Grimy, bleak and epic in scope – Wasteland 3 is a masterful mix of tactical combat and role-playing.
It’s strange that Wasteland 2 is almost six years old at this point. As the crowd-funded successor to Wasteland, whose setting laid the foundation for the Fallout series, it had an excellent blend of old-school RPG exploration, survival and tactical combat.
That’s why Wasteland 3 is so remarkable – it not only leverages this premise while introducing a brand new region but also improves on the tactical combat, dialogue systems, world-building, decision-making, and so on and so forth. It does this with a certain air, one that sprinkles dark humor into a cauldron of post-apocalyptic despair, where “good” is replaced with “the lesser evil” and horrifying consequences are part of life.
"Even as you help a cranky landlady deal with a troublesome tenet or help evict some remaining Dorseys from a clothing shop, the overarching history and lore of the city opens up."
The story sees your squad, Team November, venturing outside Arizona to receive aid from Saul Buchanan aka The Patriarch, a despotic figure in charge of Colorado Springs. On the way, you’re ambushed by the Dorseys and subsequently emerge as the loan survivors. Nevertheless, you meet with Buchanan, exact either justice or vengeance on a captured Dorsey, and quickly learn what’s needed in return for Buchanan’s aid – capturing Liberty, Valor and Victory, The Patriarch’s three children gone bad.
There’s a greater sense of urgency here compared to Wasteland 2‘s opening. You’re essentially thrown into a huge melting pot. Criminals are fastened to pillories so they’ll freeze to death; refugees swarm in due to gang violence on the plains; factions like the Hundred Families skulk behind the scenes; and the Marshals swing between stoicism and corruption. Colorado Springs’ sordid history is laid bare, along with it’s imminent future – even with The Patriarch’s strict ruling, the city seems on the verge of coming undone. The swift pacing and side quest design further aids this. Even as you help a cranky landlady deal with a troublesome tenet or help evict some remaining Dorseys from a clothing shop, the overarching history and lore of the city opens up.
It’s not just the market square or adjoining areas like Broadmoor Heights that are full of intrigue. The Bizarre, home of the Monster Army, is also interesting with its underground market and diverse interests, while Denver is home of the fanatic Gippers. There’s much more to see, from homesteads occupied by violent raiders to strongholds full of psychotic clowns. Random encounters also occur on the map, which means a posse of mutant frogs could suddenly ambush you. Then again, you might also come across some friendly merchants allied with the different factions who offer some nice gifts if you’re beloved enough.
"The amount of build potential here is incredible, even if it does take some time for a specific character to come into their own."
When the game starts out, you’re invited to create a pair of Rangers. While several pre-made pairs are available for those jumping in for the first time, there’s a hefty amount of character customization, right down to different outfits, hairstyles, body types, accessories and whatnot for appearance. All characters are broken up into customizable Attributes, Skills and Perks. Attributes like Strength, Awareness, Coordination and Charisma affect melee damage, constitution, action points, status resistance, hit chance for nearby allies and so on. Skills are more personalized, allowing you to create a Hard-Ass that specializes in flamethrowers and rocket launchers, a melee fighter that’s also an expert lock-picker, or a sniper that can also repair machines and deploy turrets.
As you put more points into Skills, different Perks become available. These range from general benefits like increased evasion, constitution and critical hit resistance to more nuanced abilities, like a shotgun blast that inflicts bleed, or your character no longer triggering explosive traps. Then there are the Backgrounds, which give little bonuses in categories like combat speed, melee damage, perception or experience gain, and Quirks, which present different pros and cons for a character.
You might sacrifice combat speed for more armor, forsake the ability to wear armor entirely for the sake of more Action Points and so on. The amount of build potential here is incredible, even if it does take some time for a specific character to come into their own.
From the outset, you’re given a makeshift HQ and can recruit new, randomly generated recruits to fill out your squad. Other companions can eventually join your cause, including the straight-laced Lucia Wesson and the morally loose Marshal Kwon. While custom recruits – and even your own surviving Rangers – won’t banter much, the other companions can have some interesting conversations. It’s not super-intricate but seeing these pop up is still fun and they’ll consult you regarding specific decisions and such at times.
"One isn’t usually a stickler for a fully-voiced experience but Wasteland 3’s quality voice-acting masterfully expands on the post-apocalyptic atmosphere."
As you help out different NPCs, eventually Ranger HQ will become a bustling location with an armory, a doctor and even a museum curator who collects different trophies in honor of your triumphs. Over time, different conflicts can arise and it’s up to you to manage this faction of misfits, with each decision having its own set of consequences.
This highlights another great part of the game, at least for me: The writing. It’s to inXile’s credit that almost every character, from the scummy Faran Brygo to the plucky Jodie Hill, feels like a well-realized character. Even when you’re confronting lowlifes like Flab the Inhaler or Polly the jerk-wad Parrot, you feel drawn to them – their personalities are fleshed-out with natural motivations, ambitions and flaws.
Those worried about the verbiage being too dense like Torment: Tides of Numenera needn’t worry. The dialogue never overstays its welcome; conversations flow naturally and rarely, if ever, feel dragged out even when asking questions. I also appreciated how the game balances its bleakness with some well-timed, though still dark, comedy.
And if that weren’t enough, the voice-acting all-around is superb. Saul Buchanan may be an easy favorite with his charismatic delivery and no-nonsense demeanor. But I can look back and pick out a number of well-voiced characters, from the calm and collected Sheriff Daisy to that random killer clown on the radio that’s going to butcher some unsuspecting traveler. One isn’t usually a stickler for a fully-voiced experience but Wasteland 3’s quality voice-acting masterfully expands on the post-apocalyptic atmosphere. Having certain conversations zoom into a first person perspective is also a great touch, highlighting the quality of facial animations and voice-acting all the more. Not every conversation unfolds this way so when the camera zooms in, you’ll know it’s important.
"There are a fair number of outcomes and choices that will shock you in their depravity and gruesomeness."
Wasteland 2 did quite a bit with its decision-making and branching choices but the sequel dials it all up to eleven. You can ally with different factions, betray them, take up an NPC’s offer but subsequently back stab them, save a young man from the pillories, arrest criminals or hand them off to the Marshals (which is pretty much akin to killing them). Some quests are fairly straightforward but with some very unique twists. There are a fair number of outcomes and choices that will shock you in their depravity and gruesomeness. But there are also the big overarching decisions that significantly impact the entire story and how the rest of the world treats you.
Combat will be familiar to most tactical role-playing fans but there’s one big change here over Wasteland 2. Instead of combatants’ turns arranged on a timeline based on initiative, all members for each side take their turns first. So your squad will execute all of their actions first and once the turn ends, the opposing side has a go (with initiative determining the chances of attacking first when spotted out).
This gives combat more of an XCOM-like flavor as you coordinate different plays – like weakening a few enemies with one assault rifle-touting Ranger before another armed with a shotgun finishes them off at once, netting a bunch of Action Points thanks to their Serial Killer Quirk.
Rack up hits on enemies and you’ll charge up a Precision Strike which can be used to target a specific body part for different effects, like bonus damage, reducing armor, inflicting bleed or stifling enemy movement. Not every weapon class gains access to Precision Strikes – heavy machine guns, for instance, let you unleash a hail of lead over an area instead. There’s also quite a bit of thought involved in ending one’s turn. Depending on how many Action Points a squad member has left, it’s possible to set up an ambush (which is like XCOM’s Overwatch ability), hunker down to avoid damage or preserve up two Action Points for the next turn.
"In hindsight, I’m impressed that a game of this size and magnitude doesn’t have more severe issues or glitches."
As such, combat feels visceral – striking the final blow with a cleaver can separate an enemy’s torso from their legs, as they crawl feebly before dying. Frozen enemies shatter to pieces and environmental hazards can be exploited to ignite foes. It makes you relish each encounter and it’s to the developer’s credit that each feels unique in its own right, whether in the placement of cover, how you approach it and so on. There might even be ways to gain advantages in a fight before they begin.
With all the glowing praise that I have for Wasteland 3, there are some unfortunate issues like bugs. Some are fairly minor like a dialogue box from a passers-by NPC being completely blank and having no text, or, on one occasion, the Rally skill not granting teammates their bonus AP. Others, like a certain situation that resulted in killing enemies being recognized as killing civilians, causing two party members to leave, were much more annoying. There are some other known issues but these will be resolved in a day one patch (and didn’t impact my experience at all, anyway). In hindsight, I’m impressed that a game of this size and magnitude doesn’t have more severe issues or glitches.
Some quality of life features are notably absent though. For example, when buying items, it’d be nice to see how much of something you already have at a glance (like ammo) instead of scrolling to it in the inventory and manually comparing. Item filters in the barter screen instead of showing the entire squad inventory would also be appreciated.
Previewing Perks in the Skills menu could also be done better – you have to hover over a Skill and then make sure not to select another, carefully moving over to right and scrolling down to see the Perk in question. Granted, you can view all of the Perks in their own screen along with unlock conditions but the preview in the Skills menu is a nice touch, especially when trying to decide what to put points into next.
"Whether you’re seeking a stellar tactical combat game, a deep role-playing experience, or an engrossing world to explore, inXile’s post-apocalyptic epic delivers."
Performance-wise, everything runs fairly well though older systems might occasionally see some brief slowdown when getting into bigger fights or during explosive moments. I play on an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 with 6 GB VRAM, 8 GB of memory and an ancient Intel Core i5-4440 running at 3.10 GHz. Barring these hiccups, playing the game at 1080p with Ultra decal quality, Shadow Resolution and Screen Space Reflections set to High, Bloom, Depth of Field and Ambient Occlusion enabled, and FXAA was fairly smooth.
Even with these blemishes, Wasteland 3 is a deeply rewarding, amazingly realized experience that’s rich with interesting stories and characters. There’s just so much here, so much that bears witnessing first-hand. It could be the different anecdotes that characters narrate about their past. Or being randomly gifted a powerful assault rifle that shoots crossbow bolts because you helped out a faction.
It could be reloading an encounter, either out of failure or because you think it can be done better. Or maybe admiring the bleak world map, as you venture through its snow-covered plains while listening to all manner of oddities on the radio when not taking in the incredible soundtrack that captures that bleak Western vibe so well.
Through all the violence, morally dubious choices and mutated monstrosities, Wasteland 3 is worth it. Whether you’re seeking a stellar tactical combat game, a deep role-playing experience, or an engrossing world to explore, inXile’s post-apocalyptic epic delivers.
This game was reviewed on PC.
Excellent world-building with an organic depth to its surroundings. Stellar writing, which leads to strong characterization, fun side quests and impactful choices. Grisly, post-apocalyptic atmosphere aided by less than moral decisions. Fun tactical combat and varied encounter design. Significant character customization and build options. Incredible aesthetic and presentation, accompanied by an equally amazing soundtrack.
Slight performance issues that crop up on older hardware. The occasional bugs and glitches. Some quality of life improvements required here and there.
Wasteland 3 is a heady crescendo of post-apocalyptic story-telling. Its combat is compelling and fun while its characters and overall plot are engrossing, even when it goes to some dark places. A must-play for tactical RPG fans.