There's plenty of backstory to the release of Wasteland 2, certainly more than the usual sequel. The original was released in 1988, and was followed later by spiritual successors Fallout and Fallout 2, before Bethesda bought up the rights to that particular franchise and took the post-apocalyptic setting off in a slightly different direction.
Those bemoaning the change of perspective from the isometric viewpoint of the first Fallout games to the first-person offering given to us in Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas were able to vote with their wallets when key people including Brain Fargo, who lead the team that created those early games, put forth a Kickstarter campaign for a sequel to the original Wasteland, a game that would continue with the same style laid down with the subsequent Fallout games (full disclosure - we were among the backers). Thus Wasteland 2 was born.
Following a very successful Kickstarter campaign it's been out in Early Access via Steam on PC, since last year in fact, but now the final version is upon us, and we're able to see once and for all just how the classically-themed RPG measures up.
For the most part our expectations have well and truly been met. It might not be a looker in the traditional sense, and some of the locations visited along the way can be a little on the sparse side, but overall there's a heartfelt level of detail woven into this RPG adventure. And what an adventure it is, with choice informing the content you'll see, meaning plenty of new experiences to be had in subsequent play-throughs. There's also a lot of it, with two huge sections of the game, with players starting off in the Nevada desert, before making their way to the much greener landscape surrounding post-apocalyptic Los Angeles.
Players control a team of Desert Rangers, four to start, but with more NPC characters swelling the ranks as the story proceeds. Balancing a team is very important, and failing to do so from the very beginning can make for a brutally tough opening few hours, however, once the finer points have been grasped it becomes a lot more manageable.
For the most part the action plays out in real-time, with player-controlled units moving around large areas, interacting with characters, completing quests, levelling up, and all of the other activities you'd expect from a game in the RPG genre.
Levelling up the party is a particularly prominent part of the game. Earning enough XP notifies you that it's time to level up, at which point you must radio base so as to unlock the skill points that can then be spent on specialising the character (levelling up also, rather usefully, fills up the health bar, so strategic levelling can lessen the number of health packs required by the party). There's also attribute points that are found less frequently, and these further improve the assembled team. It never takes very long to earn enough XP to level up, so much so that upgrading comes around often, and tweaking your team in the end becomes a bit of a chore.
Another interesting facet of the game that can become a bit of pain as the game progresses and your party expands, is equipping and upgrading your gear. Each character tends to lean towards a certain weapon type, depending on your individual preferences, but there's lots of gear that can be picked up and swapped with equipped items, and weapons need upgrading and reloading at regular intervals. Inventory management is a bit of a time-sink, which will be music to the ears of those who like to tinker, while others who prefer to streamline their experience might not be so full of joy at the prospect of constantly having to tweak multiple loadouts.
The real-time action makes way for turn-based combat when enemies are encountered. These adversaries range from raiders and creatures to huge hulking laser-firing robots. The combat is straight forward, with each character having an allotted amount of action points to spend on movement and using their weapon (firing, reloading, unjamming). There's cover that buffs defensive stats, but it's not the most dynamic part of the game, and after a while it's easy to slip into autopilot. Indeed, after thirty or so hours, the battles can actually start to wear thin, and some of the encounters boarder on boring.
Some of the level design is also a little unwieldily, with the player forced to traipse through large environments in order to complete trivial quests, but this is a minor issue in the grand scheme of things, and the route-finding is pretty decent, with characters usually able to sensibly find their way around the world without constant supervision and coaxing. You can centre the screen on a member of the team if they get lost, but you can't drop your own waypoints down, which would have made those frustrating moments navigating the map much more manageable.
The locations are all linked via a world map that the party must navigate. Water supplies must be maintained by stopping off at any oasis you might encounter, and areas blighted by concentrated radiation must be avoided. Enemies roam the desert, and stumbling upon them can initiate short encounters in smaller environments. The mini-maps that host these encounters are recycled quite a lot, but you can usually avoid them (if you've got an appropriately skilled character) if you so wish.
Wasteland 2's finer elements are most manifest in the strength of the setting, in some of the character work, and in the sense of humour that veins throughout the whole game. From NPCs with daft names, to obscure references that will draw knowing smiles, a lot of effort has gone into pleasing the audience. The humour starts from the title screen and can be found in nearly every facet of the game thereafter. Indeed, the story that pins it together is interesting enough, but it's in the sub-plots and side-quests you encounter on the journey that really capture the imagination.
Some of the voice-over work is really good, and the dialogue is, on the whole, well written. Carry characters with appropriate skills in your team and you unlock new dialogue options. Character portraits are reused time and time again, especially on the minor NPCs, but there's enough personality in the writing for this to be a non-issue. We really warmed to the tone, and there's a playful sense of humour in amongst all the barbarity and violence.
It's the depth of the world, the choices we were presented with, and humour with which the whole thing was delivered, that ultimately won us over. From time to time the pace drops away (but given the size of the game lulls are to be expected), but for the most part this is an enthralling and engaging role-playing game, and one we're glad we backed.