Wasteland 3, by InXile Entertainment is the sequel to 2014’s Wasteland 2. It is a tactical turn-based computer role-playing game (CRPG) that takes place after the events of Wasteland 2, with the Rangers in dire straits following the events at the end of the previous game. In order to avoid starvation, they are forced to take an offer from a ruler of a neighboring state, the Patriarch of Colorado, resolving his internal problems in exchange for aid to their home region. This involves the usual CRPG questing and exploring all in service of resolving the central plot of the game.
If you have played most of any recent CRPG, the structure of this one should be familiar. You interact with characters, with specific character skill unlocking additional dialogue options. Speaking to characters gives you access to quests related to their individual or factional needs, once you complete their specific quest then you get rewards, in some combination of money or gear as well as some faction reputation that can influence how willing the faction is to help you. This can also open up new quests and even impact the game’s ending. You repeat this as you explore the world of Wasteland 3, gaining levels and improved gear until you reach the inevitable end of the overall storyline and are forced to make a decision that helps determine the future of Colorado.
The level system should also be familiar. Every level you gain one attribute point and three skill points, with a special ability, called a perk, provided every few levels. Perk access is determined by your skill levels, though each character gets a set of generic that you can pick from to add additional options and ensure that each character has access to a baseline set.
Attributes impact combat stats and essentially serve no other purpose. You primarily decide which ones to raise in order to help facilitate a specific build. Some, like Coordination, give Action Points which are generally useful for most builds while others, like Awareness, are more narrow, improving stats for a subset of characters. All stats have secondary bonuses that give smaller bonuses that make them worth considering, but these bonuses are generally not worth investing in. Most characters will end up with several maxed out attributes with almost no investment in others.
While the skill system provides bonuses to stats similar to attributes, it’s primary purpose is gatekeeping. It determines what perks you have access to, what gear you can modify, and what gear you can use, and what skill checks you can pass. The last part serves as a means of gatekeeping, ensuring that in order to get access to as much of the content as possible you need to have characters who do more than just invest in weapon perks. This is largely fine as there is little reason to invest in multiple weapon types, but it is impossible to get all of this last category of skills to a reasonable level leaving you with a choice of which to prioritize. Unfortunately, this is largely an uninformed choice unless you choose to spoil yourself. You don’t know what lockpicking is going to give you access to when you are making your character so it ends up being an arbitrary decision rather than one that is meaningful.
Perks are special abilities, most of them related to combat though there are a few that have non-combat applications. Most of them are pretty straightforward and tied to the particular skill they are associated with but there are a few that provide bonuses that are applicable outside of their associated skill, such as Toaster Repair’s “Heating Element”, which provides a general +25% to fire damage, and Weird Science’s bonuses to energy weapon attacks. Most of them are fun and interesting and provide additional tactical options to the skill’s weapon category, though some are more specific. For example, the small arms skill provides perks for both handguns and shotguns individually, as well as perks that apply to both of them.
Combat is smooth and polished, though similar to Wasteland 2. It is an action point-based, with characters having a pretty large variety of options in a round. They are allowed to freely switch between two different weapons, use consumable items from two potentially available consumable slots, have access to a variety of abilities granted by perks, and a charge-based special attack based on the weapon they are using. Characters also have the ability to use remaining action points for final actions, including setting up an overwatch attack, assuming a defensive position with bonuses to evasion based on the remaining number of action points, and passing over remaining action points, up to a limit, to be used on the following round. The combination of these options results in a lot of meaningful decisions, particularly when combined with the tactical situations created by Wasteland 3’s battlefields.
Battlefields feature a variety of terrain that provide additional decision points and add nuance to the tactical combat. There are terrain hazards, sources of cover, and sometimes even enemies like turrets that serve as a dynamic sort of terrain. You can disable them if you are able to sneak around or send a mechanical character running to their generator. Additionally, specific encounters allow for players to gain special advantages if they are clever and patient rather than rushing in. While not among the best I have seen, battlefields are interesting enough to allow quite a bit of opportunity for smart play both when setting up and taking part in the engagement.
One nice addition to Wasteland 3 is an armored artillery vehicle, called the Kodiak, that transports you around the wastes and can also participate in some battles. This is fairly cool, as it provides something more for mechanical characters to do and also unlocks an additional dynamic in battles it participates in. It serves as a seventh party member, cover, and a way to get some free movement as it pushes characters to the side of it as it moves through them.
Failures and Limitations
Most of Wasteland 3’s limitations are the sort of things that are generally baked into CRPGs. For example, if you are the sort of person who is mostly interested in tactical combat and builds around it, and find the narrative interactions to be a bit unnecessary and overdone, then Wasteland 3 is not going to work for you. Similarly, if you are someone who prefers extensive build options, and likes it when you are able to still make meaningful build decisions up to the point where the game ends and perhaps even beyond that then you are going to find yourself bored as your build finalizes about 75% of the way through the game. But I can’t really call these true failures or limitations and simply a reflection of Wasteland 3’s genre and particular niche.
Beyond that, the sort of things you need to look out for is how it handles non-combat situations, the poor balance between weapon types, how the character generation system depersonalizes the supposed protagonists, and the poorly designed companions. Each of these is irritating and ultimately detracts from the overall experience but were for me small enough that I did not find that they pushed the game from “good” to “bad” but were impactful enough to be worth noting.
Non-combat skill checks and engagements are largely resolved through determining if you have sufficient levels of a particular skill in your party, with the results being almost purely binary. With few exceptions, there are no partial successes or anything else that gives you credit for having some of the skills needed. I see why they did this. Non-combat skill usage is simple and pretty easy to manage, but it feels so artificial and boring in comparison to the more dynamic and nuanced combat that I almost wish it wasn’t even there. There is also the matter of how it is difficult, if not impossible, to make any real informed decisions over what non-combat skills are important, so building and using them ends up being an overall negative experience. At this point, I would prefer that designers would either leave non-combat skills out of a game or give them a level of depth that justifies their existence.
There is not a lot to be said about the poor balance between weapon types beyond noting that it is a generally bad experience to invest time and effort in a character-focused on, say, assault rifles only to find out later in the game that they are far, far worse than most other weapon choices. Luckily on normal difficulty, this may not matter as things are easy enough that you should be able to get through the game even with poorly designed characters, but even there the difference between a shotgun character and an assault rifle character is going to be noticeable.
If you reach the point in the game where you notice this and wonder what you can do about it, the answer is simply that you can throw away the character and just make another one to replace them. Even the supposed main characters you start with are ultimately disposable, and if you don’t like them you can throw them back into the ranger pool never to look at or think about them again. While this is beneficial, in that you are never completely stuck with bad decisions, I also feel it is ultimately a failure. One of the points of a CRPG is that you develop some level of agency and connection to the world. You may be embodying or interacting with it through a collection of characters rather than an individual protagonist, but they do represent something meaningful within the world. With the Wastelands 3 system, you lose some of that. Your characters are disposable and replaceable which makes any decisions you make in a particular moment feel disposable too. It makes the choices you make through the game feel more artificial and abstract without the specific connection there is between the permanence of characters and their decisions. I don’t mind this at all in more combat-focused games or ones where you aren’t necessarily taking the role of your party, but for a game firmly in the CRPG genre, this feels like a big failure.
More permanent are the companions that can join you. With a party of six, you are required to have at least two companions, which are essentially pre-designed characters who have a specific role and voice in the game and react to what you do and at least some of the previously mentioned decisions. Each one has a distribution of skills and attributes that you are forced to build off of, and unfortunately, some of these are pretty bad. This doesn’t mean very much if you are on a lower difficulty, of course, but on higher difficulty levels you generally want to pick from the “least bad” character list, which is unfortunately pretty short.
Battles are pretty fun and engaging. It never really feels like you are lacking options or that there is one obvious choice. As mentioned previously, the addition of the armored vehicle simply adds to this and while I didn’t feel like battles without it were lacking, I really appreciated the tactical options and nuances that the vehicle provides. Even with a number of weapons being bad choices, there are still a reasonably large number of choices in regards to what weapons to use and characters to construct around them. The designers also do a good job of creating fun and challenging combat situations. While things get a bit more repetitive later in the game, in part due to the fact that a certain point you are no longer unlocking new capabilities, the bulk of the game has fun and engaging combat.
The writers also did a good job, outside of the disposable character problem, in presenting the sort of fun and weird things you would expect in a post-apocalyptic cRPG, which I am not going to really talk about in too much detail here to avoid the delight that comes with discovering them. The story is serviceable. A lot of the story beats and the ultimate choices are fairly obvious and straightforward, but to be honest I don’t really expect to be surprised by the choices and nuances of a cRPG story. I simply hope that the journey there is fun and enjoyable, and Wasteland 3 pulls this off.
Wasteland 3 adds an additional layer of progression over the previous game, with the team being given a mostly decrepit and empty base at the beginning of the game, that they can slowly populate with new secondary characters they provide gear and services. Now the actual decisions that go into building out this base are not particularly interesting. They are mostly organic and appear as part of quest rewards as the game progresses, but each addition feels meaningful, and the visual changes that they bring to your base are a quite enjoyable form of progression. It makes the base feel a bit more real and shows how you are advancing in your overall goals in Colorado.
The overall environment and look and feel of the place is also pleasing. Most post-apocalyptic cRPGs have the feel of a desert, and while there may be variations within them, it can feel a bit samey after playing the genre for a while. Wasteland 3 breaks away from this by having a cold, wintery setting that feels as bleak and degraded as other games in the genre while having a feel that is very distinctly its own. The game just generally looks good. There is a lot of attention to detail that I appreciate and while some features appear to be repeated the context around them is usually different enough that I neither care nor mind.
Wasteland 3 feels is an iteration rather than doing something that is particularly new or different. InXile is apparently happy with how Wasteland 2 performed and are using Wasteland 3 as an opportunity for refinement rather than innovation. How you feel about this will probably depend on how much you liked Wasteland 2. If you thought it was a great game at the top of its genre then you are likely to find Wasteland 3 to be an excellent sequel. If you did not enjoy Wasteland 2 then Wasteland 3 is unlikely to change your mind.
I am a bit in the middle, I played through and enjoyed much of Wasteland 2, but eventually found that the low level of build complexity was enough that I was ultimately disinterested in finishing the game. Wasteland 3 made some strides forward for me. Builds feel more interesting and complex than they did in 2, and overall I like the setting a bit more. However, the fact that they still seem disinterested in balancing weapon types and continue to include a low-effort non-combat system is exhausting at this point. I feel more inclined towards games that focus mostly on combat skills or social skills rather than this tacked-on system that Wasteland 3 features.