Gamers are no strangers to fighting their way across a post-apocalyptic hellscape, but this isn’t just any post-apocalypse. This is the latest entry in the Wasteland series, the granddaddy of all post-apocalypse games.
Nowadays most fans of post-apocalypse settings are more familiar with Fallout 4 or Fallout 76, but Wasteland 3 sticks to the roots of the Fallout series, carrying the torch of an isometric tactical RPG post-apocalypse.
When Bethesda took over the franchise with Fallout 3 they dramatically changed what it meant to be a Fallout game. Not only did they switch from a top-down isometric viewpoint to a first-person and/or third-person hybrid camera, but they also switched from being a tactical RPG to a shooter. Other than the setting, themes, and tone of the writing, Fallout 3 is about as different as possible from the entries that came before it in the series. And it’s been that way ever since.
In fact, the original Wasteland predates the Fallout series as one of the very first post-apocalyptic video games ever, first releasing back in 1988. Its sequel didn’t release until 2014 and now with Wasteland 3 due out later this year, the series seems more relevant than ever.
But don’t let the number three in the title intimidate you in this case: prior knowledge of the series isn’t needed. Wasteland 3 takes place in the freezing wasteland of Colorado with heavy snow themes and a liberal dose of arctic gear, which is a stark contrast to the more western-themed desert locations of Wasteland 2.
Welcome to the Frozen Wastes
In the Wasteland games, players usually take control of a member of the Rangers, a barely existent faction of former United States military soldiers scavenging to survive amongst the final enclaves of humanity. Games like Fallout often cover the relatively dark subject matter, but it doesn’t even hold a candle to Wasteland. This is the apocalypse far after the fall of human civilization. There is absolute brutality, rampant vulgarity, and an overabundance of sheer violence.
In my hands-on slice of inXile’s icy take on the end of the world, I set to making my own custom survivor instead of picking a pre-made character. Though physical changes are limited in character creation, there are lots of choices for attributes and skills. For example, you could specialize in things like assault rifles or melee combat and quirks include both positives and negatives.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=There%20is%20absolute%20brutality%2C%20rampant%20vulgarity%2C%20and%20an%20overabundance%20of%20sheer%20violence.”]Physical changes were limited in character creation, but there were lots of choices for attributes and skills. You could specialize in things like assault rifles or melee combat and quirks included both positives like negatives. For example, Poindexter grants a bonus skill point every three levels but forces you to start with lower Constitution and limits your gains in it per level, and Death Wish prevents you from wearing any armor at all but increases how many Action Points you get.
After character creation, it doesn’t take long for things to go awry. The group of Rangers I’m traveling with are ambushed by a roaming family of bandits that blow up our caravan with mines spread across a frozen ice lake. What follows is a tutorial combat encounter designed to teach the ins and outs before ending with a big jeep-mounted turret saving the day.
Fight for Your Life
I quickly learned that it’s common to feel overwhelmed in Wasteland 3. Fans of games like Divinity: Original Sin, the newer Shadowrun games, and even XCOM will have at least some partial familiarity with this combat system. Rounds are split into player and enemy phases as each side picks and chooses how to act one-by-one rather than each individual character having a spot in the initiative order. Each character accrues AP that must be spent on their turn to do actions like move, attack, reload, or hunker down for increased cover.
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The majority of Wasteland 3’s combat is range-based, which means finding cover is crucial. Doing anything from moving and reloading to shooting and using items costs Action Points, which recharge after each round. Automatic weapons like assault rifles get off a handful of shots, whereas bigger hitters like sniper rifles only deliver one high-damage shot. When you do have to get close, there are also melee weapons, thrown weapons, and lots of specialty weapons with unique use-cases that add a lot of variety.
Since Wasteland 3 is a skill and attribute-based game, not class-based, you can get very creative with your party. Each time you level up you get to invest three attribute points and invest in some of your skill categories. You can increase attributes like Coordination to improve your ability points or Awareness to increase your hit chance.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=Most%20skirmishes%20are%20lopsided%2C%20throwing%20more%20enemies%20at%20you%20than%20you%20have%20allies.”]After about an hour or two you’ll get the opportunity to enlist two more active party members and there’s once again a list of premade options or you can just create them from scratch. Having good party balance is important due to the intensity of fights, but also because battlefield conditions can change rapidly. Explosive barrels are often scattered about, there are frequent elevation variations, and plenty of opportunities for reinforcements and flanks. Though I was a bit disappointed that the environment and weather itself didn’t seem to play a large role in combat.
Most skirmishes are lopsided, throwing several more enemies at you than you have allies, especially early on, requiring clever planning and execution to survive. Setting up flanks is crucial because a good point-blank attack can usually drop someone in a single attack.
Outside of combat Wasteland 3 puts a big emphasis on game-altering decisions. You’ll get to choose whether or not characters live or die and partake in complex discussions with a massive tug of war going on behind-the-scenes that often finds a way to put you at the center of it all.
On the surface it’s easy to be fooled into thinking Wasteland 3 is all sizzle and no meat, but there are chunky bites of tender story to dig into here.
Even for a small slice of the game, Wasteland 3 seems very promising. It builds on what made Wasteland 2 such a hit and continues to explore its unique brand of the apocalypse with exciting threads to pull when it’s released on May 19 for PC, PS4, and Xbox One.
David Jagneaux is a freelance writer for IGN. Talk RPGs with him on Twitter at @David_Jagneaux.