The story of Wasteland is a fascinating one, and I'm not talking about the in-game lore. Originally released all the way back in 1988, the original Wasteland was one of the pioneers of the post-apocalyptic genre and made way for the inadvertent creation of the Fallout franchise. Years later and on the brink of obscurity, Wasteland 2 came out of nowhere and breathed new life into the elder franchise after a successful crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter. Now, Wasteland makes its return with the third entry into the series, ditching the deserts of Arizona for the chilly wilderness of Colorado. As my first foray into this series, I don't feel lost by its story, but I was left less than impressed by its turn-based gameplay and performance on PC.
Wasteland 3's Dangerous Colorado
The hands-on time I had with Wasteland 3 was the opening few hours of the game. In that time I was able to fully comprehend the story and my goals as a Ranger, despite never having played a previous game in the series. The story's premise revolves around the Patriarch, a domineering entity in neighboring Colorado who promises to help the Ranger organization to survive via supplies and resources. The demo begins with your Ranger group on their way to meet the Patriarch. As they attempt to cross a frozen lake, a group of hillbilly thugs armed to the teeth with rockets and automatic armaments called the Dorsey gang ambushes them. Just like that, the true gameplay begins. Players start by choosing two main characters who will act as your avatars throughout the campaign. inXile graciously grants players several pre-made sets of characters with their own backstories and skills, but I much prefer getting creative.
The character creator in Wasteland 3 was impressive. There's an abundance of appearance options, perks, and skills to choose from. Customization ranges from ridiculous helmets, pants, and coats to crazy, 80s-inspired hairstyles. As far as turn-based strategy games go, Wasteland 3 seems to be one of the front runners for freedom of choice when it comes to character creation. I opted for a balanced skillset between my two characters, one who focuses on automatic weapons another with bladed weapons. Then, there are a bunch of ancillary skills, some which allow you to lockpick, talk your way out of situations, or even repurpose microwaves found in the environment. Wasteland 3's loads of options show much promise when it comes to player choice and approach to different combat situations.
Having made my characters, Wasteland 3 shoved me right into the thick of combat, fighting off the Dorsey raiders. Combat is very simple and easy to pick up, especially if you've played the recent XCOM titles by Firaxis. This is cover-based tactical strategy where units hide behind cover for protection from enemy projectiles. Your characters have a percent chance to hit enemies based on the unit's stats, distance from the target, and weapon used. Unfortunately, I wish Wasteland 3 offered more variability in its combat. I thought that perhaps my character builds were inadequate since each unit had only one combat ability that charges over time. Since I didn't have any other skills at my disposal, the gameplay turns out quite boring. A typical turn devolves into "find cover, shoot, rinse, and repeat." If you use a melee unit, you just have to run from cover to cover until you reach the next enemy. Nothing about any of that feels extraordinary.
After narrowly surviving the Dorsey ambush, my small group of two arrives at the Patriarch's compound and tasks my characters with capturing his children rebelling against him. The Patriarch graciously grants my Rangers a base and I was then able to recruit more characters on my team. I hoped that with new characters, they might also have different abilities. Alas, after several more fights I found that my character builds were not, in fact, erroneous. As characters level up, they seem to gain more abilities, but at a rather slow pace. I fear that, even though I only played the first four hours of so, the next few will be just as unexciting.
One promising element of gameplay is the different ways you can approach each combat situation. In the last few minutes of the demo, I was stuck in one spot chock full of enemies. I couldn't get past this encounter despite my best efforts, but then I discovered a side path. Taking this alternate route led to one extra, but smaller, enemy encounter, and allowed me to set up a strong ambush position over the prior pack of enemies. By activating a strange spotlight-like contraption, I set a large portion of these enemies on fire and made this insurmountable challenge somewhat more manageable. Hopefully, as time goes on, Wasteland 3 offers more of these scenarios to broaden player choice in combat. They would at least make up for the lack of substance in taking potshots behind cover.
While combat left much to be desired, the remaining elements of Wasteland 3 remain intriguing. I need to learn more about this interesting story and its strange, post-apocalyptic world. I want to capture the Patriarch's children and see if I can discover the true motives behind his actions. I can't wait to revisit town of Colorado Springs and dive back into the intriguing turmoil caused by the Dorsey gang.
Wasteland 3 is also actually quite funny, filled with lighthearted moments and dark humor. That's helped along by excellent vocal performances throughout each scenario. The Patriarch's gruff, deep voice is delivered smoothly. Lucia Wesson, a youth from Colorado Springs, has a forceful and strong performance as she comes to grips with the true reason why Colorado Springs was attacked.
Graphically speaking, Wasteland 3's character models are slightly dated but definitely not the focus of the developer's efforts. The environments of frosty Colorado are strikingly beautiful, and despite the theme of snow and more snow, inXile manages to create a beautiful and varied setting. Unfortunately, Wasteland 3 did not run well at all, and I do not think it's because of the sheer power of the graphics. At the highest settings, my graphics card wasn't even using half of its power, yet the game constantly fluctuates in frames and sometimes goes below 30 frames during combat encounters. The result is a style of gameplay that feels like you're wading through a pool of thick mud (or snow, in this case) because it isn't optimized well by any means. Right now, Wasteland 3 is several months out before launching, and during that time I hope and expect that inXile will work on optimization improvements.
It's hard to put my finger on Wasteland 3. I'm very interested in its story and the voiceovers are of the highest caliber, yet the combat leaves so much to be desired. When I play a turn-based strategy game, I'm in it for the gameplay, and Wasteland 3 doesn't scratch the same itch as, say, XCOM 2. Moreover, while it is a pretty game to look at, the sluggish performance basically renders that null and void. I believe that the first few hours of Wasteland 3 will be a slog for many people, even if the performance issues are fixed. However, after several more hours of gameplay when players flesh out their character builds and see more of what Colorado has to offer, Wasteland 3 might end up being better than anticipated.
TechRaptor previewed Wasteland 3 on PC with a code provided by the publisher.