"The best thing I can say about Wasteland 2 is that I had to actively stop myself from playing the beta."
It seems like we've been living under the impending release of Wasteland 2 for an eternity, and not just because of all the madness associated with the fantastically successful Kickstarter several years back. The sequel to the 1988 classic represents the hopes and dreams of numerous fans who cried foul at Bethesda's take on the Fallout series. Few of today's younger gamers probably realize the connections to be made between Brian Fargo, Black Isle Studios, or the mysterious game now known as Van Buren, but all you need to know is that Wasteland 2 could be considered Fallout 3 if it existed in some parallel universe where first-person titles never grew into prominence. I recently got a chance to play the beta build of W2, and it is now, without a doubt, my most anticipated game of 2014.
Wasteland 2 puts you in control of four Desert Rangers, an elite peacekeeping force tasked with maintaining order in and around the nuclear desolation of the western United States. The four party members are completely customizable, allowing you to bring friends and family into the gloriously dark fun of the wastes. Character customization currently features just the right amount of freedom without leaving players feeling too lost. Want to have a burly tank who punishes foes with a board with a nail in it? Go for it! Or perhaps you want a loquacious sycophant to take care of sweet talking his/her way through danger. W2 allows you to specialize your party for just about any danger, giving each character a distinct role in the party. I spent a great deal of time trying to cover all of my bases before setting out for adventure, but, thankfully, the party levels up quite quickly with a generous number of skill points to allow for substantial experimentation.
Strong writing is the hallmark of the classic cRPG (the "c" standing for "computer," for those born after 2000), and Wasteland 2 brims with atmosphere and wonderful dark comedy. Raiders attacking friendly encampments seem rather blasé, but there's also a science station developing a particularly dangerous brand of flora and fauna. There's a strong representation of known science fiction tropes, but they are told well with a great deal of humor. A wonderful printer on the bottom of the screen narrates your adventures, and it had me giggling over and over again. It's great to read, "It's a door. You've seen many like it," when you examine a piece of wood guarding a portal to another room.
Admittedly, the UI is a bit clunky for my taste. I didn't understand that I had to click on a skill on my hotbar before trying to use the computer skills given to one of my party members. I just assumed they would automatically perform the designated task, but W2 is rather old school in asking you to pay attention to the world and how you can interact with it. It's my hope that this rather early beta will allow inXile to take some needed criticism in this respect. Thankfully, the whole game oozes with a retro charm that sells the apocalyptic vision. There's even an overworld map where players must refill their canteens at scattered oases and avoid radiated zones.
Player choice seems to be front and center when it comes to dealing with the dangers of the wastes. Soon after my first encounter with raiders who had, seemingly, killed one of my fellow rangers, I was tasked with repairing repeater units at two different locations. With only enough time to choose one, I had to decide between the aforementioned science center or a highly inhabited area under attack by raiders. Your commanding officer tasks you with making the decision, and this level of player choice could lead to a great deal of replayability. It was also quite hard to hear the continued screams of agony from Highpool over my radio, but Desert Rangers have to make harsh decisions sometimes.
Skirmishes take place in a wonderfully detailed combat environment that clearly takes cues from recent ventures like XCOM. Each combatant gets a number of action points to move around and place themselves in harm's way. JRPG fans can think of it like a gun-friendly version of Final Fantasy Tactics, only you're killing pod people, killer rabbits, and giant wasps instead of heretics and demons. Scrounging for supplies and munitions outside of combat is just as important as surviving battles. I found myself searching crates for a few pressure pistol rounds in order to set off some exploding pods on the battlefield.
The best thing I can say about Wasteland 2 is that I had to actively stop myself from playing the beta. This preview build omits some features (including a mini-map for dungeons and towns, which is practically mandatory) and was a little buggy at times, but inXile's focus on the upcoming August release date has me truly excited. Wasteland 2 seems like a perfect blend of old-school gameplay with modern convenience. As someone who loved Fallout 3, it's almost a chance to see what could have been. Both games stand on their own merits and accomplish things a bit differently, but there's plenty of room for post-apocalyptic visions of America.