Preview: Wasteland 2 Simply Isn’t Ready to be Experienced

Note: Due to the nature of its current beta state, this preview will be edited frequently as I play through every part of the available content as it is updated. Current time played: 6.4 hours. This preview contains no spoilers.

Nowadays, you have your pick of the litter when it comes to the post-nuke theme. That wasn’t always the case, though. In 1988, there was only one title worth more than its weight in broken toasters: Wasteland, the mother of Fallout and daughter of Brian Fargo. It was the game to play if you had a craving for post-apocalyptic adventure and Coydog steak, long before the PIP-Boy 2000 was a must have accessory. Although its taken twenty years, multiple spiritual successors and a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, Wasteland 2 — the project Mr. Fargo had been itching to develop for far too long — has finally arrived. Kinda.

The beta — available on Steam for $59.99 — offers a small slice of the full-featured game, a promise of bonuses and updates to come, and the opportunity to help shape the experience through its development. But is it worth the hefty early-investment? Yes, and no. The final product, and the game we’ve all been waiting for, will contain an abundance of quests to conquer and locations to visit, potentially equaling days-worth of content. The early-access, however, will take a seasoned adventurer no longer than five hours to run through in its entirety. It’s a small package that feels a lot like a full-featured preview rather than a true beta release, but it’s indeed a promising one, with enough patches of compelling functionality to push us through its buggy terrain.

Beginning with the character creation — as tradition would have it — is quite the task in itself. There’s a confusingly wide range of skills to choose from; overwhelming, even, if true RPG boldness isn’t in your blood. Skills are broken down into categories so very specific, they have their own categories within their general class. Xzibit himself would be proud of such overabundance. With a team of four, it’s still quite unlikely that you’d be able to accomplish a fragment of the available choices in a single run. Even I found myself experimenting with different character builds across multiple saves before coming to grips with the fact that, when it came to skills, I couldn’t have my Action Points and use them too. From the very start, it’s clear that tough decisions and sacrifice are staples in the Wasteland 2 experience.

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The story begins with the very first mission your team will tackle as freshly-hardened Rangers — which are, for better or worse, the defenders of the wastes. There’s a mysterious radio signal, a missing person, some ticked-off mercenaries, and not much else worth exploring beyond the path provided by inXile. The short narrative does supply a fantastic buildup, and despite its rather abrupt ending, it’s quite clear that the pieces of an intriguing tale are all there. While mostly a straightforward experience, there are several surprising story-moments where decision making plays a nifty and rather consequential role. These refreshing instances offer the dreadful reality of freedom of choice, and I truly hope the full-fledged release will be chock-full of them.

The experience doesn’t always feel like Wasteland, though — title withstanding. There’re bits and pieces of Wasteland scattered throughout its setting and narrative, and definitely enough to distinguish itself, but the traces of Fallout are as obvious as a Pig Rat is ugly. While it feels more like a spiritual sequel to Fallout 2 at times, and its visual-style and approach to quests and exploration all scream Fallout, its representation of characters, the sharp and concise writing, and the tiniest — almost unnoticeable — of details littered across its world paint a beautiful sequel, and one that very much remains as enjoyably humorous in its approach to adventure as it is quick to remind us of its roots. Those that have played the previous Wasteland will also find many of its references amusing, but no knowledge of the original is required to enjoy Wasteland 2.

In some respects, Wasteland 2 is very archaic in its design, but it’s also a game that has been boiling since before the wave of change found its way into every crack of modern roleplaying games, so its entirely understandable and something of a welcoming surprise. You begin your quest in as minimalistic a fashion as possible, and there are fewer weapons to toy with than expected. While there’s plenty to see across the generously broad maps, it’s mostly backdrop particulars and decorative tech. Its world, like once beloved actress Gwyneth Paltrow, is pretty on the surface, but ultimately empty upon finer inspection.

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While the game is as much about its story as it is exploration, the combat is surely the meat-and-bones of the experience, as it represents something you’ll be doing quite a bit in the wastes: killing stuff. For the most part, it’s your typical turn-based, grid-style battle system, and immediately reminiscent of Fallout. Surprising, then, that Shadowrun is the game that crossed my mind upon my first encounter by the Radio Tower. Perhaps it’s the inclusion of cover-based tactics across the battlegrounds, allowing for strategic advantage in hectic situations — either way, it’s a nice addition to an otherwise basic setup. As it stands, there aren’t any terribly challenging matches to speak of, but it’s easy to see where expert decision making will come in to play. There’s still a lack of depth, and it’s still more or less a group of people standing and shooting at each other, but its an evolutionary steps towards present-day systems in contrast to similarly oldschool titles.

As with any beta, exploring, fighting and tinkering with the many mechanics are bound to stir some problems. In Wasteland 2’s case, it’s the framerate, which at its best is acceptable for a relatively weak machine. At its worst, though, it’s a terminally ill Galapagos tortoise, climbing the rockiest hill in South America. The recent update has improved overall functionality quite a bit, and I haven’t experienced any crashes or significant glitches, but sluggish framerate remains an issue. Although if an average of 20-25 frames per second isn’t a turnoff, the game is completely playable otherwise.

At the end of the day, Wasteland 2 is everything inXile promised. It’s pretty, well-crafted, creatively different from the games which it draws its influences, and as fun as a beta can be — if quite rough around the edges, awfully short and easier than expected. It’s clearly not a perfect game, nor will it be for quite some time, but it does exist, however, and that in itself is quite astounding. In its current state, I would recommend Wasteland 2 only to the most-impatient of fans, but I implore all RPG lovers to keep an eye out for future updates and its eventual release. It’s simply not ready to be experienced by the lot yet, but it’s getting there, and it’s doing so with style.