Wasteland is an important part of videogames history. More precisely, of the RPG genre. Originally published in 1988 (32 years ago) by Electronic Arts and developed by Interplay Entertainment, it was an RPG using the Bard’s Tale series gameplay loophole but trying a new, daring (for the time) setting, the post-apocalyptic one.
A tale of apocalypse and glory
In the eve of a classic mutual destruction scenario, a group of US Army Rangers (engineers to be precise) found themselves stranded in the desert. They decide to take shelter in a nearby prison, expelling the inmates for good and creating their own base of operation there, in the middle of the Nevada desert.
From here they will, in time, become a force of good dealing with the many issues of a community trying to rebuild their everyday life. The adventures that the player will endure spawn from this rich and interesting situation; it’s pretty clear that the setting was, at the time, a highlight for an audience (those of RPG video games players) mainly used to take their dice-throwing adventures mainly into dungeons in medieval-fantasy settings.
In Wasteland the player navigated the strictly 2D map in a very simple way, with a discreet horizontal or vertical step. He could enter locations by simply moving the character depicting his party over the location representation. Then, another simple 2D map opened representing the new location entered. Encounters triggered when walking close to an NPC. Then we would get to navigate the usual multiple-choice dialogues.
The story progressed through dialogues and descriptions that, when too long, were just referenced with a paragraph number; the player would have to consult the booklet coming with the game itself. It was a nice little trick to make the whole story more easily readable and enjoyable.
Getting your hands dirty
Anyway, it was combat the main part of the game. The party of the player could contain between four and seven characters, each with his own set of attributes, skills, and objects. Skills and attributes were connected both to combat and exploration situations.
In combat, the player would have to choose actions for every character. The weapons included in the game were an extensive lot with many automatic and heavy weapons; progressing through their ranks was one of the main draws of the adventure. Being finally able to afford a nice M16 or a flamethrower was a huge motivator. More than that, progressing through the skill ranks and being able to finally make the most of that nifty weapon we had with us for so much time was another big satisfaction kick. Ammunitions was a major worry, with some kind being actually limited in stock at vendors. This, combined with a very generous ratio of mob spawns, made for a game experience that was challenging to say the least.
But that’s not all as the game was designed to be ruthless from its roots. Whenever a major event kicked in (death of party members included) the game would physically save on disk your progress. Just imagine the tension and the sheer terror when someone in the party kicked the bucket…
Adventure and exploration
Now, the game was not all about combat. There were a lot of situations that needed particular objects, skills or attributes used on a precise tile and in a precise direction. No Internet was there to save us at the time, and players would have to hope that some magazine would come up with a strategy guide or a walkthrough…until then it was upon the player, and only him, to solve the riddles and get rid of situations that blocked the progress.
RPG was not an easy genre to play, back in the old days, but Wasteland was especially tough, but also especially fascinating with its original theme and art. The vinyl record style box with amazing art and the devs posing in costumes as a thugs gang…all these elements together worked together to create a cultural product that was ahead of its time and it is regarded as such nowadays.
A new coat of paint
The progress happened and Wasteland spawned the Fallout series before getting back on track on its own path with the recent Wasteland 2 and the third episode coming up this summer. A remastered version of the original was also promised by Inxile and here we are talking exactly about that.
The game core has remained intact, exactly as we just finished describing it. Old-timers will be glad to read this, but the game has also undergone some modernization. There are now video sequences and voice-overs in key moments to substitute some of the most important paragraphs of text. This helps the immersion and helps players learn the story in a more involving way
The whole graphic department has been prettified with a more vivid color palette and an overall clearer UI and general presentation. Be advised that the game still works in the same exact way when it comes to commands and human interaction, and this means that it’s clunky, unintuitive and very different from what we expect from a modern RPG. After all, this is a remastered version, not a remake. The most striking feature is that now the main map is in 3D with our party represented by a figurine moving in scenery that resembles the original but with 3D objects. It’s in no way comparable to the average quality of contemporary RPGs, but it’s definitely a step forward.
The models of the enemies have also undergone some prettification and they now also have some basic animations.
Finally, the game has a journal to keep track of what’s going on (we had to take real notes on real pads back in the days!) and an atmospheric enough music to keep you company while you roam the wasteland (another luxury we didn’t get back in the days).
Wasteland, as said before, was a masterpiece. A bold step forward and an imaginative adventure for hardcore gamers. Today some of its mechanics can feel off and definitely too hardcore.
Some situations need the player to figure out the right skill or attribute to use (there are dozens), where to use it, and in which directions. Some other situations require you to type a precise word in a dialogue to unlock the progress of the whole story. If the difficulty of the combat can now be save scummed through, cheating in the other situations completely defeats the purpose of the game…but frustration can quickly kick in, especially if you are well used to the level of hand-handling that is built-in in modern games.
There is nothing wrong with a hardcore difficult game, but Wasteland is old school hardcore and that can dishearten even the most skilled and patient player.
Still, this game is a must of RPG players. It is a must because it shows us clearly why and how we got where we stand now with western RPG games. Also, behind the thick layer of difficult clunkiness, there is a game that is able to give you so much satisfaction when you get it right that you will love it; just after you have hated it.