Wasteland 3 impressions

Saul Buchanan's American Wasteland

Growing up in an Apple household meant missing out on most computer games as a child. Outside of a few random releases that also hit for Macintosh, consoles were my first—and often only—source of playing video games. It isn’t surprising, then, that my RPG preferences tended to fall on the Japanese side of the fence. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve felt my preferences shifting more and more. It’s kinda nice to have games featuring adults dealing with adult problems—both normal and fantastic—by making adult decisions, rather than teenagers facing threats straight out of shounen (young boys’) comics.

Still, my explorations into the world of western RPGs have tended to stick to safer franchises like Mass Effect, which is why I was somewhat surprised at my curiosity about Wasteland 3. Other than the original game’s iconic cover art, I knew very little about either the Wasteland series or its latest chapter—beyond the fact that they both seemed very hardcore.

I was questioning my curiosity in Wasteland 3 during its first hour, because everything was even more complex than I was expecting. As a newcomer, it felt like there was a huge learning curve I had to overcome, with systems, finer details, and combat strategies barely explained. The first taste I got of Wasteland 3’s gameplay was being thrown straight into combat—and even though that initial fight was an easy one, it wasn’t long before my small team was facing off against far tougher foes.

Image credit: inXile Entertainment

Wasteland 3’s battles play out similar to other grid-based strategy RPGs, as each side takes turns moving units, unleashing attacks, or utilizing support items and skills. Having played numerous other SRPGs over the years, I figured things wouldn’t be too hard to handle, but I quickly ran into a problem. There’s no “undo” option if you make a choice and then realize it was wrong, even if that unit has taken no other actions—and that was totally screwing me over in the early going.

I’d made what you could probably call a “questionable” choice when creating my two custom characters, as one was a sniper and the other a melee fighter. Having no middle ground coverage whatsoever, I had to run Coyote (melee) around like a madwoman so she could actually hit someone, while I had to constantly reposition Basilisk (sniper) to find good sightlines. As I had so many other gameplay elements to try to understand or keep in mind, I’d often miscalculate my usage of Action Points—the stock that determines how many actions you can take per turn. That inability to undo really bit me in the rear with Basilisk, given how high of an AP cost sniper rifles have. Over and over again, I’d move her somewhere, only to then realize she didn’t have enough points left to shoot. I think there’s a number of changes the team at inXile could make to the opening section of Wasteland 3—include a temporary undo option during the prologue—that would make the game far less intimidating to those not deeply familiar with either the franchise or the genre.

Once I got past that initial section and made my way to Colorado Springs, Wasteland 3’s proper scope started to show. Outside of combat, the game reminds me of Diablo 3 (to pick an example most people will know) in terms of seeing the world from an isometric top-down perspective, with characters rendered relatively small on screen. Having had only a surface-level understanding of what awaited, I got caught a bit off guard—in a good way—by the shift to a more open-world style of exploration that comes once you hit the city. The snow-covered world of Colorado that the game presents is genuinely interesting, as every corner has some neat world-building detail, treasure trove of loot, or new character to talk to. That last part especially became a joy for me, as inXile seems to have put a huge amount of effort into Wasteland 3’s inhabitants. Humor in games can run hot and cold, but the writers found a great balance here between over-the-top ridiculousness and grounded believability. The game also has a level of personality in its soundtrack that I wasn’t expecting, as there are times both in and out of combat when songs with lyrics kick in that add an extra emotional punch.

Image credit: inXile Entertainment

I also started feeling a similar balance in gameplay the further I got. The thing about complexity is that, when it’s done right, it can add new layers of enjoyment for those willing to put in the time and effort to dig down to reach them. While I still think Wasteland 3 can be way too oblique for its own good, there have been numerous times when a certain small element would finally click with me, leaving me excited to use the new strategy I’d just discovered or upgrade for my squad I’d just found.

That character growth directly translates not only to more choices during conversations, but also to having more options in battles. And not just from being able to choose a fancy new skill or having access to a bigger gun, but in other ways as well, such as a teammate with higher mechanical talents being able to turn off a turret that was decimating my team, or my nerdy sniper being able to hack a computer to open up an alternate route to avoid a confrontation altogether. Oh, and speaking of battle-related options, Wasteland 3 offers a twist on the way a lot of other genre offerings handle engaging players in enemy encounters. Here, you’ll find one or more enemies just hanging out right there in the world, each with their own “aggro circle” (if you will). Step into one of those circles, and an encounter will kick off as they notice you. If you want to get the jump on them, you can instead make a preemptive attack to go into combat with the initiative. Or, at times, you can even avoid fighting at all.

Another part of Wasteland 3 that I’ve been getting a kick out of the more time I’ve spent with it is the base building. Upon arriving in Colorado Springs, my team gained access to a decommissioned military structure to use as a temporary headquarters. While it started off a total mess of rubble and dead bodies, I was soon finding people to recruit to my cause that assisted in getting it back into shape. First, it was a young kid eager to help make a difference. Then it was a communications officer, a doctor, a warden, and an arms dealer. As my base has expanded in size and capability, I’ve felt a bit of my JRPG roots coming out, as I couldn’t help think back to Suikoden II—funny timing, of course, given the current Kickstarter to bring that series back with a spiritual sequel.

Image credit: inXile Entertainment

My time with Wasteland 3 hasn’t been all post-apocalyptic fun and games, however. I’ve run into a number of technical issues and bugs, and while most of them haven’t directly affected the game on any serious level, they’re still worth pointing out. The most annoying of them was when, after Basilisk healed one of my other party members, she was no longer able to interact with anything else in the game. (Thankfully, you can change the party member you’re actively controlling at any time.) Beyond that, I’ve found parts of the environment where terrain that should be accessible wasn’t, I engaged in a battle where all the enemy character models were missing (except their weapons), I’ve have problems at times with the cursor just disappearing on the character equipment screen, and I’ve run into some weird cases of lag when looting items. I’m not sure if these bugs are specific to the Xbox One build of the game, or if they might exist in other versions as well, but either way, hopefully inXile is already working on a patch.

Especially because it’s the Xbox One version of the game—well, and the PC version too—where Wasteland 3 becomes even more interesting. I probably never would have given an RPG like this the time of day years ago, but now had the chance to without any financial risk thanks to my job here at EGM. I suspect there are going to be a lot of people out there like me, initially unsure if this is the kind of experience that would be for them. Because of that, Wasteland 3 becomes a perfect Game Pass title, opening the franchise up to a lot of potential exposure among different types of players that might have otherwise been hard to reach.

At least in my time with it, Wasteland 3 has been a fascinating experience. I’ve come to appreciate its depth of gameplay, character, building, and exploration, even if some of its pieces and parts still feel very foreign to me. I’ve still got a long way to go in the game—thanks to how slow-going my progress has been as I get used to this type of adventure—but I’m eager to see what awaits me next in the frozen wastes of Colorado.

Image credit: inXile Entertainment

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