Wasteland 3 Review — I Am Washed in the Blood of the Lamb
Improving on its predecessor in almost every way, Wasteland 3 is one of the best and most reactive RPGs I've played in a long time.
I had originally intended to start this review with an anecdote drawn from my experiences in Wasteland 3. My problem, then, is that any such story may just spoil one of the many fantastic vignettes or moments that can crop up in your playthrough. So let me instead begin with a rapid fire series of true statements about my current adventure. The most devastating character in my party is my railgun-wielding car that sounds suspiciously like Zapp Brannigan from Futurama. The tankiest character in my party is a random fox that my gear modder befriended, which somehow has twice the hit points of my melee fighter. And said melee character’s armour was discovered by chance inside a broken toaster that I repaired.
Do I have your attention yet? Because Wasteland 3 deserves it.
The Wasteland series focuses on the Arizona Desert Rangers, a group trying to keep order and rebuild civilisation in the nuclear post-apocalypse that occurred in 1998. Wasteland 3 continues this trend, but the events of the previous game have left the Desert Rangers undermanned and lacking supplies. It might’ve been the end for the Rangers, had they not received an offer from the Patriarch ruling the neighbouring state of Colorado. In exchange for assistance in dealing with a threat in his territory, he’ll grant the supplies they need to deal with their own.
With this in mind, a Ranger convoy is sent to aid him. Compared to the brown deserts of previous games, Colorado is shrouded in a permanent winter. Before the Desert Rangers can even attempt to adjust to snow and ice, the convoy is ambushed by a gang known as the Dorsey Family, and things get incredibly violent. This is where your Wasteland 3 adventure begins: under fire on a frozen lake, desperately trying to survive and salvage the Ranger’s mission.
You’ll be thrust into your first tutorial battle immediately after character creation (more on that shortly). Combat is a fully tactical turn-based affair, with turns split between your party, enemies, and friendlies (if present). Each character has Action Points that you can spend on movement, attacks, skills or item use. Leftover points can be spent setting up ambush attacks on enemy turns, saving some AP for next turn, or else hunkering down to defend. You’re freely able to mix and match actions between party members or combo abilities if you have the AP to do so, and the options become increasingly varied as the game progresses.
Fights in Wasteland 3 tend to be, despite their tactical nature, quick and brutal affairs. Even your most durable party members can be mowed down in short order, and damage on both sides is high. Going in with an XCOM pedigree as I did, I very quickly eschewed defensive habits and learnt that aggression was the order of the day. When combat starts, you want to get in there and mop up targets quickly, or else you’ll get cleaned up yourself.
Mercifully, death is not nearly as definitive as it tends to be in other tactics games. Getting dropped to 0 HP in Wasteland 3 puts the character in a downed state for a few turns. Any party member can then move to another’s side and revive them on a sliver of HP, with up to 3 AP retained. That’s enough to try and run for cover, pop a healing item, or shoot the guy who dropped you with a light weapon. However, being revived in such a fashion incurs an Injury, which debuffs the character until treated by a doctor (in your party or otherwise). Injuries have various effects, but each also decreases the amount of turns you’ll be downed for before time expires. Hit 0 HP at any point without being revived, and your character is incapacitated and off the field until treated.
While I assumed that all characters being incapacitated would be a Game Over, I’ve not actually had this happen so far during my playtime in Wasteland 3. Despite the brutality and swiftness by which characters will go down in shootouts, I’ve had them soldier on with multiple injuries afterwards just fine. Keeping a good medic with your squad will go a long way in increasing your longevity, but it’s not essential; it all depends on how you build your party. This segues me back nicely to character creation.
The entirety of Wasteland 3 can be played with drop-in/drop-out co-op; as such, you’ll create two characters right from the start. There’s a selection of pre-made duos you can pick from, or else you can build your own characters from scratch. And this is where the game immediately impressed me: your build options are incredibly varied, and you are completely free to go wild with your characters. There’s no set class system, and you instead distribute your points however you choose.
Want to max out an attribute immediately from the word “go?” Sure, you can arrange your available points wherever you want! You are completely free to have 10 Intelligence and nothing else from the very start if that’s what you desire. Better still, most of the attributes have applications in and out of combat. Intelligence, for example, grants you more skill points but also increases your critical hit chance. Charisma makes your Precision Strike special attacks charge faster. Even a skill monkey or party face character is going to have additional applications in combat from their build.
Beyond attributes, you also have skill points to spend. The various weapon types all have their own skill tree, though many are broken up into pairs. Small Guns encompasses handguns or shotguns, Automatic Weapons includes SMGs or assault rifles, Explosives covers rocket launchers and grenades alike, and so on. Then there’s a wide selection of extra skills, including CRPG staples like Barter or Lockpicking mixed in with Wasteland specialties — Toaster Repair, Nerd Stuff, Kiss Ass, etc. Once again, even the non-combat skills can have bonuses in combat. As an example, Nerd Stuff is associated with hacking computers, but you can also hack enemy robots to control them briefly, or else deal extra damage to them.
The skills that don’t explicitly increase combat effectiveness usually offer an option to do so in their perk tree. After every few character levels, you’ll have the option to pick a new perk. There’s a handful of generic options that every character gets — these include an extra item slot, more HP, evasion chance — or else you can pick one from their available skill trees. Your weapon skills might offer new abilities or damage increases, whereas things like Weapon Modding can let you field strip weapons for mods. Then there’s stuff like Toaster Repair increasing your Fire Damage, or Explosives letting you salvage grenades from disarmed traps. The options are many and varied, and it’s possible to create some wildly different set ups. Lastly, you can also give background traits and drawbacks in character creation just to fine tune things to your liking.
Wasteland 3 is an RPG, though, and not purely a tactics game. The fact that skills and attributes usually grant wide bonuses across both combat and non-combat is commendable, but how much use do they get in the game world? Absolutely tons, as it turns out. Wasteland 2 was overt about letting players know that sometimes there was no correct answer, and whole sections of the game could be locked off based on the choices that you make. The sequel has chosen to deliver this same variety in spades.
After the initial ambush on the Ranger convoy, your pair of characters have to fend off the remaining Dorsey gang and save those you can. Your remnants will then reach Colorado Springs and have an audience with Patriarch Saul Buchanan. The terms of your employment with him are simple: find, stop, and apprehend his three children from threatening Colorado. Each has been exiled from Colorado Springs for different reasons and has very different traits, but all of them have aligned themselves with factions of the wastes and seek to claim Colorado for themselves. In order to ensure Colorado remains self and secure under the benevolent dictatorship (supposedly) of the Patriarch, the three must be dealt with and brought back alive.
To do this, the Rangers are deputised and given an old airbase to be converted into your HQ. Your first task is to get it running and its facilities staffed, gathering recruits in the process. Depending on who you save, work with, or coerce through other methods, your HQ will shape up and new facilities and bonus perks become available to you over time. As your fame increases, more recruits will be found wandering the halls or guarding the perimeter. Your actions end up having a very tactile feel on this home base, and just who ends up there can be quite varied indeed.
In addition, you’re granted access to your full party from here. Wasteland 3 lets you field six party members at a time, but no more than four of them can be Rangers; the last two slots must be filled by defined NPC companions you can bring onside. There’s another selection of recruits you can pick up for your Ranger slots, or else custom build two more to your liking. It’s entirely possible to mix and match as time goes on or your needs change, which I did just to explore a few skill-locked paths until my main characters could diversify.
You’re given a ton of freedom in how you set about completing these tasks from the outset. As you acquaint yourself with Colorado Springs and the surrounding environments, opportunities and missions will pop up that you can approach in numerous ways. Early on, you might have to choose between saving refugees under raider assault, or protect an ambushed caravan full of gear for the Patriarch. You’re ordered to prioritise the caravan, but doing so might just see the Marshals patrolling the city getting better equipment; if you end up crossing them, that could be a problem. By contrast, saving the refugees might be the humanitarian thing to do, but then the population in Colorado Springs (and even your Ranger HQ) can start spiralling out of control and causing tension. Quite a lot can happen, and your actions can definitely have an impact.
More often than not, your approach to encounters can also have extra consequences or outcomes. This is where the skill options come into play. Rather than the randomised dice rolls of many RPGs, skill checks simply pass or fail: a safe might require Lockpicking 8, and you’ll instantly pass if you meet or exceed this. Many combat encounters can be heavily influenced or outright avoided depending on your actions.
Here’s a good example: I’m tasked to clear out a gang that’s holed up in a hotel lobby. I can walk in and shoot the place up, but having the Lockpicking level to break into a nearby truck let me find the side door key. Doing so, I was able to sneak in and access the computers controlling the automated turret defences, turning them against their operators. While the enemies were now cowering, I could sneak past and activate the bridge controls I needed to advance. Of course, had I just fought them, another combat option would be to rush my mechanic up to disable the generator powering the turrets. That also would have thinned out the forces arrayed against me. Perhaps I could’ve attacked from the side door, putting myself at a better vantage point with more cover. Not every encounter has this level of flexibility, but many have some form of it.
All of this can extend to dialogue with NPCs as well. In addition to the ability to suck up or intimidate them into compliance, I’ve been able to distract robots by using Nerd Stuff to yell garbage code. During another encounter, I used First Aid to point out a gang leader’s wound is festering and offer to heal it in exchange for passage. Other times, the characters will respond entirely based on your reputation with their faction, or even your overall fame.
The variety in playstyles for a single Wasteland 3 run appear to be incredibly numerous. When you get to tackling the Buchanan children, which one do you target first? This will affect dialogue, and perhaps even their preparations. How do you deal with them? The Patriarch wanted you to bring them back alive, but some of their actions and supporters have committed hideous atrocities. Is it worth putting them down and risking the Patriarch’s ire? Hell, is the Patriarch even worth supporting in the first place? How much emphasis should you place on the survival of the Arizona Rangers at the expense of Colorado? The game will constantly ask you this, and the wealth of possible answers was truly impressive. Wasteland 3 has a truckload of possible permutations, and I can almost guarantee that my final version of Colorado will look different from yours.
The writing quality is also outstanding here. While Wasteland 3 doesn’t exactly reach the philosophical quandaries of Disco Elysium or Planescape: Torment, it’s not afraid to ask hard questions and write nuanced conflicts. The brutality and lack of punches pulled isn’t just present in combat, either: this is a seriously grim, gory, even nausea-inducing game when it wants to be. Post-apocalyptic life is bleak and unforgiving, and the ways that gangs or factions have adapted is frequently twisted enough to make one queasy. From the very first ambush, the Dorsey Family is keen to quite literally bathe the land in Ranger blood, and they’re far from the worst offenders.
Colorado is full of all sorts of interesting and bizarre types. Take the literal “Bizarre”: a market city run by the Monster Army, a faction that all dons monster attire and revels in old movie culture. How about the Gippers, a cult worshipping God-President Reagan and the AI taking his characteristics? Maybe the gang of killer clowns named Los Pasayos that see the apocalypse as a giant joke, to which they are the punchline? Wasteland 3 plays itself completely straight, but the tone is not at all afraid to shift towards humour. I found multiple situations which had me laughing aloud, particularly in item tooltips and little details. Those moments of levity are a welcome reprieve from the darker tones usually present.
So, how much game is there? Well, I sadly wasn’t able to finish the full game in time to write this review. At present, my primary playthrough is about 40 hours long, and I’d estimate I have another quarter left, in addition to side content I have undoubtedly missed. I also have a few hours in a secondary playthrough to test out character builds and how much things can change based on my actions. The answer is, it turns out, quite a lot. inXile promises multiple endings and many different epilogues that can take place. Though I cannot confirm that myself as yet, the groundwork for radically different conclusions is clear and apparent based on my choices, even as early as the opening hours of that secondary playthrough.
Even within the time I have played so far, I quickly found Wasteland 3 to absolutely devour my time and attention. Whenever I’ve booted it up, my impressions have only grown more positive, and I’m eager to go and finish it the moment I’m done writing this review.
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the flaws present. To start with, the game’s performance can be quite a mixed bag. Load times between zones and startup tend to be fairly lengthy, and hub areas might chain a couple together when exploring. The frame rate is usually solid, but a handful of side areas saw it dip and make combat sluggish. The controls are sometimes a little sticky in combat, and there’s occasional pauses when selecting targets in Precision Strikes. The same pauses can happen in dialogue, too.
One constant issue I had was the location text over the world map remaining on my screen for the entire duration I was in the area. Still, there were no crashes or freezes of any sort, save for the one strange time when opening the game presented me a main menu with no options. Lastly, there were a handful of instances of the game’s multiple options backfiring. One character spoke as if I was encountering them in a vastly different situation, and another that I had just killed was back in Colorado Springs as if nothing had just happened. There’s a slew of little bugs and errors that will hopefully be patched in time. Even so, I never witnessed anything more than a minor nuisance outside of the load times, and they didn’t detract much from my overall positive experience.
Likewise, the presentation is also mixed. Wasteland 2‘s environments leaned towards being uniformly brown; by contrast, Wasteland 3 is predominantly snowy white/blue. It’s frequently contrasted by red/orange lights (or gore), but it can get a little samey to look at after a time. The character models are also fairly strange-looking or ugly when zoomed in, though they look fine in menu screens. Its environment and level design is at least very strong, and the character art or occasional “cutscene dialogues” stand out as being of quality.
I have to commend Wasteland 3’s music, though. The legendary composer Mark Morgan of early Fallout and Planescape: Torment fame is at the helm here, and while this isn’t his finest work, I found the combat tracks in particular quite well done. What really stands out here, however, is the additional work by Mary Ramos, most notable for supervising the music of most Tarantino films.
Many major encounters or environments opt for music inspired by folk songs or even church hymns, as well as some very slow and soulful remixes of classic songs (“Land of Confusion” by Genesis, and “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” by Wang Chung stood out to me the most here). Almost all of these songs and tracks stand out immensely when they start playing, and their impact on the scenes is remarkably positive. The soundscapes that these moments evoke really caught me off guard with how well they were executed. I have to commend Ramos, Morgan, and everyone involved for crafting them so well. More than anything else, these moments and songs really gave clarity to Wasteland’s vision of post-apocalyptic Americana.
Finally, I have to speak again on Wasteland 3’s sheer variety of actions, choices, reactivity and consequences. This is an immensely difficult thing to accomplish, and for reasons that might not be as obvious at first. Players approaching a game will often attempt to determine the rules and boundaries of what it might offer by pushing against the systems. Trying to break the sequence of a linear game will quickly prove futile, so players aren’t likely to keep trying and will settle into the rhythm. By contrast, trying to break a game and finding the game account for it? That usually sees players continue to try in new ways to see how far the programming will bend. Unfortunately, conditioning us to be creative usually leads to a stronger sense of disappointment if it doesn’t work than if we hadn’t expected it to in the first place.
I say this because there were multiple times in Wasteland 3 where I tried to push against it, but it didn’t bend. Some dialogues or circumstances in which I hoped to elaborate on options ended up being binary decisions, and I was briefly disappointed. Nonetheless, the many actions and steps I had taken to even get to that point would frequently reward that curiosity on their own. As such, I have to acknowledge the journey of the undertaking as much as any desired conclusion. There were so many times where I was allowed to take surprising options or else find the third option in what seemed a binary choice. And, as more permutations are added to the game, so too does the workload increase for developers.
Many game projects or publishers will never even attempt this on the principle of business alone. After all, creating a large swath of content that most players will never see due to their choices is rarely seen as an efficient development approach. Perhaps it’s simply the style of inXile or the crowdfunded and backer tested nature of the game, but Wasteland 3 nonetheless dared to give those options. What results is a clear display of ambition, creativity, and passion that I thoroughly enjoyed playing. It certainly took a long time for CRPGs to start capitalising on the promise of what they could be as established by classics like Baldur’s Gate 2 and Planescape: Torment. At long last, games like Divinity: Original Sin 2, Disco Elysium, and now Wasteland 3 make me feel like we’re moving in that direction.
Wasteland 3 is a marked improvement in most areas from its predecessor. Not only that, but it’s the best post-apocalyptic CRPG I’ve played since Fallout: New Vegas, and one of the better RPGs I’ve played in a while. The Fallout series was inspired by Wasteland and went on to eclipse the original game, but this is the first time since where the tables feel like they’re starting to reverse. And all of this is without touching on the co-op mode that I didn’t have the chance to tinker with. Colorado is a brutal and unrelenting place to explore, yet I loved doing so. I eagerly look forward to giving it another shot to see just how much the Desert Rangers can make or break it.