With a satisfying blend of intense combat and tough choices, Wasteland 3 delivers an experience that hits a little close to home right now.
Playing through a demo of a post-apocalyptic RPG has a bit of a different tune in the current climate of the world at the moment. Perhaps this is to the credit of these types of games that they now feel far more believable, from depicting worlds where factions of humanity are warring with one another and vital supplies have to be scrounged together from very little. Take it from Wasteland 3 to show us how a post-apocalypse is done.
Ahead of its release this coming May, I had the chance to play a demo build of Wasteland 3 to get a taste of the game’s first 3-4 hours and to see how its post-apocalypse setting has evolved since 2014’s Wasteland 2 (which was later re-released as Wasteland 2: Director’s Cut). Spoiler alert: it hasn’t gotten much better at all, but this time around, the action is shifting from the barren deserts of Arizona and Los Angeles to the snow-capped mountains of Colorado.
Much like its predecessor, Wasteland 3 is built on the foundations of the CRPG genre and emphasizes players having to make tough calls and forge their own path ahead to survive. With those roots coming from the original Wasteland in 1988 (which would lead to the inspiration behind the Fallout series), Wasteland 3 clearly takes those elements to mind as an RPG with an old-school mentality, but while also modernizing and streamlining its gameplay in crucial ways to increase accessibility.
Having never played the prior two games in the series, I always had a bit of curiosity towards trying the Wasteland titles for myself, but was perhaps intimidated by its “hardcore” gameplay mentality and niche roots. That being said, from the time that I spent exploring the wastes of Colorado I already found a lot to like from Wasteland 3. Even if you haven’t played previous Wasteland installments like myself, it seems like a perfect jumping on point for newcomers with more approachable features and gameplay mechanics.
After a brief introductory cutscene showing just how bad things are in Wasteland 3‘s vision of the future, I was eventually taken to the beginning of the demo at a character creation scene to build out my first two starting characters of my post-apocalyptic squad. While the character creation section gives a ton of flexibility for players to build out characters that suit their own playstyle, whether that’s going for a tankier build or a more stealth-oriented character, what I found most helpful was a set of pre-made characters with varying abilities, backgrounds, and skillsets.
Given that I was largely unfamiliar with the specifics of how Wasteland played, I ended up choosing a survivor couple that complemented each other well, with the male character focusing on long-ranged weapons and explosives, and the female character focusing on short-ranged attacks and healing to keep my team alive. While the ability to customize your characters from the ground up is surely going to appeal to series veterans, having a firm starting ground with these pre-built characters still felt like a great way to jump into the experience and get a footing for the numerous systems that Wasteland 3 has in store for players.
From there, the beginning portions of the Wasteland 3 demo walked me through the basics of combat and how to utilize your squad of characters in the midst of an ambush on a frozen lake. Though the later portions of Wasteland 3 throw a lot at you in terms of mechanics, the beginning section still felt like a great primer to adjust to the intricacies of how you’ll fight to survive against waves of enemies in the post-apocalypse.
If you’ve played any sort of tactical game in the vein of XCOM before, then you should be able to get your footing in Wasteland 3 pretty quickly. The combat plays out in a turn-based fashion, alternating between your squad of survivors and an enemy team trading shots against one another and trying to maximize what you can do with each party member in a round. Each of your squad members has a limited pool of ability points that govern each of their actions from moving, to attacking, to using items, making it critical to keep a close eye on what you can do each turn and how to keep your team alive.
Despite having to manage a lot of different abilities and resources between your characters, Wasteland 3 and its combat flow still felt incredibly engaging and tense in all the right ways. Given that your squad can hold as many as 6 party members at a time, thankfully Wasteland 3 manages to make keeping track of both your characters and the enemies that you’re up against fairly easy and not overwhelming. In particular, your party’s resources and items are pooled from your inventory rather than kept individually, making it much less of a headache to have to manage each character’s specific kit and loadout.
Likewise, character initiative in Wasteland 3 is simplified to allow you pick and choose which party members you want to move and when, rather than using a turn order to determine when characters can take an action. While it’s a relatively simple change compared to Wasteland 2 (and a long-requested feature from fans), it immensely speeds up combat and makes it far more ideal to position your characters and their attacks rather than having to be reliant on turn order. In this sense, setting up flanks and strategizing in Wasteland 3 immensely benefits from this change, and even in the early stages of the demo I was already interested to see how its strategy gameplay would evolve dozens of hours into the game.
Given the survivalist mentality that governs the series, there is an immediate sense in Wasteland 3 that every action you take can have critical consequences, which is sure to delight those looking for such a hardcore-minded experience. Even outside of its intense combat scenarios (where your party members can get killed pretty quickly), there are numerous areas to explore in the frozen tundras of Colorado and several dialogue heavy scenarios when you interact with important NPCs to push the narrative forward.
I especially found myself engaged in these conversation trees with new characters that you meet like The Patriarch, thanks to the game’s impressive character animations and writing. There’s one conversation with another character early in the demo that I don’t want to spoil, but let’s just say it ends in a bloody mess and completely caught me by surprise, adding to the game’s intriguing mix of blood and gore and quirky black comedy.
From its wonderfully off-kilter character interactions to its fully-realized environments and setting–which is a drastic departure from what we saw in Wasteland 2–it already seems like Wasteland 3 is on track to deliver a hardcore RPG experience to remember. That being said, even though I was coming in to Wasteland 3 pretty much new to the series, it still feels like developer inXile Entertainment is managing to have just the right balance that caters to the series’ most passionate fans, but leaving the experience approachable enough to a new audience.
Whether you’re in it to see how it evolves the series’ niche roots with more refined gameplay mechanics and a new setting or just want a really damn good strategy game, Wasteland 3 surely seems like it will deliver on both fronts when it arrives in May. Let’s just hope that what the game brings to us this spring doesn’t reflect reality by then.
Wasteland 3 will release for PS4, Xbox One, PC, Mac, and Linux on May 19, 2020.