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Channelling XCOM: Porting Wasteland 2 to PS4 and Xbox One

inXile shows off graphical upgrade, talks Torment, Bard's Tale 4, and more.

With the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One version of Wasteland 2, Torment: Tides of Numenera, The Bard's Tale 4 and possibly, probably even more games in the works, inXile Entertainment has a lot on its plate.

Or should that be, a lot of plates on its table. For founder Brian Fargo, it's a case of keeping them all spinning - no mean feat for a lean, 30-something person California studio.

Let's take things one step at a time, as inXile does. Brian Fargo tells me Wasteland 2 project lead Chris Keenan has promised him the recently-announced console versions will be out "late summer". I can hear Chris laugh over Skype when Brian mentions this vague launch window, but they're serious about it. And they've said it, now, on the record. And I've put it on the internet. So it has to happen.

"This isn't just a press-the-button port," Chris says. "We have a pretty intricate game."

I loved Wasteland 2. Sure, it was rough around the edges, the combat was at times a tad basic and, as a result, eventually mindless. But it ticked all the right boxes those who backed its Kickstarter to the tune of just shy of $3m had demanded be ticked. It was funny and grim, atmospheric and well-written with some quests right up there with Fallout's best.

Now, Wasteland 2 expands onto the current generation of consoles, addressing an entirely different audience and posing an entirely different set of questions. The Wasteland feels more daunting with a controller in hand. I was happy to read the thousands of words of text that that coursed through Wasteland 2's veins on PC, my body hunched over a desk, my face pressed up against a monitor. Sat back on my sofa in front of my TV, those words blur into a stream of fuzz.

And what about the interface? Wasteland 2 was - and inXile admits this - a bit cumbersome to navigate. It was just about doable with a mouse a keyboard. But with a controller?

"We know, and everybody else has stated, that how this thing plays and the controls are going to make it or break it on console," Keenan admits. "So we've been putting some good time into the controller, the inventory and what moves the camera versus the characters. You're going to be able to see a pretty big upgrade."

An example: Wasteland 2's NPC vendors will now display more information on what's currently equipped so you don't have to look at the store, exit to check your character inventory, then go back into the store again. Little things like this should make the game much easier to get along with, controller in hand.

"Anything that needs unique UI for console is getting its own special UI," Keenan says. "We're touching everything we need to."

As for combat, Firaxis' wonderful XCOM reboot is a clear inspiration. In fact it's an inspiration for the entire Wasteland 2 console project. Firaxis took turn-based combat and made it easy to play with a console controller. Shifting between units, selecting abilities and moving about the map was never fiddly. You just didn't notice it being an issue. And that's what inXile hopes to replicate with Wasteland 2 on console.

The parallels are clear: Firaxis rebooted an old-school PC series for PC and console. InXile is doing the same, although the console versions arrive half a year after the PC version in the case of Wasteland 2. The combat in Firaxis' XCOM is a party-based and turn-based affair with a top-down camera perspective you can rotate. The combat in Wasteland 2 is the same.

"Their UI on console was the gold standard for handling a complex game in a way on console that was very satisfying," Fargo says. "We recognise that. We always look at the body of work that comes before us. We want to make sure we're looking at what gamers gravitate towards, and what they think is done right."

"[XCOM] is certainly a starting point for us," Keenan adds. "We want to make sure we have similar ease of use in controls."

InXile has already announced its working on migrating the Wasteland 2 codebase from Unity 4.5 to Unity 5. This is happening as we speak for the PC version, but all improvements and changes that come as a part of the game engine shift will be chucked into the console version, too. And vice versa, too. Soon you'll be able to play Wasteland 2 on PC with a controller, using the console UI being built for PS4 and Xbox One. And it doesn't stop there: Fargo says a SteamOS-specific interface is also being built to take advantage of the upcoming flood of Steam Machines.

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New art for Wasteland 2's Quirks, Attributes and Skills.

Pretty much everyone agrees Wasteland 2 wasn't much of a looker. And pretty much everyone agrees that's fine, because the visuals weren't really the point.

"It wasn't our selling point. It wasn't what we did best in this game," Keenan says.

"Early on in our Kickstarter, we would poll our backers and say, we have $3m, where do you want to see this? Do you want to see it in voice over? Do you want to see us do some cool cutscenes? Do you want to see it in making great graphics? And everybody universally said: gameplay. We want an epic RPG. So that turned into our focus."

Still, it's good news to hear Wasteland 2 is set for a facelift. But just how significant a facelift?

"It's not like we're putting it in Unity 5, pushing a button and we're like, ta-da, we're done," Fargo says. "There's more to it than that."

Unity 5 introduced a physically-based rendering system that simulates the way the light bounces off of materials in a more realistic way. We're getting a little technical here, but, basically, Unity 5 spreads out specular maps so glass, for example, feels different because light bounces off of it in a different way to, say, stone or brick.

InXile is going through all of its Wasteland 2 assets and modifying them to make use of this new system. "Being a top-down game you see a lot of the terrain," Keenan says. "So we're focusing on making the terrain and the ground plane and the tops of buildings and all that stuff as great as it can be.

"Every single scene is getting basically a complete treatment," Keenan says. "We're not starting from scratch, certainly, because we have a pretty good foundation to everything. But we're just going through and putting a little extra love into every scene."

InXile is also creating brand new character models, which is welcome because, well, let's just say it: they were pretty crude. The new models include new clothing options, some of which you'll see in character creation, where you can now tweak your characters' hat, face and face accessories. You might want your character to wear a gas mask, or a beard. Beards are on trend, so best get those growing.

InXile sent over a few images that show the old character models compared to the new ones, the level art upgrade, and new art for the Quirks, Attributes and Skills. You can see them throughout this article.

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An example of Wasteland 2's level art upgrade.

I found Wasteland 2's combat functional at best. For all the pre-release talk of tactics, cover and planning ahead, you never had to think too hard about those things. Enemies tended to either charge at you and thus get caught up in your fire, or stay behind cover, in which case they were easily flanked. The whole thing lacked depth and nuance.

So, InXile is having a go at making combat more interesting, but it sounds like this won't be a dramatic change, more a bonus benefit of populating areas with more stuff.

"Combat is more deadly, but it's more deadly if you play the way you played before," Keenan says.

"It was a little bit easier to stand out away from cover. Some areas didn't have a huge amount of cover. We have been adding more. Even with melee enemies, the more we added cover and made them move around and have some choke points, the more interesting the combat was. It's much more about trying to get your way in, find good tactical spots around enemies. If you just do straight bum rush now, you'll get pretty beat up.

"It was something we weren't super happy with. It was a little bit easy in some areas to just stand out in cover. When it worked, it worked well. When we had the tough enemies, the ranged guys who used cover, and pushed the melee guys in between that, it felt pretty good. We've been taking that approach and amplifying it."

It turns out the console version of Wasteland 2 and the improvements being made to the game are all linked to the addition of Unity 5. I spoke with Brian Fargo a few times in the run up to the release of the game on PC, and each time I asked about the possibility of a console version, he responded by saying he wasn't thinking about such a thing.

When the game launched on PC in September 2014, Fargo and inXile did indeed begin thinking about a console version. Those thoughts, coupled with news of Unity 5 and its integration with both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, put the wheels in motion.

"You put all those together and you say, you know what? Let's do it," Fargo says.

Fargo, again, refuses to put a number on Wasteland 2 sales. He calls it a success in terms of making its Kickstarter backers happy, and I can't argue with him there. He calls it a success in terms of the company earning trust for future Kickstarters (more on that later) and again, I can't argue with him there. But he won't talk numbers.

"It's been rock solid," he says. "It's not as big as some of the multiplayer games. Those you see the biggest numbers from. We are a single-player, narrative experience, so you don't get the pass along of something like a Divinity: Original Sin or DayZ. It's not that kind of sales success. But it's certainly in the hundreds of thousands of units. Enough to pay our bills, pay our taxes and do some more."

Wasteland 2, Fargo points out, was the best-selling game on Steam, Valve's hugely popular digital platform, for two days after it was sold with 50 per cent off as part of the Winter Sale. "It's been great."

Good enough, then, that inXile has supported Wasteland 2 with a raft of updates since it launched, and will continue to do so throughout 2015. This is brilliant. I mean, I don't expect a Wasteland 2 expansion any time soon, but inXile has shown a willingness to fix bugs, improve performance and make the game better when, I imagine, it's not particularly cost-effective to do so.

"I've never shipped a game I haven't wanted to make better," Fargo says. "And the good will. We are truly thankful. And we love being able to make it better for all our backers. And they like us for it."

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Characters look a lot better in the upgraded Wasteland 2.

InXile is 37 permanent staff. Around 12 are working on the console version of Wasteland 2 (that includes contractors). But the majority of the company is working on Torment: Tides of Numenara, inXile's other crowdfunded CRPG.

I don't go into Torment in too much detail, as we've got plenty on the nitty gritty of that game elsewhere. But I do wonder whether Wasteland 2's shift to Unity 5 will also benefit Torment.

Fargo says it will, but in a different way. Torment is switching over to Unity 5, but unlike Wasteland 2 it has a fixed camera with 2D hand-drawn backgrounds and 3D elements and props plopped inside. The upshot is the impact of moving to the improved game engine won't be as dramatic as it is on Wasteland 2.

Torment, Fargo says, is still scheduled for release in 2015, although he won't say when. inXile plans a Steam Early Access release, as it did with Wasteland 2.

What about a console version? "If the stars line up and it makes sense, we'll certainly consider it," Fargo says, rekindling memories of our chats about a potential Wasteland 2 console version. "It's not in our conversations here. It's not on a release schedule anywhere. It's just something to be thought about on another day."

And then there's a small team working on The Bard's Tale 4, a game Fargo announced on Twitter back in January, much to my surprise, an incredible 27 years after the release of The Bards Tale 3.

The Bard's Tale began life in 1985, with Interplay's Tales of the Unknown: Volume One. The Bard's Tale 2: The Destiny Knight followed in 1986, before The Bard's Tale 3: Thief of Fate came out in 1988. If nothing else, with Wasteland 2 and The Bard's Tale 4 Fargo is keeping '80s gaming franchises alive and kicking.

"It's going to be a proper sequel to the original," Fargo says, without giving much away.

"We felt a little cheeky and we did that comedy version in 2004, and we cracked ourselves up with it. But we recognise people wanted a true sequel. And they wanted that classic dungeon crawl. I think Bard's Tale is probably as close to my heart as any game as I've ever done before. And I love this style of game."

Then some good old-fashioned Fargo hype: "I think where people will hopefully be pleasantly surprised, is just how ambitious it is. From a graphical perspective, from a musical perspective, it's going to be bigger and bolder than what people are thinking it will be."

Chris Keenan is similarly enthusiastic, but a tad more reserved.

"There's a lot of room for improvement in that genre," he says. "They aren't going to be the huge, five million sellers, so they've kind of been a little bit lost in time. There's not a big swathe of them that come out. You've had your Might & Magic 10s and your Grimrocks, but there's certainly a lot of creative freedom we can take on it."

InXile, having enjoyed success on Kickstarter with Wasteland 2 and Torment: Tides of Numenera, is hoping for a crowdfunded hattrick with a Kickstarter for The Bard's Tale 4, due to go live this summer.

I'm a little concerned. Kickstarter is in a very different place now than it was when inXile and Double Fine and all the others were raising millions a day back in 2012. At least, that's the perception. But Fargo reckons Kickstarter is still great for developers who deliver, who gamers trust.

"When I announced The Bard's Tale 4 I had more interest and people tweeting me, shut up and take my money, than I ever did on the other two," he says.

"Ultimately, on Kickstarter, going out and begging for money is not the way. Are they excited about product, and do they think you can deliver it? If you have those two things, you can continue to have success."

Fargo won't tell me anything substantial about his plans for The Bard's Tale 4, but I do know he'll dip into its development, as he did with Wasteland 2 and as he's doing with Torment. "On The Bard's Tale 4 I'm hand-picking the musicians," he says. "I've already had one of the songs written and I'm having it translated.

"I'm always involved in every level, but I'm more of a producer than a designer. My job is to get everybody thinking right and hitting the right sensibilities and making a product no one person could ever do."

A lot of spinning plates, then. Wasteland 2 on console is one. Torment: Tides of Numenera is two. The Bard's Tale 4 is three.

Is Van Buren four?

Late last year inXile caught the eye of the Fallout community when it trademarked Van Buren, the codename for what was going to be Black Isle's Fallout 3 before parent company Interplay went bust. Elements of its design were revealed years ago - and Fallout fans have wondered what might have been ever since.

As our chat comes to an end, I ask Brian whether inXile is working on a Van Buren game.

"We'll save that for the next one," he replies.

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