Set decades after a nuclear apocalypse, Wasteland 2 is the sequel to the 1988 role-playing classic. After choosing a small group of differently skilled survivors, players must head out into the heat-blasted wilderness to investigate the murder of an important tribal leader. This is what happened in my first 10 hours.
1. I want my team of rangers to be the best, most badass team of rangers ever, so of course, I base them on my friends. There are four of them: the pistol-toting medic with the silver hair, the Goth techy idly cradling an energy pistol, the tiny woman in big boots slapping a plank of wood in her fist, and the sharp-talking shotgunner.
It takes me a surprisingly long time to work out what I want from my team, because there are so many strange skills, and I don’t know quite how the game’s going to use them. Do I really need both lockpicking and safecracking, or can I make do with one? What exactly is the surgeon going to give me that a field medic won’t? What’s “toaster repair” all about?
I give them all religions and brands of cigarette. These things are important.
2. On the way out of the starting area I come across a character, Angela Deth, who volunteers to help my team out with our first serious mission. She seems competent so I figure: why not.
I discover that Angela is several levels ahead of my team. She’s got a pretty sweet gun and a pretty nice wrench for hitting stuff, and four times as many hit points as my tiny woman in big boots. She blitzes the battles my guys struggle badly to engage with.
I imagine my tiny woman with the plank of wood would be pretty jealous of the newbie, given how much better Angela is at everything she was meant to be good at. I guess she’d make snide comments behind her back and be quietly happy that at least she’s better dressed. But that won’t happen in this game – she’s unvoiced and silent. A blank cipher.
3. There’s a nice moment when my rangers come up against human aggressors for the first time, near a radio tower and I’m given the option of taking the non-lethal approach. My sharp-talking shotgunner steps up and outfoxes a none-too-bright grunt, and the tech takes advantage of his confusion to fix the radio tower and pick up a weird transmission or two. It’s a nice moment. It feels like I made a meaningful call.
Then I get the option of going to Highpool, a town that’s being overrun by a gang, or the Ag Center, which is trying to get the desert to produce food again. I go to the latter to defend the scientists. It’s a blunt but bold choice for the game to force on me; it doesn’t give me much information, and it’s clear I’m not going to be able to just go back and do the second one afterwards. My decision has some weight.
4. It turns out that, if I want to loot everything, I do need safecracking and lockpicking. I need computer science, too, because sometimes the safes have electronic locks. I need perception to be able to spot traps and diagnose locks, and alarm disarming to be able to bypass explosions. If I want to grab all the scrap and ammo I can – and I do, because that’s part of why I play shooty-looty games; for the joy of looting every last corner and kitting out my party with incremental upgrades – I need all the skills.
But if I want to hit anything in combat, I need the combat skills too. My first-level party couldn’t hit the side of a barn. Angela’s fine; Angela’s swanning around the battlefield with her personality quirks and her 60% chances to hit enemies, and she’s keeping the whole team together. They’re rookies, my guys. They don’t work so well as a team. I wish Angela would show some leadership, and stop shouting at the enormous flies.
5. At level four, I give my tiny woman with the big boots some points in safecracking, so she doesn’t feel completely useless.
6. The wasteland map is a beautiful abstraction: a few buildings, mountains, a constantly-pinging radar attached to where my rangers are, and an X where my next destination is. I don’t get to walk through an open world, but here I think that’s not such a hardship; the world’s a vast desert, barren and bland, and traversing spaces in Wasteland 2 is a slow business. I know there will be secrets here.
7. I have been slogging through the Ag Center for a long time. There are a lot of crates, a lot of strange machines, a lot of explosive pods that deplete my ammo or shatter inconveniently mid-battle. Sometimes there are scientists, trapped in plant matter. The characters are well-drawn and interesting, and I genuinely want them to survive.
But the complex is large and confusing, and the logbook isn’t always clear enough for me to remember exactly where I’m going or what I’m doing. It feels sprawling and sometimes confusing. That’s OK, I think; I’m exploring; I’m new here; I’m learning my way around. But I suspect that backtracking will be hard.
And I know there will be backtracking, because I have found a toaster, and currently I have no way to repair it.
8. Wasteland 2 is set in a harsh place, and that’s reinforced constantly by the scarcity of everything I need. There are not enough healing items for me to feel comfortable. If my guys die, they die for real. That fosters great caution; I don’t want to get into another battle with giant rabbits unless I know for sure I can survive it.
Skill points are scarce too: the balance between combat and looting skills is precarious. Without combat skills, my party bleeds out on the floor of the Ag Center, flailing to hit anything while pod zombies explode all around them. Without looting skills, my party can’t afford ammo, or armour, or medical kits; they bleed out for lack of cash. I play through one encounter three times trying to find a way to not die, learning to maneuver, to ambush, to hide.
9. It’s tense, is what I’m saying. If one ranger goes down, the rest won’t survive. Every battle feels like it might be life or death.
I don’t want my guys to die.
Maybe I’m doing it wrong; maybe I should be fine with the party being disposable. But there aren’t enough rangers out there to replace them.
Every battle is also an opportunity for something ridiculous to happen. Crucial shots at point-blank range, suddenly discovering that my tech was the only person who could damage high-armour enemies because of his energy rifle, watching my medic bleed out covered in giant rabbits. Most of the ridiculousness went against me, but it never failed to be entertaining.
10. Recently I sank 70 hours of my life into Divinity: Original Sin, luxuriating in the freedom and the flexibility its environmental magic system offered. Wasteland’s systems have a correct answer and a correct skill to fit them. Combat can be exacting and measured, requiring inventive use of a limited toolset, careful planning and a healthy dose of luck. Skill use is fiddly.
Wasteland 2 does not always feel like fun. At its best, it makes me feel clever. At its worst, I am tracking back through a complex I have already cleared to find the only man in the desert who can heal me, because I can’t afford to heal myself.
Wasteland 2 is available now on PC and Mac
This article was written by Mary Hamilton, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 1st October 2014 15.43 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010