you might find yourself committing many of the same crimes as The Patriarch did. Do you support the corrupt law enforcement, who gun down suspects on the street because they had a hunch? Or do you side with the locally organized crime boss instead? Will you ignore the smugglers trafficking refugees into town or will you put an end to it and condemn those people to a frozen death outside to have food security? There’s usually a fair amount of depth to the choices and very little has that ‘good’ vs ‘bad’ conclusion so many RPGs rely upon.
While some quests are ambiguous in this way, they are mostly binary: you almost always have to side with one faction over the other and can seldom just sit something out and take the third option. For instance, you can’t solve the refugee crisis by demanding the richer areas contribute more and you can’t tell both the cops and the gangsters to screw off, outside of not doing the quest in the first place, which can sometimes feel a bit limiting.
Much more flexible and dynamic, then, is the combat in Wasteland 3. It’s one of the biggest improvements compared to Wasteland 2 where batting bad guys mostly felt serviceable, and while it doesn’t reach the heights of Divinity: Original Sin 2, I found myself having a really good time putting robots, mutants, and raiders in the ground in Wasteland 3.
It takes the tactical combat from its predecessor and expands upon it in some great ways; cover and armor are really important, and learning how to counter them is paramount for surviving tougher battles. Armor reduces damage relative to a weapon’s penetration value and some heavily armored robots and dudes are quite hard to take down with conventional weapons. Instead, you should make use of weapons that deal explosion or fire damage as those ignore armor values entirely. Alternatively, precision weapons reduce a target’s armor with a well-aimed shot if you have the ability ready. Enemies in cover are best dealt with by flanking or running up to them with a trusty pipe for a more hands-on approach. This, together with environmental hazards like exploding barrels, nitrogen tanks, and destructible cover, creates a much more dynamic and engaging battlefield this time around.
This combat flexibility is furthered by how Wasteland 3 promotes spreading out both your skills and weapon types. While you can fill your team with snipers, you will probably have a hard time finding or affording ammo to keep your weapons effective. This might not be apparent while you’re still in town and have easy access to a store, but once you are out on the road, item scarcity can become a real problem if you’re not careful. The same goes for non-combat skills, almost every single skill in Wasteland 3 can help you out during quests and progressing through areas. Obvious favorites like Lockpicking, Nerd Stuff(hacking), and Hard Ass (intimidation) have their apparent uses, but even things like weapon modding and survival skills have a role to play when talking to NPCs in Wasteland 3. As someone who has a real dislike of gameplay or systems that promotes min-maxing, I really enjoyed this broader approach.
As mentioned above, quests have the same mentality and you will often find yourself sacrificing one thing or faction over another and there are very few choices that are “the best” and most things come down to your own beliefs and needs in the situation. Do you save the family who is under attack or do you rescue the caravan full of power armor for the Patriarch? There is also a fair amount of freedom in how you deal with some NPCs and you can attack and kill most of them outright, should you so desire. Like when I refused to kill a child synth (android ) in a quest, the quest giver got pissed off and called me a race traitor whereupon I responded by filling his face full of buckshot. He and his Wolfgang probably had more bounties and quests for me to collect, but I shall never know since I left their dismembered carcasses in the snow. It was not a dialogue choice to do this, I simply attacked the bastard as soon as he was done talking and was about to leave. In the same way, you can get the upper hand on many enemies you know you’re going to fight by skipping the dialogue and just start shooting instead.
Not only have the combat and overall story received some loving attention in Wasteland 3, but the whole presentation of the game is much improved. Whenever you’re engaging with important events and conversations, the game forgoes the isometric perspective and zooms down into something that looks like the dialogue in Fallout 4 or Skyrim. It makes important characters stand out more and adds some weight to dramatic moments. Visually, it also looks a great deal sharper than Wasteland 2 ever did — there are more dynamic light sources and shadows and the game actually has other colors than brown and rust this time around.
I also have to mention Wasteland 3’s soundtrack as it is exceptional. Most RPGs settle for some ambient, orchestral tunes which can be nice enough but are seldom all that memorable (barring some JRPGs). A lot of Wasteland 3’ s score is similar to that: the music is there but never really takes center stage, until you fight a boss or have an especially hard encounter, that is. The ambient music changes to some really awesome bluegrass and country tunes, which fit the game perfectly. It’s so good that I’m really considering picking up the soundtrack for the game when it’s available; something I very rarely do. Wasteland 3 proves that more developers should dare use actual songs with lyrics in their games as, when deployed right, the effect is profound.
Wasteland 3 is not without its flaws, however. Load times can be a bit on the long side, even on an SSD. It’s not so bad when loading into a single area but when some quests require you to go back and forth between 3 or 4 areas, those load times stack up. Tonally speaking, the game can also be a bit too much; while I generally love the absurd and goofy tone in Wasteland 3, the game has a tendency to apply it a little to thick. It’s fun that toasters are back and packed with all kinds of rocket launchers and shiny loot, but when most factions seem like rejected gangs from The Warriors, it can feel a bit trite. When you first meet the Monster Army, who dresses like old movie monsters, it’s fine and a somewhat fun nod. But then you meet the clown gang and the 40s gangsters, and the Mad Max slaver gang and so on, making the novelty wear off real fast. Showing a bit more restraint here would have gone a long way in making things more impactful and interesting and not making the characters feel like complete caricatures.
That said, Wasteland 3 is a great game that improves upon a lot of the aspects of its predecessor. It has a sharper narrative, better presentation, and a kickass soundtrack. Additionally, I find the quests, character progression, and NPC interactions to be a lot more fruitful and fun this time around. Anyone who’s missing the old Fallout games or is a fan of isometric RPGs in general should really check this one out.
A Steam key was provided by PR for the purposes of this review.
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Wasteland 3 is a terrific sequel that blows its predecessor out of the water in every aspect.
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