Wasteland 2 beta review

Nuclear and improved.

Version tested PC

Eurogamer's alpha and beta reviews are reviews of games that are still in development but are already being offered for sale or funded by micro-transactions. They offer a preliminary verdict but have no score attached. For more information, read our editor's blog.

Wasteland is not Fallout. It's worth remembering that, because inXile certainly has. It's a series with something of a convoluted family tree though, and that other post-apocalyptic role-playing game's branches haven't exactly been pruned. Mechanically at least, Wasteland 2 is every bit as much a spiritual successor to the original Fallout games as they were to the original Wasteland, with exploration and turn-based combat that have next to nothing in common with how the original game handled things. In both soul and setting though, it's unmistakably the sequel it claims to be; a trek through a rather more tongue-in-cheek apocalypse where, for starters, rabbits have as much chance as scorpions of being rapidly promoted up the food chain.

This Early Access version is, however, firmly a sneak peek at the full game, and quite a short one. As in the original Wasteland, you're not simply a wandering nobody with a knack for finding trouble, but a squad of four rookie Desert Rangers - self-appointed protectors of the wastes. They're not the only such faction out there, nor quite the beacons of law and justice they'd like everyone to see them as, but they are always there on the end of a radio when settlements under their protection need a helping hand and would prefer it to be holding a gun of some kind.

This part of the story focuses on your team's first assignment as official Rangers, tracking down a mysterious signal, and not a whole lot else. While you can technically go walkabout in the desert, there's nothing in it except a few weapons caches and the chance to die of dehydration, and the action ends unceremoniously with a quick note in the quest log to say that your next destination isn't in the game yet. It's guaranteed to be a long road full of challenges; so is the rest of Wasteland 2's path to release.

1

You don't need to have played the original to get into Wasteland 2, but it's packed with callbacks if you have.

Even these first steps are promising, though, and already serving up some great RPG moments. Easily the best part comes almost at the start, with your squad facing a classic RPG dilemma - two calls for help at once, from equally important settlements: the region's Agricultural Center that produces food, and the town of Highpool that handles the water. I picked Highpool, because being about 65 per cent water myself, I felt a certain kinship with their work. Day saved there, I headed to the Ag Center, finding it trashed and everyone either dead or eagerly awaiting the sweet caress of death. Neat. In a horrible, bleak sort of way.

Finding it like this wasn't a surprise though, because Wasteland 2 offers something most RPGs don't - a radio. As such, I not only knew exactly what was going to be waiting when I arrived, but had heard its fall live as it happened: the initial desperate demands to the Rangers to send someone... anyone... to answer their call, then their angry disbelief, "You picked those rain collectors over us?", then outright pleading for assistance that no one was in a position to actually provide, and finally a resigned, "Don't come. There's no-one left..." And silence.

This is fantastic stuff. It adds real weight to the decision, establishes that choices will lead to consequences, and most importantly shows that inXile has no problem with building content that only half its players are going to see. If Wasteland 2 can keep up this standard for the whole game (as opposed to, say, Fallout 3, which peaked early with Megaton) then it's going to be very special indeed - especially for the old-school RPG players who both remember it fondly and made it a three-million-dollar Kickstarter success.

2

No, no, try again. This time, try saying the magic word.

Certainly, a quick look at the character screen is enough to see that Wasteland 2 knows exactly who's paying its bills, rewarding that sense of enlightened masochism from the start with a huge range of skills to choose from and so few points that every one counts. There are 10 weapon skills just for starters, sharing points with general skills that are broken down far more than usual. Field Medic for restoring health and Surgeon for reviving the downed are two different skills for instance, with speech checks likewise broken into Kiss/Hard/Smart Ass.

Even with a full team of four to spread skills over, you hit the wasteland greener than the occasional splash of vegetation on its hills and about as unequipped as it's possible to get without having to charge naked at bandits and hope they laugh themselves to death. (That said, the opening areas still offer a much easier start than the original Wasteland, that being an RPG from a time when the genre's idea of a polite welcome was limited to brushing the dust off the curb before stomping your party into it.)

Not all of the old-school charm is so charming, however, and in particular I am yet to be convinced by the combat. It's turn-based, but so far without the tactical depth to make it interesting rather than simply slow. There are no stances, no targeted hits, each character is only likely to have any skill with a single weapon and toys like grenades are rarer than hens' teeth. Environments also suffer from a general lack of detail or options, with the result that - so far at least - there's not much to do except stand next to cover, take pot-shots and toggle opportunity fire that may or may not actually be taken. Later, having more choices will hopefully make things more interesting. Right now though, I'd trade it for faster, pausable real-time combat in a heartbeat, if only to get the regular skirmishes with cockroaches and low-level bandits over with all the faster.

3

Combat isn't hugely satisfying so far. Tactics are extremely limited, without the chunkiness or heft that makes games like XCOM so much fun.

Another, admittedly more minor detail is that much of the world design feels like it's from a more primitive age. A game so strapped for technology that it had to put its flavour text in the manual and say "Read Page 56" can be forgiven for representing Highpool with a couple of huts. A 2013 game trying to do the same with five shacks and a barely two-digit population is pushing it, just as it's really disappointing to get inside the Ranger Citadel and find it cavernous but almost deserted, and lacking any sense of personality. Both could do with another pass to add some characters and decoration. Ag Center is fine as it is at least, with its mere continued existence helping Wasteland society stay ahead of Fallout 3's frustrating level of apathy. ("Guys, it's been 200 years since the bombs, can you at least get the dead bodies out of the bathtubs?") Still, I'm definitely hoping a later location will prove Wasteland 2's equivalent of the original's Las Vegas or Fallout's New Reno.

What's there so far is good, though, and full of little details that make up for a lot. Characters have plenty to say, with the option to type in keywords as well as work through them, while the lack of detail in the world itself is countered by a constantly updating print-out in the corner that loves to add comments on the area - sometimes for jokes, but just as often for environmental details the graphics can't convey, like the smell of mildew in a rotting storeroom. The leader of the (in my game) doomed Ag Center, for instance, is introduced like this: "A woman - dark skin and high cheek bones, wearing the ragged remains of a white lab coat over jeans and a T-shirt. A vine has her in its clutches and appears to be crushing her to death - slowly. She is battered and bloody from head to toe, and can only move her right arm and hand. She uses this limited mobility to give you the finger." Ouch. Deserved, but still: Ouch.

inXile is on the right track here. Already, Wasteland 2 has the spirit of the original firmly in place

4

Hey, you read my to-do list!

A similar level of detail is also going into the puzzles, beyond simply collecting items and beating up bandits. Highpool's leader, Kate, didn't have as memorable an introduction as her counterpart, but more than made up for it with an involved puzzle about flipping fuses to light an underground bunker and a seemingly endless number of ways to say "You idiot!" for screwing it up. It's a good one too, with one member of the team having to wait with her in a command centre, controlling the level's power flow, while the others clean the place out to both prevent Highpool exploding from within and ensure that Ag Center's ongoing sacrifices at least don't have to be in vain.

Not all of Wasteland 2's encounters offer something so fresh, but enough do to warrant optimism for the rest. This is a game where you can get past raiders by threatening to kill and eat their dog, and where your first fight is with a weapon-stealing giant toad. Enough said.

Even so, it's tough to recommend buying into the beta at this point - but not because of anything Wasteland 2 really does wrong. It's more because, like all narrative-led games, you're only going to get one first playthrough, and it makes sense to wait until it's the best it can be. A final release date has yet to be set, but fans have already waited 25 years for a Wasteland sequel. Holding on a few more months makes sense and shouldn't hurt too much, especially with the hardest of the hardcore already on board, drilling into the systems and feeding back suggestions and complaints and bug reports over on the official forums.

What the beta does offer, though, is the best evidence so far that inXile is on the right track here. Already, Wasteland 2 has the spirit of the original firmly in place, and puts its designers' Kickstarted money where their mouths were during the campaign in terms of how it's been updated and to what extent. This game is more than a little clunky and certainly isn't a looker, but is leaving no stone unturned to be both the sequel that Wasteland deserves and a great RPG in its own right. That's what was promised. That's what seems to be on its way. That's what counts more than anything else, and I eagerly await the rest.

Eurogamer's alpha and beta reviews are reviews of games that are still in development but are already being offered for sale or funded by micro-transactions. They offer a preliminary verdict but have no score attached. For more information, read our editor's blog.

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