Released during the week that we all look towards the digital edition of Gamescom, we’re also getting one of this year’s best RPG games in the shape of Wasteland 3 from inXile Entertainment, which is out now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.
It’s easy to forget that Wasteland is one of videogaming’s longest-running RPG franchises, and it becomes especially prominent when you realize that the Fallout series were originally a license dispute-driven spin-off (or ‘spiritual successor’) to the first game as well. Pushing all of that together in a giant pile of RPG greatness, you’ve got a legacy that dates all the way back to 1987, when the first game was announced.
Wasteland 2 was a big critical success when it launched a few years ago, so Wasteland 3 had a lot to live up to. Because of that, it’s probably smart that its developers went with a new location and a story that can hold together on its own, allowing them to make changes to the gameplay without creating a sense of discontinuity. But while the story is a standalone tale, it does feature familiar elements from the 2014 sequel.
The Desert Rangers return, and they’re in dire need of men and supplies. They’re promised everything they need if they help to restore order to Colorado, so despite the shady source of this promise they head out and leave their homeland of Arizona, ready to engage with a new region that’s caught in turmoil with several factions striving for power and influence.
Colorado is a land where there’s a precarious balance, and what Wasteland 3 does exceptionally well is the way it makes you feel like your actions, responses and decisions matter greatly in how the power struggle between factions develops. Even something trivial as bringing the wrong person with you to a meeting can bring undesired consequences as your meeting partner might view you differently for doing so. Non-player characters will also hold you to your word, so there’s always a tricky dynamic at play once you have to decide to break your work to pursue another goal. Will they find out? How will it affect your relationships if they do? Wasteland 3 is about consequences as much as it is about choices, and it makes the world feel very much alive. Some consequences are small, others give you the idea that you could replay the game and see a very different outcome next time. Will I play the game again? Probably, but the 40+ hour investment on my first run might make me wait a while before I do so.
What makes all this decision-making fun is how colorful the game world’s inhabitants are, and how they all pursue interests that aren’t compatible with one another. Because of this, obliging with one request if bound to make someone else very unhappy – and getting in that person’s good graces might very well make a third person develop some outright hate for you. You really can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs here, and diplomacy alone isn’t going to save you from every situation.
These colorful (and sometimes almost absurd) characters and situations make for a great contrast against an otherwise bleak post-apocalyptic world. There’s a diversity to it all that also translates to the gameplay, which ranges from carefully weighing your options in conversations to using your skills to avoid confrontations altogether, but you can (and will) also engage in direct combat with the mutants and human characters you encounter. This is all done through turn-based battles, and it’s an extremely well-developed part of the game that allows for tactical thinking and strategic nuances at every step of the way. Rather than moving one unit at a time, like you would in most turn-based games, everyone moves at once, which can make turns less predictable in how they play out but also makes the payoff bigger when your plan comes together. Units can fall in battle, but there is no permadeath as you can fix them up later.
Despite the incredible amount of player choice on offer, each avenue you pursue in Wasteland 3 feels like it received tons of love and attention from the developers. From the fact that every single line of dialogue is fully voiced to a fantastic visual style and the close-ups you’re treated to during key conversations, everything feels top notch. Graphics are detailed, the music adds atmosphere to locations and key moments in the game, and the way characters move and express themselves seem to fit the narrative elements that were written for them.
Although we didn’t ‘get a chance to try it out just yet, Wasteland 3 also features a multiplayer mode, which lets you tackle the campaign together with a friend while also giving you the option to jump in or out so that one player can continue on their own. With a game that’s this long, that should be a pleasant option to have in terms of flexibility – provided the other player is okay with missing a part of the story while you go on.
We’ve seen a few of Obsidian’s titles implement choices and consequences as a core gameplay dynamic into their games, and the outer worlds was a marvelous example last year. Wasteland 3 applies it to a more traditional RPG template, and while it doesn’t innovate the genre in meaningful ways it’s a superbly polished experience that fans of Wasteland and RPGs in general won’t want to miss. One of the most engaging RPG games in a long time, set against a world that feels as dynamic as it does alive.