Wasteland 3 Review: An Instant Classic
A few hours into Wasteland 3, I chose to end someone’s life. At the time, it was something that seemed obvious, and it was deemed necessary by the rest of my party. So, without hesitation, I pulled the trigger. Hours went by, and the event faded from my memory as more significant and more challenging choices presented themselves.
Then my past actions caught up with me. What seemed like a seemingly small risk-reward decision ended up have intense consequences.
This is both the beauty and curse of Wasteland 3, a game in which dire narrative decisions are perfectly echoed through the crumbling remains of civilization. No matter how grand the story gets or how brutal the combat becomes, smaller choices are the ones that stick with you.
They are what, for me, cements Wasteland 3 as one of the best games of the year.
Wasteland 3 Review: An Instant Classic
The story of Wasteland 3 starts wrapped in melancholy, as your team is ambushed on the ice and forced to fight for survival. After a lengthy tutorial mission, you’re brought to your base of operations — where the real adventure begins.
Wasteland 3's narrative takes many twists and turns as you recruit members, help factions, and ultimately try to survive in this hellhole of a world, all while your decisions direct everything.
Despite the seemingly depressing tone, Wasteland 3 is surprisingly funny and perfectly balances dark humor with the gritty animalistic world around it. Characters have larger-than-life personas, and choices define your character, molding them into something of a hard-ass, a sympathizer, or a happy medium. In the hands of a lesser developer, the story could have been a catastrophic mess, but inXile Entertainment has nailed the tone, straight down to the bone.
This deft design is perfectly echoed through the game's superb writing and voice acting. While Wasteland 3 seems more in touch with games such as X-Com on the surface, it’s more heavily influenced by classics such as Fallout and Baldur’s Gate, RPGs in which narrative moments are just as important and nail-biting as combat. Learning more about the characters, the world, and the quests you're tasked to undertake is an absolute joy, and every corner is host to an array of surprises, begging to be uncovered.
The narrative also extends outside of dialogue with superb world-building. Areas are drenched in atmosphere and offer stunning, yet sometimes disturbing vistas to behold. Bodies hang from walls, public executions are showcased in towns, and people are thrown off the sides of cliffs.
It’s often a visual treat, but it's let down in part by the game's character models. While expressive, each lacks the detail that makes the rest of the world feel alive, often looking plastic in comparison. While it’s not a significant issue, it does detract from what is otherwise a treat on the eyes.
Wasteland 3 also employs fantastic audio. The voice acting is top-notch, with some stellar performances throughout that carefully balanced the game's dark humor with the overarching world. Outside of that, the music is a particular highlight, often riffing off compositions from classic Westerns that relish in the idea of a new frontier.
It’s quite special.
Taking on this world, you’ll be joined by a squad of characters that you can personalize to your taste and playstyle. Upon starting a new playthrough, you can choose a preset duo or create your own characters. Each preset specializes in specific skills such as lock-picking, automatic guns, or even charisma while creating your character allows for a more personalized experience, tailored more to veterans of the series who know how they want to tackle Wasteland 3.
After an initial tutorial mission, you’ll be able to add more party members and have the ability to swap additional characters in and out of your party. It acts as a great means to balance skills around the core of your team.
To increase your efficiency in combat, there is a leveling system that manages to be complex but also easy to use. Focused on skills and attributes, both categories help you create your perfect squadron. Attributes are more well rounded and offer more generic progression in areas such as strength, luck, and charisma, offering increased stats in each department.
Skills, on the other hand, are tailored to personalizing your character. Want to be a master thief? Then specialize in the lockpicking skill. More interested in becoming a silent assassin? Specialize in the wonderfully-named “sneaky shit.” Prefer to take a guns-blazing approach? Dump points into the automatic and big guns skills and become a force to be reckoned with.
There’s an amazing amount of variety available in both systems, and no two players' will experience Wasteland 3 in the same ways.
Perhaps one of Wasteland 3’s most significant new inclusions is co op, which allows two characters of varying skill sets to come together and tackle the game in unique ways. As a duo, players can choose to take on missions for multiple factions at once, reaping the rewards of both instead of one.
Both players can operate individually, talking to NPCs, accepting quests, and even working against their teammate by wreaking havoc for their quests. It’s a unique spin on the multiplayer experience, and hopefully, more games will embrace it in the future.
Pushing you and your partner through this experience is a series of quests and objectives. Some are vital to progression, while others are simple side-quests that let you learn more about the world and level up your character. Each feels meticulously put together and filled with purpose.
Even quests that fall into the classic RPG traps of killing a certain number of enemies often hide wonderful surprises in their sub-narratives. Usually, you’ll be tasked with siding with specific factions for various rewards, and these moments are filled with rewards and moral dilemmas.
Of course, as any other deep and complex RPG would have, the combat is also an absolute highlight. Wasteland 3 is a thought-provoking game of chess in every encounter. Completing actions on your turn is done through action points (AP), the number of which decides how many maneuvers you can perform in a single turn. These can range from firing a weapon, performing a skill, or defending your character.
Having several options each turn means every choice counts and can often mean the difference between life and death. Cover is essential for survival, as is being stocked up on weapons, ammo, and healing items. Performing actions against the enemy drains the most AP, leaving you with only a few left to use for other ancillary actions, such as defending our counter-attacking.
Coordinating attacks, using environmental hazards such as explosive barrels, and finding the perfect character placement are all keys to victory. Elemental effects are also significant, and many unique weapons offer distinctive damage effects that should be used to lay waste to enemies.
On normal, fights can be brutal, yet they often offer a satisfying dance of bullets. Luckily, Wasteland 3 offers adjustable difficulty options and ensures the experience is tailored to your skill level, leaving no player behind.
Since Wasteland 3 is so good in so many areas, one combat misstep does sorely stick out. As with many other genre games, there are times where hit percentage is comically low, even if you're very close to an enemy. It invariably leads to moments of irritation that could have otherwise been avoided.
Wasteland 3 Review — The Bottom Line
- Fantastic world-building and balance of tone
- Intense, brutal combat
- Choices pack meaningful repercussions
- Beautiful, yet disturbing world to explore
- Reminiscent of classic RPGs such as Fallout
- Falls into similar tactical turn-based tropes
- Character models lack detail
Wasteland 3 is, without a doubt, one of the best games of the year. Despite its dark, gloomy atmosphere, it manages to shine through humor and characterization. The world-building is second to none, with a wide range of locales to visit, creating a sense of epic-scale and adventure. It’s a game where your choices have real consequences as you play judge, jury, and executioner.
Combat is both punishment and rewarding. It's easy to learn yet hard to master. Each wonderfully orchestrated battle is a tactical game of wits that becomes deeper and more complex as the narrative moves forward.
While the game often falls into some of the genres more vexing traps, such as percentage damage idiosyncrasies and lackluster character models, it’s hard to deny its engaging power. In a world where everyone is pining for the next Fallout, they need look no further: Wasteland 3 is here, and it’s an instant classic.
[Note: inXile Entertainment provided the copy of Wasteland 3 used for this review.]