Monday, April 22, 2024

Wasteland 2 Director's Cut (PC, 2015)

I've played and really enjoyed Fallout 1, 2, Tactics, 3 and New Vegas. It felt then like an obvious step to go full circle and try out Wasteland 2, seeing as the Fallout series was inspired by the very first Wasteland game released in 1988. While that game looked a bit dated for my patience, Wasteland 2 looked like a good alternate version of a Fallout game. It is inevitable that I am going to compare these two games then, seeing as they seem to be (un?)willingly intertwined.

Wasteland 2 was released in 2014 and the Director's Cut that I have played was released the year after with some enhanced gameplay. Unlike Fallout, Wasteland never created a franchise, so it took them 26 years to finally manage to come out with a sequel. Wasteland 2 has some interesting people attached to it, first and foremost the original creator of Wasteland Brian Fargo. Adding to this were people attached to Fallout 1 & 2, like the game designer Jason Anderson and composer Mark Morgan. Then came Chris Avellone and Colin McComb whom had worked on Planescape: Torment among other things and it really looked like Wasteland 2 could only turn out to be the perfect Apocalyptic adventure, a true hero to carry on the Fallout flag.

Just like in Fallout, the game starts out with the player in the remains of America after a devastating nuclear war with the Soviet Union (China in Fallout). People have bonded together in different factions, some are intent on spreading law, some are intent on spreading death. You control a group of newbie ranger recruits who are tasked to find out what or who has killed a fellow ranger. You get tasked a lot of other things, helping out nearby settlements for instance, and you quickly get many reasons to travel across the desert landscape. Just in Fallout, your party is represented by a symbol on the map and you can come across random encounters which you can choose to engage, or not, depending on your skill.

Your characters have stats which influence your capabilities and can further improve their qualities with skills and perks. Skills can range from how to handle different weapons to being able to remove bombs, repair items, speak to animals, or handle people to mention a few. Perks often allow you to improve certain areas of gameplay, like carry capacity, health, resilience or the efficiency of your skills. You always feel like you aren't quite good enough at doing anything. Some (most?) bigger quests require that you have a certain level of skill to be able to complete it satisfactorily. But you also need to use those precious points to be able to hit anything with your weapons (more on that below). Some things are probably, definitely, more useful to put your points into than others but it's complete trial and error to figure out what they are.

So I run out into the literal wasteland and try to get to work at helping people. Turns out I am not overly good at that. Wherever I go new mysteries crop up that I have to solve in order to keep people happy, or, as is often the case around here, alive. I realize that some of my choices are mutually exclusive, meaning that if I fail to finish a task a certain way or at all, it changes my options up ahead. Nothing wrong with that and I think it works well enough although I often realize after the fact that I messed something up and can't fix it again. Quick save and quick load are your friend here. 

I do quickly find that there is a lot of running back and forth though. And I constantly get lost. I am not sure it is to the benefit of the game that I am capable to turn the camera all the way around, because while it helps me see around corners, it often gets me lost in the directions. Fitting to the wasteland, but less fun to play is the constant scrounging for resources. I feel a frustration between the cost of each shot I make against an enemy, compared to how weak most weapons feel. Not to mention all the missing. I ended up trying to teach most of my characters melee weapons to save on ammo, and often times I ended up doing way more damage with melee weapons than with guns simply because shooting cost more AP and missed more often.

A word about the combat system. If you've played Fallout 1 or 2 you know pretty much how it goes. Each character has a set of Action Points, or AP, that they can freely allocate on different actions, like attacking (with different weapons requiring different amount of AP as mentioned), using a skill (like bandaging), hiding, reloading and so on. I think it is a great system and there is nothing wrong with it here either. In fact, Wasteland 2 is helpful enough to give you a great overlay of the combat area, showing you exactly how far you can move if you still want to have enough AP for a shot.

The problem arises in the calculating of success, which is less often than desirable (albeit nowhere near as frustratingly rare as in The Temple of Elemental Evil). And even when your characters finally hit, they usually only put a small dent in the enemy. Most enemies require a lot of whacking, or wasting of precious bullets, before they go down. In the meantime your own characters easily take a lot of damage and wasting of precious bandages to keep alive.

Wasteland 2, to its credit, has a generous fail system, in which your characters don't immediately die when they go down. You have a certain window of opportunity to resuscitate them and save them back to life. On the other hand, once dead the character stays dead and you can't ever get them back. I fortunately didn't end up in this situation, but I got close a few times.

Overall the combat system is a lot more frustrating than it is fun, even though the core system is good. The end result is often just a lot of flailing and bullet spraying, which just isn't a fun way to spend your evening (unless you're playing Quake 2). Add to this other environmental mechanics, like exploding seed pods that infect your characters with hard to treat diseases and debuffs and there is a lot of quick saving and quick loading, as mentioned. Even then a lot of time is spent having to run back to some safer area to restack on bullets and bandages, to which you might not even have enough money anyway. The combat in Wasteland 2 makes me feel frustrated and anxious in a way that leaves a bad taste. After 8 hours I turned it down to easy, and that only helped so much. It's stiff, even for a turn based system.

The game has an odd claustrophobic feeling as well. Every area you enter only has one or two exit points, meaning if what you need is at the other end you have to run all the way there and back to do your business and be about your way. I don't recall this being the case in Fallout, where you could exit a town from any side straight out into the desert hellscape. Here, everything I have encountered so far (~10 hours) is enclosed by mountains or the like.

Fallout took the concept that Wasteland set up and improved on it in many ways. I had hoped that Wasteland 2 could maybe take yet another step and improve on what Fallout (especially Fallout 2) left behind. I realize now that maybe that was a hard act to follow and Wasteland 2 instead ends up feeling like a step back - like everything is just that tiny bit of a chore instead of fun.

If you're yearning for more isometric role-playing apocalypse, and there aren't too many of those out there, you could definitely get worse than Wasteland 2. But I can't help feeling like Sisyphus pushing the rock up that hill, praying it will just this once stay up there rather than roll back over my face (as the fable goes). While I am having fun with Wasteland 2, it does make me miss Fallout 2.

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