It’s the early years of the 22nd century, and Hell has frozen over — at least, that is, if Colorado happens to be your idea of Hell. It certainly looks like it in Wasteland 3: Colorado Springs was spared the nuclear holocaust at the heart of Wasteland lore, but an unrelenting nuclear winter holds the entire Centennial State in its grip. Radiation oozes through mountain valleys. Killer clowns ravage the eastern plains. A cult that worships Ronald Reagan controls Colorado’s oil supply. It’s a distinctively bold setting for this lengthy and often challenging isometric RPG, and it improves on Wasteland 2 in almost every way.
If you prefer your post-apocalyptic landscapes filled with snow rather than sand, no worries: You don’t need to play the hot and dusty Wasteland 2 to understand what’s going on now. Here you play as a duo from Arizona’s Desert Rangers, an Old-West-meets-sci-fi lawkeeping outfit whose base was destroyed at the end of Wasteland 2. The Rangers head to Colorado after a leader there offers Arizona vital aid in exchange for some help on his own turf, but the mission goes south when almost the entire Ranger company gets wiped out in an ambush. You play as the only two characters who survive, and you need to fulfill your mission with a severe disadvantage.After that, the story can go in substantially different directions. Wasteland 3 does a fantastic job of tying meaningful consequences to almost every choice, and it prepared me for about 60 hours of such decisions mere minutes in. If you, for instance, convince a hostage taker to let a Ranger go she’ll run away and warn her friends, who’ll set up and ambush and kill other innocents. Attack her and she’ll kill the Ranger, meaning you’ll have one fewer recruit for your party, but you won’t have an ambush ready for you. And that’s just a small taste of the choices to come.
Later, Wasteland 3 forced me to decide between saving a family being attacked and saving a convoy of lawkeepers transporting some power armor for the Marshals faction. I chose the power armor, but I ended up wandering through the gutted remains of the family’s home for a reminder that decisions have consequences. The power armor gave a nice reputation boost, but not without making me regret my decision a bit by hearing one of the Marshals say “these refugees aren’t going to punch themselves.”
These often aren’t easy choices, either, as everyone you meet in Colorado is kind of an asshole. They’re written well enough that they left me puzzling over which degree and brand of assholery I could live with, and it’s remarkably hard to avoid being corrupted by the sketchy business unfolding around you. Adding a kicker to that, I like that I rarely saw the effects of my choices quickly, and usually not until I was well past whatever pivotal save file I’d made for backtracking. Some don’t even become apparent until the later hours and Wasteland 3’s wide assortment of endings. It makes “gaming” the various factions essentially impossible. (And even if it didn’t, the ridiculously long load times even on my SSD made me think thrice before going back to a previous save.)
Sometimes these effects would catch me by surprise, as they did when I returned to a faction I liked and found them massacred in the wake of a seemingly throwaway decision I’d made. These moments can hit hard, partly thanks to the fact that Wasteland 3 looks significantly better than its predecessor. That’s especially true on the overworld map where the Kodiak — your tanky weaponized vehicle — plows through the frozen wastes between towns. Sometimes key characters get special up-close animations, allowing their personality to shine better than it does in general conversations in the usual isometric perspective. Fully voiced dialogue lines mean it sounds better, too, leading to memorably silly moments as when you meet a “Scottish” mechanic who learned his accent from watching a tape of Braveheart.
That’s tame and cheesy by the standard of most of Wasteland 3’s rough-edged and often bloody humor, much of which is wrapped in contemporary American political allegory about fascism, refugees, and a brutal police force that sometimes feels a little too on the nose. Deer splurt out a pond’s worth of blood when you run over them with the Kodiak, and I once came across an old copy of Oliver North’s “Under Fire” with “something viscous” dried on the pages. I chatted up a male prostitute called Jack Off Hearts and heard a confession of erectile dysfunction while strolling about Colorado Springs. Just in case, you know, you had some idea that Wasteland 3 was for kids.
All of the color commentary comes from NPCs you meet, because the two surviving Rangers you play as don’t have any personalities but the ones you create for them in your head. There are preset pairs of folks you can choose, like punk lovers and a father/daughter duo, that give a false impression that their relationship might have some real impact on the story. For the most part, they’re as generic as any custom character you make yourself, which you might as well do because that way you can start off with “quirks” with big bonuses for one stat at the expense of others.
Why two Rangers instead of one? The idea is that you can play Wasteland 3 in online co-op if you wish, although I didn’t have a chance to do so as part of my first 55-hour playthrough. It sounds delightfully maddening, though, as either player can make decisions without the other one, which could have the nasty side effect of turning two factions hostile when you only mean to tick off one.
Having two Rangers around at all times also gives you some leeway for more skills, as Wasteland 3’s gameplay hinges on six-person teams. It’s best to keep these as well-rounded as possible instead of specializing everybody along a similar path, particularly since many quests offer alternative methods of resolution (or at least an advantage before combat begins). Having a character with the “Hard Ass” perk, for example, can let you skip otherwise inevitable fights with a few gruff words. “Kiss Ass?” You can sweet-talk your way out. Got a person with high-explosive expertise? You won’t have to worry much about landmines. These options are so numerous, though, that I frequently found myself holding back from allocating points when I leveled so that I’d have some left over in case I needed to meet some requirements. It also made me more cautious about switching out team members for fresh recruits once I’d invested a ton of points into rounding out my squad.
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With the right skills, Wasteland 3 even lets you enlist animals ranging from tomcats to robot chickens to the cause, and some other usually uncontrollable NPCs will sometimes join up as well. These guys are great to have around because they tend to be heavy hitters, but they’re also overly fond of rushing into danger because you can’t control them. I lost a particularly good one because he ran into the rocket trajectory I had planned out, and I hated having to convince myself he was worth the sacrifice and to not reload my save.
Superficially, Wasteland 3’s turn-based combat looks a lot like Wasteland 2’s (or XCOM’s, for that matter), and its emphasis on action points and flanking doesn’t differ much from familiar tactical RPGs. A few changes, though, make it a heck of a lot more satisfying this time around. For one thing, the key change is that enemies and friendlies take turns as an entire team. Within a team, though, you’re free to choose which order your characters fire in, even to the point of hopping back to a specific character after you’ve spent all the action points for another. This can be brutally punishing if you didn’t get your squad members set behind cover before the fight begins and the entire enemy team gets a free shot, but it also means you can use your heavy hitters when you absolutely need them most. There’s also a greater emphasis on environmental interaction this time around, ranging from simply blowing up explosive barrels to firing the big gun mounted on top of the Kodiak. It’s especially satisfying to unleash precision attack abilities by building the strike meter after a few rounds of normal attacks, as these can turn the tide in seemingly hopeless battles.And there are many such battles. Wasteland 3 is as tough as its Rangers, and it’s overly fond of tossing you into overwhelming situations with little easy access to cover. It rewards careful thinking, though, such as making you find terminals that shut down deadly weapons or remember to bring along a few deployable turrets of your own for extra protection. Cool weapons spice it up, too, such as the Frozen Ferret Launcher (which is exactly what it sounds like). It’s also relatively easy to revive downed team members, so total wipeouts weren’t as common as I expected them to be when I was first learning the ropes of combat. When I needed an extra health boost in combat, the new shared inventory made it easier to find one.
When paired with Wasteland 3’s humor and personality, the changes help keep the combat interesting, and that’s a good thing because there’s a lot of game here. Developer inXile Entertainment claimed there’s around 80 hours of play here, and that’s not far off the mark based on my experience.
My main issues with Wasteland 3 have more to do with the interface and, to a lesser extent, performance. It definitely doesn’t have as many bugs as its predecessor, but I’d still sometimes find myself having to restart because the “End Turn” button wouldn’t work. Weirdly, framerates had a tendency to tank when the otherwise excellent and entertaining folksy songs that play over key battles kicked off. The map was a constant annoyance, as you can’t just click a point on the map to move the camera there and then right-click a spot for your team to travel to. Instead, you have to steer the camera to center it over to that spot. That was particularly maddening in towns like Colorado Springs and on maps I’d already completed and surprises no longer awaited.
But maybe there’s a reason for that. Surprises seem to lurk around every snowy corner of Wasteland 3, ranging from simple first aid caches to new NPCs who pop up at your base of operations. It’s a world that invites exploration and rewards it, as many frozen bread crumbs lead to massive new chunks of an already massive story.