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RPG Codex Review: Wasteland 3

RPG Codex Review: Wasteland 3

Codex Review - posted by Infinitron on Sat 12 March 2022, 22:02:09

Tags: inXile Entertainment; Wasteland 3

[Review by Roguey]

Wasteland 3 is inXile's latest addition to the turn- and party-based post-apocalyptic series. The setting has moved from the deserts of Arizona and the overgrown cities of California to the snowy mountains of Colorado. The Rangers have agreed to work for the man who brought some measure of stability to the area in exchange for supplies to be delivered back home. Released in late 2020, it was deemed good enough to become RPG Codex's Game of the Year. Since then, inXile has improved it further, releasing nearly a dozen patches in total that added new features and quality of life improvements in addition to bug fixes and balance changes. The version I played, 1.6.9.420 (this is the kind of lowbrow humor you can expect to see frequently in the game), appears to be the final one.

Under the Hood

The first difference you'll notice from Wasteland 2 is that it takes a page from Divinity: Original Sin and requires you to make or take just two rangers at the start. There's a greater focus on accessibility and the ability to immediately jump in and start playing: there are five groups of pre-made rangers, and they all come with unique background bonuses and utility items that no custom-made ranger can acquire to compensate for their non-powergamed attribute and skill allocation. In addition to this, they also have a few unique voiced banters with each other, though you'll hear them all in the early areas. Once you're past the tutorial, you can make or take two more rangers from a different and larger pool and/or fill up your roster with companions for a total of six; however, you must always have at least two rangers in the party and can have no more than four. Some purists may balk, but I was grateful I could start playing immediately and learn how I wanted to build my future characters through experiencing the game's content as opposed to making decisions for four different characters at the start with no context other than my previous experience with RPGs.

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Putting together the post-tutorial team. Custom portraits continue to be supported.

Wasteland 3's CLASSIC attribute system has also been modified from its predecessor. In Wasteland 2, the system encouraged only two kinds of builds: a useless-or-less-useful-in-combat charismatic skillmaster and a character who puts a roughly equal investment into attributes that maximize initiative, action points, and skill points. The initiative system that gave individual characters multiple combat turns in comparison to their opponents excessively rewarded high-initiative builds and excessively punished low-initiative builds; that's been replaced with the characters on each side going at once, though occasionally you may get lucky and receive a free use of action points. Action points themselves, while still important, aren't absolutely necessary to max out on every character; there are incentives to put those points elsewhere. Putting points into intelligence gives you one skill point per level of intelligence instead of modifying the number of points you get per level. Overall, viable build variety with regard to attributes has noticeably improved.

The skill system has been streamlined; the era of multiple container-unlocking skills is over. Lockpicking and Safecracking are now just Lockpicking, Handguns and Shotguns have been folded into Small Arms, Assault Rifles and Submachine Guns form Automatic Weapons, Bladed and Blunt Weapons are now Melee, Field Medic and Surgeon have been combined into First Aid (and it's no longer a requirement for reviving downed rangers), and Alarm Disarming and Perception have become Sneaky Shit. Brute Force is gone; now if you can't be bothered to invest in Lockpicking but still want to open a locked door, just attack it normally. The Smart Ass talking skill is also gone. They did add Armor Modding as a skill to complement Weapon Modding, but that's the only new one. Even with the fewer number of skills, a perfectly-optimized party won't be able to max out everything by the endgame; at least four skills won't be able to hit those final numbers (at least as far as the base game experience curve goes).

Additionally, annoyances like skill timers, chance-based skill checks, critical failures, and gun jamming are gone. I could take or leave the last two, but I don't miss the first two at all. Using a skill isn't quite instantaneous, but it's fast enough, and not having to keep clicking on an object until you succeed or critically fail is a welcome relief.

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This particular scenario provides multiple options so you're not railroaded into needing to have one skill.

The inclusion of quirks and perks from the Director's Cut of Wasteland 2 has been carried over, and they've also added backgrounds that provide a small bonus. There are some good, great, and lousy options all around, so it's a pretty typical assortment for an RPG. With knowledge of the system, you can synergize all three to excel at a given role, so there's a decent amount of options here for the powergamers.

Inventory is now shared by the entire party and items no longer have weight, so encumbrance is no longer a factor. However, there are strength requirements to wear the strongest kinds of armor without penalty. While you can look at the inventory during combat, you can't equip anything you didn't have in your weapon and quick slots when combat started, so things aren't totally balanced in your favor.

Crafting was added in one of the patches. It saves you the trouble of having to backtrack to a store if you run out of a particular kind of consumable or ammo while out in the field as long as you meet the particular skill prerequisites. It's also used for making unique joke items that are worth a bit more than standard junk items, weapon and armor mods you absolutely want to have, and unique weapons, including final upgrades for the best weapons in the game. I'm usually not one for crafting, but I liked having it here. The presentation for weapon and armor mods could have been better though; there are roughly two dozen armor mods and fifty weapon mods and they're listed in alphabetical order instead of organized by type and rank. As a result, it's irritating to scroll through them while holding shift to look at their stats to find what you want.

On the subject of user interface frustrations, there were times when looking at the character and item screens when I wished I didn't have to scroll to see all the information. Additionally, you can only ever see three options at a time when you're making dialogue decisions. I would have thought the 1080 resolution standard would have made these kinds of issues a thing of the past, but apparently not.

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Disco Elysium, Wasteland-style.

In better news, Wasteland 3 is designed with a default camera angle in mind unlike its predecessor. You can fully rotate it and reset it back to the default position with the keyboard, but you can thankfully just leave it alone for the most part. Unfortunately, it's not completely fiddle-free; the game insists on zooming in whenever you initiate dialogue with a character, and you always have to manually zoom out when it's over. There were also times when I wish I could have been able to zoom out more, but that's a common issue in recent pseudo-isometric titles.

The combat interface has a significant amount of transparency. Highlight an enemy and their health bar will flash to show you the predicted amount of damage your attack will do. In addition to displaying where you can move and still have enough points to attack, the combat grid now shows the potential line of sight and accuracy indicators from any given square. You can turn off the health bars and individual squares if you don't want to see them, but not the other features.

Of course this greater transparency means that tactical experts will have an even easier time. Though I played on Normal, I'd recommend great players start on Hard and potentially enable the Difficult Checks option (which increases the requirement for all attribute, skill, and perception checks by 2 but not beyond the maximum) if they're also in favor of reverse difficulty curves.

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The decisions are yours to make, but now it's easier than ever to make good ones.

Once you gain access to the world map, you traverse it in an armored personnel carrier that can be upgraded and customized. For the act of traveling, it's just a cosmetic change, but the real benefit is the help it provides in random encounters and certain battles. One can argue that it bends things too far in your favor; nevertheless, I found it an enjoyable addition, and inXile did a good job of keeping its handling frustration-free (even going so far as to include a key to get you unstuck if you somehow manage to do so).

Finally, I'd like to note that unlike many other Unity Engine RPGs, Wasteland 3 has some nicely compact save file sizes (no more than a few hundred kilobytes). Loading times on my NVMe SSD were roughly 10 seconds long at maximum, which is about the most one can hope for. Fortunately, the levels are designed so that you don't constantly run into them.

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Traveling on the world map.

The Detailing

Wasteland 3 is a solid improvement over its predecessor when it comes to art direction. It doesn't have the highest resolution textures and polycount, but it's not unpleasant to look at. The character portraits are consistently good (nothing as bad as Pizepi Joren's infamous original portrait), and the character and item models are a far cry from the bizarre constructs of Wasteland 2 before its Director's Cut overhaul. The user interface lost its identity to the modern minimalist style of nearly every other game from the past decade, but at least it doesn't look bad.

New to the series are a handful of special fully-animated dialogue sequences that feel like an evolution of the talking heads found in Interplay's Fallout games. No one will be mistaking them for a cutscene from a current big budget title, but they're well-animated given their limitations, with the lone exception of Scotchmo's (re-)introduction. For some reason they didn't bother to make his shaking consistent from dialogue node to dialogue node, so his character model jerks unnaturally during these transitions. Since it's not a plot-critical sequence it's not too big of a deal.

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She'll tell you how she got those scars too.

Of course animations are only part of the performance; Wasteland 3 is fully-voiced and the quality ranges from good to great for the most part. There are a few lousy line deliveries, particularly with the random non-player characters who sometimes even have one voice for their banters with other NPCs and another completely different voice when you click on them. Thankfully, all the most important characters have strong voice acting, and there are a number of minor parts who stand out, such as the celebrity impersonators and Tara Sands (most-known for voicing Bulbasaur in the English dub of the Pokémon animated series) who chews the scenery in her role as Risky Briskett.

When it comes to music, Mark Morgan delivers another dark ambient soundtrack with pulsing combat tracks that doesn't sound any worse or better than all the other soundtracks he's made in the same style. However, this time around inXile has supplemented it with several covers of licensed songs that play during certain special battles, in certain areas, and on the car radio while on the world map. These make for a lot of memorable, dramatic, and funny moments. I wish that running into a random encounter didn't stop the radio on the world map (whether it's playing a song or a dialogue bit) since that encourages just sitting still and waiting it out whenever a radio segment starts. I suppose there's some programming issue that disallowed letting the audio play out to completion.

Lastly, there's a musician who sings a recap of the events of Wasteland and Wasteland 2 in the main town. If you have any veteran rangers in your party, they sing along with him. It's a nice bit of world-building that's in there for the fun of it and an unobtrusive way of getting new players up to speed.

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The Golden Scorpitron has its own boss theme.

The Ride

Once you're past the tutorial, Wasteland 3's premise is to capture or kill Saul Buchanan's three wayward children. The map is entirely open to you, but many areas are soft-blocked by radiation clouds you need to upgrade your car to pass through without taking damage. Additionally, some locations can't be entered until you're given their coordinates. The suggested player level for every quest is noted in your journal; you can try to take on some areas early, but you'll likely have a difficult time getting through them without the level-appropriate gear.

As I mentioned earlier, the combat isn't significantly demanding for good players. There was only one time when I came close to a total party kill, and it happened during a random encounter where I didn't have the level of Weird Science necessary to get the first turn, so a bunch of exploding robots took out everyone except my strongest character, the car, and the small group of NPC followers I had acquired. I'd like to think that my turning that around and ultimately winning came down to my skill though.

This isn't to say that the combat is bad. It is true that the encounter design in any given area is differentiated more by the terrain than the small differences in encounter composition. However, you will get punished for playing sloppily, and likewise rewarded for putting in the effort. There are plenty of status effects to take advantage of (or get hurt by), barrels to explode, destructible cover, and automated turret generators to turn off or destroy. Precision Strikes have been carried over from the Director's Cut of Wasteland 2 and they can make a big difference when used at the right moments. Funnily enough, despite all the effort put into greater transparency, inXile felt it necessary to patch in a Tourist difficulty that's even easier than Easy. It just goes to show that some people will never comprehend how to play role-playing games.

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Precision Strikes always hit and have a bonus effect depending on which part you're targeting.

Fortunately, the combat doesn't overstay its welcome for the most part. A lot of the early maps only have one battle per area. Eventually you run into longer combat crawls, but they will have an average of about three battles per map with seven at the very most. These larger maps are usually well-paced when it comes to mixing fights with dialogue and exploration, though there are a few annoying moments where you're just running into encounter after encounter. It's a good thing you can skip some of these fights through dialogue skills, going through some extra steps, or previous role-playing decisions.

Exploration is okay. The world map has some very-brief text-adventure spots where you can use your various skills to unlock prizes. A lot of loot in containers is randomized like in Wasteland 2, so it's not all that exciting to get unless you luck out and get a weapon you want. The Toaster Repair rewards are okay, though I found it annoying how the ultimate prize is an NPC follower who's constantly making noises. With Animal Whisperer you can collect a bunch of animal followers (though only one per skill-prerequisite-meeting ranger; only a couple of special animals can be acquired without the skill through dialogue) and keep the ones not with you at the Ranger Kennel. On top of that, there are non-animal followers you can pick up on your journey. There are also a lot of amusing audio logs to collect, though I seethed when I found out I would forever miss out on one because you have to kill a certain NPC to acquire it. Finally, there are Creepy Dolls hidden throughout the world that give your party a small bonus.

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Certain skills can give you an edge in world map encounters.

With regard to narrative, Wasteland 3 is in line with its predecessor with its mix of moral dilemmas, goofy characters, and lowbrow humor. The recurring question that's asked of you is "What kind of post-apocalyptic law enforcement are you?" Are you ruthless, compassionate, or tough-but-fair? Do you do things by-the-book or do you bend or break the rules as you see fit? All these options are supported, though not all outcomes are equal. I like how there's an option to try to talk things out at the beginning of many fights, but it only puts you at a disadvantage compared to selecting the Attack option that gives your party the first turn. Alternately, in some cases you can disregard parley altogether and attack from a secured position before they can even see you. If you're a compassionate ranger you can keep trying and keep getting punished, or eventually accept that a certain amount of ruthlessness is required to get an advantage in the wasteland.

The factions that populate Colorado include local law enforcement, the upper class, refugees who want to live in the safer environment of Colorado Springs, criminal organizations, multiple cults, cyborg slavers, sentient machines, drug addicts, and nihilistic clowns with a wicked sense of humor. There are reputation mechanics, but any great fondness a group has for you will be irrelevant if you make a decision they find intolerable. These decisions will determine who some of your friends and enemies are, remove your access to certain shopkeepers, and gain or restrict access to certain rewards and one of the possible endings. On top of this, there's still a large amount of narrative reactivity to your actions. There's also a quest early on where you have to help one group of people over another and then see the results of the group you didn't save, which seems to be a Wasteland tradition now.

The dialogue is concise and often funny, though your mileage may vary depending on your own sense of humor and tolerance for the puerile and the occasional meme. I didn't run across anything as bad as "You suck!" from Wasteland 2, though I wasn't too fond of the feminine writing style that popped up the most in the Aspen location's dialogues. The people there are interesting enough to talk with, it's just a personal preference combined with how jarring it is compared to the writing style of the rest of the game.

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More of that Wasteland reactivity.

The following paragraph will discuss the ending, so please skip this if you don't want it spoiled. Throughout the game you find out that Buchanan's peace was ultimately secured by cutting deals with the gangs of Colorado; he gave them regular supplies of weapons and prisoners to enslave or sacrifice, and they left his people alone until his daughter ruined everything. When Angela Deth discovered this, she went rogue and set out to depose him, accepting that doing so would doom the people of Arizona. Part of her plan involves uniting all the gangs under one leader who has promised to lead them into Kansas where they'll be someone else's problem. A number of posters on the Codex thought this was too stupid to be believable but I disagree; her reaction is understandable, and you can draw attention to how the deal she's cutting isn't all that different from the deal Buchanan made (though she protests because she's not giving anyone weapons or slaves and holds the extremely optimistic belief that the gangs will simply kill each other in Kansas instead of growing into a bigger threat later). Additionally, if you look the other way from or embrace the local law enforcement's corruption and brutality and appease the upper class (which requires turning your back on many of the refugees who want to come in), you can depose Buchanan without the bloodshed of liberating a people who didn't ask or necessarily want to be liberated and still get your promised supplies sent to Arizona. Ultimately, I like how every ending requires a moral compromise on your part, as well as how you can be on good terms with your final opponent throughout the entire game up until the final moment.

Finally, on the matter of bugs, even after all those patches, there were still some scripting errors resulting in a display of code gibberish instead of dialogue, one instance of glitched subtitles, the game suddenly turning into a slideshow on two occasions (fixed by closing the program), and a few voice files that stop playing early or don't play at all. Not a big deal, but still disappointing. They came so close to making a nigh-polished RPG.

Conclusion

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Planescape: Torment reference or apophenia? You decide.

If "reactivity and choice" was the mantra for Wasteland 2, then Wasteland 3 adds "transparency and accessibility" as another design pillar. inXile pulled off a heavily-reactive turn-based, party-based RPG that looks and sounds slick and is largely frustration-free when it comes to starting and playing. They re-examined their systems and modified them without throwing out the baby with the bathwater, in contrast to other studios who have tried to do the same in the past. Sure, it's not the second coming of Jagged Alliance 2, and no, it's not a party-based Fallout, but it's my favorite Wasteland game. Its status as the 2020 RPG Codex Game of the Year is well-deserved.

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