Back in 2014, Wasteland 2 was one of a trio of isometric RPGs that helped reinvigorate interest in a classic approach to design. With Divinity: Original Sin and Pillars of Eternity, the success of Wasteland 2 was a clarion call to developers: Fans still want to play this kind of game. And, buoyed by a raft of crowdfunding cash, developers like inXile were happy to deliver.
In recent years, though, it has become clear that delivering "this kind of game" isn't enough. New CRPGs like Divinity: Original Sin 2 and Disco Elysium have been heralded as some of the best RPGs of all time, because of their innovations and improvements. Six years after Wasteland 2, there are plenty of options on the market for nostalgic fans and those looking to sink their teeth into a deep RPG. As I started playing Wasteland 3, I wondered if inXile would be able to deliver something new. After four hours with a new build of the upcoming game, I'm not so sure Wasteland 3 introduces much that fans of classic-RPGs haven't seen before. Instead, inXile's latest absolutely feels like a solid take on a tried-and-true formula.
Into the wasteland
As the game begins, the Desert Rangers are in exile from their Arizona home after the nuking of the Ranger Citadel at the end of Wasteland 2. Now, they've traded desert wilderness for icy wastes as they head north to Colorado. There, a man calling himself the Patriarch has offered to help them rebuild their home in exchange for their services. When their humvee caravan hits a spot in the road blocked by a massive snow drift, the Rangers reroute, taking an alternate path across a frozen lake. But, the lake is rigged with dozens of eerie mines – smiling dolls heads stuffed with explosives. As the first mine goes off, a clan of violent religious fanatics, called the Dorseys, unleash a brutal guerrilla attack.
This is all set up in an introductory cutscene and, as it ends, we're presented with our first choice. Instead of a character creation screen, Wasteland 3 asks you to choose from five duos. There's a father and daughter working together. Some, like the Young Rangers and Punk Lovers, are romantically involved. And I chose the Mentor & Student, two women; one a middle-aged Survivalist, the other a twenty-something tech-savvy Modder. "Mercs who've served under good commanders and bad," the description reads, "they hope, this time, they're fighting for folks who won't make them do terrible things." We'll see.
Swapping out a traditional protagonist for an interrelated pair was instantly interesting to me. But, at least in the demo, this dynamic seems underutilized, and actually, actively hurt my roleplaying. Both characters are silent, and when you pick dialogue choices, there's no differentiation between them. So, instead of building out two distinct characters, Wasteland 3 essentially flattens two party members into one voiceless protagonist.
Learn how Microsoft has helped evolve Wasteland 3 in this exclusive Brian Fargo interview.
As a result, there's a void at the center of your party. As you pick up new party members, like the pragmatic Marshall Kwon and the idealistic gunslinger Lucia Wesson, this dynamic does improve. In the style of classic BioWare RPGs, they'll speak to each other at times, revealing bits of color about their personalities. But, I felt the wind knocked out of my roleplaying sails as I considered the prospect of playing a 40+ hour game starring a pair of protagonists who, by necessity, will become functionally identical.
As gameplay begins, we're in a pitched firefight with the Dorseys. As in Wasteland 2, these fights play out on a tactical grid. Each character is allotted action points which you will need to use strategically. You could use all of your points on a sprint to cover, or risk staying out in the open to land some shots. Other necessary actions, like healing, looting bodies, and reloading, also draw from this pool. As time passes a meter fills up and, once this has maxed out, the corresponding character can unleash a powerful move, which can give you a decent chance of turning the tide of a tough battle. Most of this will be familiar for anyone who played the previous game, but this time around the browns and greens of the desert have been swapped out for swirling snow and blazing gas fires.
As you escape the Dorsey ambush, you'll learn to use the battlefield to fight for you. A few fights are crowded with red barrels, which you can shoot to light your enemies on fire. Later on, I found a computer-operated laser overlooking unsuspecting Dorseys. I cranked the power up as high as it would go and fired it off, setting a bunch of enemies on fire and giving myself an advantage in the battle that immediately ensued.
Meeting the Colorado king
After fighting through a chain of skirmishes against the Dorseys, I make it to the Patriarch's compound. There this de facto Colorado king lays out the problem he invited us north to solve. His rebellious adult children, Liberty, Victory and Valor, have spread out across the Centennial State, and the Patriarch wants the Rangers to track them down, and bring them back alive. "They're my blood," he warns. "Kill them and we'll have a problem. Do I make myself clear?" This conversation lays out an exciting, but well trod, framework that the game will likely follow. One that will provide an opportunity to travel to iconic Colorado locations, and play factions against each other.
The gang leaves the compound for nearby Colorado Springs. Here, we meet a young man, Austin Pease, who is sentenced to death by exposure for the crime of helping the Dorseys. You can save him, paying off or bargaining with the village's Magistrate, or leave him to die. I saved him, with the promise that he would join up with the party down the road.
Later on, at the sheriff's behest, I ventured into the Valley of the Gods, a cavern to the north of the city, lit by neon hieroglyphics. As you travel, you'll battle groups of Dorseys and violent wildlife. Toward the end of the journey, you'll find a mass grave; the Dorsey's victims from Colorado Springs. Soon after, you'll make another big choice, as you encounter a gang of youths from the city who fell in with the Dorseys.
One is party member Lucia's boyfriend. She's furious that he joined up with the Dorseys, and as he talks, she realizes that her parents were in a mass grave. You can egg her on, encouraging her to kill him, or talk her back from the ledge. I thought my characters would want him to pay for his crimes, so Lucia shot him in the gut, leaving him to bleed out on the frozen ground. This prompts the rest of the teens to spring into action, arraying themselves against you for battle. It's an easy fight; I felt a little bad as I defeated them, like Anakin killing younglings.
This is where my demo ended, with a reminder from inXile that, in the full game, I would have to answer for my decisions, which would certainly anger the teens' parents back in town as well as the sheriff who sent me out on the mission. It's a welcome reminder that this is the kind of game that cares about your choices. But, I would have loved to see more evidence of that before the very end of the demo.
At this point, Wasteland 3 seems like a good "one of those," but I haven't seen much yet that sets it apart from the pack. In these early hours, I was just beginning to assemble a party, and the game will almost certainly improve as these characters come together. I also don't love the Dorseys. They're a cartoonishly evil bunch of cultists who (so far) aren't adding anything to the well-worn trope. My hope is that, across the length of a full RPG, inXile can fill in some shades of gray – a natural fit for Colorado's wintry twilight.